This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Advent in cycle C of the lectionary. Our Gospel is taken from Luke 1:39-45:
39 During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, 42 cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
The reason for Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth can be found in an earlier proclamation of the Angel Gabriel: “And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” (Luke 1:36-37). And so Mary sets out.
“During those days” and “in haste” indicate the immediacy of Mary’s trip after hearing the angel’s message, Mary goes to Elizabeth presumably to confirm the angel’s word about Elizabeth’s pregnancy (1:36-37) and perhaps share in her joy. It could be understood as a sign of Mary’s faith – “I’m going to see what God has done with Elizabeth;” or a testing of the angel’s message – “I’m going to see if what the angel said about Elizabeth is true.” Perhaps it was obvious to Mary when she entered the room that what the angel had told her about Elizabeth was true. It also became obvious to Elizabeth that there was something special about Mary and the baby she was carrying. Her knowledge didn’t come from an angel, but from a kick in her womb! (Brian Stoffregen)
On one hand, this might be a fulfillment of the prophecy that the angel told Zechariah about his son: “He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb”(1:15b). The unborn John is presented as recognizing something about the unborn Jesus. In fact, Martin Luther uses this event to talk about “infant faith” in an argument for infant baptism arguing that John exhibited faith in Jesus while still in the womb
On the other hand, the movement in the womb requires some interpretation. The word for “leap” (skirteo) in the NT is used only in Luke. Twice in reference to John’s “leaping” in the womb (1:41, 44) and once in reference to Luke’s beatitude about persecution. “Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.” (6:23ab).
Is there really any difference between a “kick” in the womb or twins “struggling” in the womb and a “leap for joy” in the womb? It all depends on how one interprets the actions. Certainly in this text Elizabeth is able to correctly interpret the movement within her because she has been filled with the Holy Spirit.
Once Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit can become active in others. John receives the Spirit in the presence of Jesus; the Spirit fills Elizabeth, and later Zechariah and Simeon. This foreshadows the future glorification of Jesus, which will release the Spirit on all (Acts 2:33). Part of this unfolding is seen in Elizabeth’s question, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This echoes the words of King David when the ark of the covenant was being brought back to Jerusalem after having been captured by the Philistines: “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9). The ark symbolized the presence of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth sanctifies her home with the presence of the Lord.
How often are we put in a position to offer a Christ-centered interpretation of events that happen? Was it just circumstances? Was God involved? Should we say, “You were sure lucky!” or “Blessed be God!”? There is a danger in assuming that we might know what God is doing, but there is also a danger of discounting God’s activities in our lives. Many times in Luke/Acts, being filled with the Spirit resulted in a speech.
- After Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, she exclaims with a loud cry (Luke 1:41).
- After Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit, he speaks a prophecy (Luke 1:67).
- After all are filled with the Holy Spirit, they speak in other tongues (Acts 2:4)
- After Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit, he speaks (Acts 4:8)
- After all are filled, they speak the word of God boldly (Acts 4:31)
- After the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, they speak in other tongues (Acts 10:44)