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Fourth Sunday of Advent: Recognition and Rejoicing

Sunday, December 23, 2012
After a few lines of introduction Luke kicks off his Gospel with two Annunciations: in the first the angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah the priest while he is serving in the temple and tells him that his now elderly wife Elizabeth will finally conceive the child that she has longed for. This child is to be named John (Luke 1:13) and he shall make ready for the Lord a people prepared (Luke 1:17). Zechariah expresses surprise and so Gabriel declares that Zechariah will be struck dumb for his lack of belief. This invites us to contrast this first annunciation with the second which immediately follows it. This time Gabriel comes to Our Lady and greets her: ‘Hail, full of grace’ (Luke 1:28). He goes on to tell her that she will conceive a son who is to be named Jesus (Luke 1:31), and that he will be Son of the Most High and rule over the house of Jacob for ever (Luke 1:32-3). Mary, like Zechariah, is surprised and asks "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" (Luke 1: 34). Yet Mary is not struck dumb. Instead the respectful and even reverential Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will ‘overshadow’ Mary and ‘therefore the child to be born will be called Holy, the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). Gabriel then drops Mary a heavy hint: Elizabeth, who had been called barren, had herself conceived (Luke 1:24. 1:36).

On the one hand, then, Luke seems to be encouraging us to reflect on the differences between these two pregnancies: Elizabeth is elderly and had been considered barren; she is married to a temple priest and is thus she at the heart of the religious establishment. Her pregnancy took away her shame and ‘reproach among men’ for not bearing a child, but her husband’s lack of faith left him dumb. Mary, in contrast, is young (probably in her mid-teens), betrothed to Joseph of the line of David, yet still a virgin. In Luke’s gospel, unlike the gospel of Matthew, Joseph’s attitude to Mary’s pregnancy is not discussed, but it seems clear that Mary’s fiat is a risk and a profound act of faith. Against the backdrop of this contrast between Elizabeth and Mary, and by implication their sons John and Jesus, Luke moves on in this Sunday’s Gospel to underline how these two children are intimately connected. 

After hearing that Elizabeth was pregnant we read that Mary ‘rose up’ and went ‘with haste’ to the hill country of Judah to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1: 39-40). According to scripture scholars, this is likely to have been a four day walk from Galilee - a long journey for a pregnant teenager. The fact that Mary made all this effort to visit Elizabeth is usually interpreted as a sign of Mary’s great charity: Mary made an extraordinary effort to care for an elderly relative. Yet this explanation does not exclude the possibility that Mary went to Elizabeth hoping for more information. Gabriel had, after all, hinted to Mary that Elizabeth’s pregnancy was somehow connected with her own. If this was indeed at the back of Mary’s mind then her hope was not disappointed. As soon as Mary’s greeting reached Elizabeth’s ears John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied (Luke 1: 41-45). 

The prophetic word, then, after centuries of silence, returns to Israel once more when John, still in his mother’s womb, recognises the presence of Jesus and leaps for joy. From his mother’s womb, then, John the Baptist was pointing to Christ, leading others to recognize Christ, in this instance his mother Elizabeth whose prophecy helps Mary herself to better understand the gift that she had been given. The scene, then, is set for the rest of the Gospel. John, the son of an elderly woman, from a priestly background, will ‘make ready for the Lord a people prepared’ (Luke 1: 17) by recalling Israel to its vocation and by pointing those that come to him to Christ. Hence John is the greatest and the last of the Old Testament prophets: indeed his vocation sums up all Old Testament prophecy. Yet as John himself will later proclaim, he is not ‘worthy to untie’ Jesus’ sandals (Luke 3:16) and it is the holiness of Mary’s child that Elizabeth, through John, recognises in today’s gospel. 

At the visitation, then, we reach the pinnacle of Old Testament prophecy: the recognition of God Incarnate. If we read on in Luke’s Gospel reading beyond this Sunday’s passage we read that Mary responds to Elizabeth’s prophecy by breaking out into the Magnificat: the exultant and prophetic song of praise that the Church sings everyday as part of the evening prayer of the Divine office. In the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, then, we have a kind of chain reaction of recognition and rejoicing. Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit, and hints that she should visit Elizabeth who is also mysteriously pregnant. Elizabeth, prompted by the infant John in her womb and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, jubilantly recognises Mary as the ‘Mother of her Lord’ (Luke 1:43). Mary, perhaps only for the first time beginning to grasp the significance of what had happened to her, is overcome with joy and explodes into song: a song that is sung every day by the Church at evening prayer and is at the heart of how the Church understands itself. This hymn begins: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ (Luke 1: 46-7). We rejoice, like John the Baptist, like Elizabeth, and like Mary, because Jesus is near, because God is with us.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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