Thursday, December 20, 2012

John the Baptist: Herald from His Mother's Womb (Luke 1:39-45)

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah,and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”(Luke 1:39-45)

There are two annunciations that Luke is recording in his first Chapter, and they both correspond finally to one purpose of God. Here the two streams flow briefly together and their relationship becomes explicit. Elizabeth is first to realize that Mary’s coming child is none other than the messiah; and her own unborn son, himself a child of destiny, rejoices at the (yet unseen) presence of the one it is his own task to herald. Mary rejoices at her quite undeserved privilege and praises God for his mercy to her, which she identifies as the fulfillment, at least in principle, of all the hopes and aspirations of beleaguered Israel. The interrelationship between God’s plans for John and for Jesus, already intimated by the careful parallelism between the two annunciations (and cf. v 36), now receives concrete expression in this account of the meeting of the two pregnant mothers. The formal parallel between the two infancy narratives is maintained: each mother is supernaturally aware of the other’s condition (vv 36, 41–45); each speaks words of rejoicing that interpret the deep significance of their situation (vv 42–45, 46–55). At the same time the subordination of John to Jesus becomes quite explicit (vv 41, 43, 44)

ἐσκίρτησεν, “leaped,”, we actually get the word “skip” from this Greek word, probably echoes David’s leaping before the ark in 2 Sam 6:16, where we read “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. We have further confirmation of what we already know from the scriptures, that life begins in the womb, for here we have the Spirit of God animating the child of Elizabeth, John the Baptist. John would go on to be a passionate proclaimer of God’s Will, preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah.

vs. 41-42
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!This “filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaimed” is a standard format for Luke….we see this in Luke 4 when Jesus goes into the temple to read, and reads from Isaiah, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”, we see it when he cries out his prayers on the cross, and we see it in all the sermons of the Apostles, from St. Peter in Acts 2 to St. Paul in Acts 25….Luke wants us to know something important is coming…something from the very heart of God.

Elizabeth, being used by the Spirit, gives us a great insight into the nature of Jesus, and into the nature of Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!

I wish we had more time to unpack these words, for they are an insight into the nature of Mary, and why Catholics venerate her deeply. Our own parish, Our Lady of the Pines, is a function of the blessed nature of Mary. Elizabeth does not wish or offer blessing, but recognizes blessedness. Mary’s blessedness is that she is carrying the messianic child who is in turn blessed because of his unique identity and role. Elizabeth here expresses her overwhelmed realization that she is being visited by the one who is pregnant with the messianic child.

Maximus of Turin (d. 408/423). Bishop of Turin. Over one hundred of his sermons survive on Christian festivals, saints and martyrs, and here he gives us insight on John the Baptist, in the womb of Elizabeth, already becoming a preacher:

“Not yet born, already John prophesies and, while still in the enclosure of his mother’s womb, confesses the coming of Christ with movements of joy—since he could not do so with his voice. As Elizabeth says to holy Mary, “As soon as you greeted me, the child in my womb exulted for joy.” John exults, then, before he is born. Before his eyes can see what the world looks like, he can recognize the Lord of the world with his spirit. In this regard, I think that the prophetic phrase is appropriate: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came forth from the womb I sanctified you.” (Jeremiah 1:5) Thus we ought not to marvel that after Herod put him in prison, he continued to announce Christ to his disciples from his confinement, when even confined in the womb he preached the same Lord by his movements.”

Did you catch what Maximus says about John? He was preaching when he was in his mother’s womb, he was preaching even after his ministry and when he was confined…in whatever fashion he could move, he was an example. Something for us there, too, huh?


μακάριος, “fortunate,” is used seventeen times in Luke’s writings, and is the very word that Jesus uses in his first words in the Sermon on the Mount….it is the word “blessed”, or “fortunate”, or even “happy.” It is the Greek form of the Hebrew word ahshre, which is found in Psalm 1, blessed is the one who does not walk in the way of sinners, or seat in the seat of mockers, or stand in the way of evils doers, but his delight is in the Law of Yahweh, and on that Law he mediates yom vlaylah—day and night….he is that tree planted by the streams….Mary is the blessed of God; Mary is the fortuned of God, Mary is even superlatively blessed among all women. She is the makariosed of God. That would not mean untrammeled success and happiness throughout her life, but we know that the angel told her that a sword would pierce her heart. In just a few month’s time, she would be hastily packing with Joseph to escape the slaughter of the innocents brought on by King Herod. We see that  blessings and trials come upon us, and that evil and wickedness fall not only on the wicked, but on the just, and even the pure and innocent. Incidentally, we see in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the recent slaughter of 20 children in Newtown, CT, a tragic similarity—the act of a disturbed madman—one with the power of despotic and tyrannical rule, the other with the death-dealing power of weapons and fear. We’ll be speaking more about this in all of the homilies this Sunday. It will be a good opportunity to bring friends, perhaps those who do not regularly attend, to Mass, to hear a Word from God on this tragedy, and its connection to Christmas and the coming of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

I will close with the poetry of Prudentius (c. 348–c. 410). Latin poet and hymn writer who devoted his later life to Christian writing.

Believe what says the angel who was sent
From the Father’s throne, or if your stolid ear
Catch not the voice from heaven, be wise and hear
The cry of aged woman, now with child.

O wondrous faith! The babe in senile womb
Greets through his mother’s lips the Virgin’s Son,

Our Lord; the child unborn makes known the cry

Of the Child bestowed on us, for speechless yet,

He caused that mouth to herald Christ as God.

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