This fourth week of Advent is a little strange, given that it already ends tomorrow evening. So we are right on the cusp of the celebration of Christmas. The last two Sundays our Gospels focused on John the Baptist, the precursor or the one who came before Jesus Christ to prepare the way for him. And in our Gospel reading today, we go backwards in time a little bit to just before John was born. Mary has just been visited by the Angel Gabriel at her home in Nazareth, who told her she had found favor with God and that she would conceive a child by the power of the Holy Spirit. And before leaving, he said, “By the way, nothing is impossible for God: your cousin Elizabeth who had never been able to conceive before, is now, in her old age, in her third month of pregnancy.” Mary’s reaction, as our Gospel tells us, was to get up and go “in haste” to the home of Elizabeth in a town of Judah.
This was by no means a quick and easy journey. Elizabeth and Zechariah lived just a few miles from Jerusalem, which was about a hundred miles away. No doubt there were roads and trails, but Mary’s only transportation would have been either on foot or on a donkey. And it was definitely not a flat journey either, although I imagine she would have followed the Jordan River Valley for much of the way before going up into the hills around Jerusalem. Scripture of course does not mention if she went with others or by herself, but it is not likely that in those days a young woman, who has just conceived a child herself, would travel such a distance alone. The whole region was part of the Roman Empire, and so there would have been Roman soldiers all around. It was also a rather dangerous and violent age. The Gospel doesn’t give us all the details, just the vital information that we need, in order to convey a particular message.
So Mary goes in haste to a town in the hill country of Judah, where, after what would have been several days of travel, she arrives at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. And when she calls out Elizabeth’s name in greeting, an amazing thing happens: both Elizabeth and the child in her womb – John the Baptist – are suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth suddenly knows – without Mary having even had an opportunity to tell her – that she is pregnant, and that is carrying within her the Lord. In this context, as throughout the Gospel of Luke, the word “Lord” was a title reserved for God Himself. So the Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth that Mary was indeed carrying God Himself in her womb. She declares herself unworthy for Mary to come visit her: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Through the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth was given both knowledge and inspiration that she could not have had on her own.
And she also praises Mary using very significant words: “Most blessed are you among women.” This expression was used twice before in the Old Testament to refer to two heroines of Jewish history: Jael and Judith. Both of these women had fought and prevailed against the enemies of the Jewish people – I won’t go into the grisly details of how they did it though. In the book of Judges, after Jael dispatches the Canaanite Sisera, she is praised in a song, “Most blessed of women.” And likewise, Judith, who has just herself dispatched another enemy of the Jews, is praised: “Blessed are you…above all the women on the earth.” Mary has, like them a mission to defeat the enemies of Israel, but not just the enemies of Israel along, but of all mankind. Only the enemies of mankind are not mere human beings, but the powers of sin and death themselves.
When Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit at the sound of Mary’s voice, the child leaps in her womb. This recalls how Rebecca, the wife of Isaac from the book of Genesis, who herself had long been unable to conceive, through God’s power conceived the twins Esau and Jacob. She felt them leaping or jostling each other in her womb. She was later told, “the older will serve the younger,” – Esau would serve Jacob – which was also the case with John the Baptist – he was born before Jesus, but his role was to serve Jesus by preparing the way for him.
One of the messages Luke is trying to convey to us here is that the old covenant is giving way to the new, that the great characters of Jewish history – people like Rebecca, Esau, Jacob, Jael, and Judith – foreshadowed those who were part of the fulfillment of Jewish history – Mary, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, and most especially, Jesus himself. He wanted his readers to know that everything in the Jewish Scriptures was fulfilled with the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, into the world.
Mary gives us a beautiful example in today’s Gospel for us to imitate. What does she do immediately upon hearing the news that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant? She goes in haste to care for her until Elizabeth gives birth. She goes to serve her, regardless of the fact that she herself is pregnant. And in doing so, she brings Jesus to her. Both Elizabeth and John the Baptist then have an encounter for the first time with Jesus, and are filled with the Holy Spirit.
We are called to do the same as Mary. And we will have plenty of opportunities to serve others over the next week or so. Bring Christ to your families and your loved ones by loving and serving them. Not just the ones you get along with, but also and perhaps especially the ones you might not get along with. When we imitate Mary’s example and bring Jesus to others, we too participate in the fulfillment of God’s promises to the world and in his plan of salvation.