Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home (Luke 1:39-56).
This is the Gospel text for the Masses on the day of the feast. The Gospel for the vigil is Luke 11:27-28.
This text is unique to Luke.
Luke’s reporting of the early years of Jesus occupies the first two chapters of his Gospel. Mary is central to those chapters. Matthew’s reporting of the early years of Jesus also occupies the first two chapters of his Gospel. But Joseph is central to those chapters. Mark and John do not have any account of those early years of Jesus life.
A number of times in his writings, Luke brings individuals together “both of whom have had a religious experience that they only partly understand. When they share their experience, individual experience becomes community experience and in the process finds full meaning. The first instance of this in Luke’s Gospel occurs when Mary, prompted by the angel’s message concerning the pregnancy of Elizabeth, hastens from Galilee to Judea to visit her cousin” (Brendan Byrne SJ, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel, Revised Edition, Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2015, 35).
Luke Timothy Johnson writes of this Gospel: “Several aspects of Luke’s literary art are displayed in this lovely encounter between two strong women. The first is the way Luke can take short vignettes and work them into a longer, sustained narrative. Here he brings characters from the two annunciation accounts together. There is no significant action (Mary goes and returns), only dialogue, but the result is a sense of amplitude in a narrative otherwise episodic. The passage shows us as well how Luke uses dialogue to advance the story, or, more properly, to advance the reader’s understanding of the story. Notice how Elizabeth knows (and reveals to the reader as she speaks to Mary) dimensions of Mary’s condition and Jesus’ status previously undisclosed. The resumptive character of such dialogue also enables Luke to emphasize how previously stated prophecies have been fulfilled, and future ones will be (1:41, 45)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 43).
The Magnificat is a very special feature of today’s Gospel. Brendan Byrne SJ notes the significance of the literary form of the canticle: “As we have already noted, a feature of the infancy stories is the way in which the action stops for a while to give way to canticles placed on the lips of leading characters. Some of the canticles are quite long, for example, the Benedictus (1:68-79) and the Magnificat (1:46-55); some quite short, such as, Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (2:29-31) and the angels’ Gloria in Excelsis (2:14). They are not optional extras. The canticles allow leading characters to reinforce the developing theme: God has been faithful to the promises but exercised that faithfulness in a challenging, open-ended way.
It has been suggested that the canticles in Luke’s infancy story function somewhat like arias in an opera. The whole action pauses while one character or another reflects upon and responds in song to the inner meaning of what is taking place. There are echoes of this later in the gospel when persons whom Jesus has healed or set free go away rejoicing and praising God. The world has become for them a more hospitable place. They want to share this knowledge in joy and celebration. In this way, what begins in private becomes a public, communal experience of salvation” (Brendan Byrne SJ, op cit, 28-29).
Mary set out: “Setting out” is a common motif that goes back to Abraham and Sarah: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:1-4). Luke makes it clear that Mary is a key figure in the unfolding of God’s plan’s for the people. The “setting out” is done with commitment and a sense of urgency – “Mary set out and went with haste”.
she entered the house: This should be taken as a statement of hospitality. Mary will live here with her cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, for several months. This will be her home – and the home of the child in her womb. As it is the home of Elizabeth and the child in her womb. Within this hospitality two children are coming to birth. And the whole of existence is also coming to a new birth.
Mary’s greeting: Probably Shalom. It is not the greeting that is important but the meeting of two special people.
the child leaped in her womb: The extraordinary moment is recognized even by the child in Elizabeth’s womb. John is already the prophet. Interestingly enough, John is only able to respond when his mother “heard Mary’s greeting”. This is not just the physical act of hearing. It is a hearing that goes to the roots of Elizabeth’s being.
filled with the Holy Spirit: Luke has already told us that Zechariah, whilst serving at the altar, was informed in a vision that the child Elizabeth is to bear, “will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:15); Mary has been told by the angel that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (1:35); Zechariah was again “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:67) and he is inspired to utter the canticle we know as the Benedictus; at the presentation of Jesus in the temple the Holy Spirit rests on Simeon (2:25-26) and he is inspired to utter the canticle we know as the Nunc Dimittis; John tells the people the Messiah will baptize them with “the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16); the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism (3:22); Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit and led into the wilderness (4:1); Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to those who ask (11:13); at the end of the Gospel, just before the Ascension, Jesus sends the disciples to the world, saying: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (24:46-49). The Book of Acts effectively begins with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-12).
My soul magnifies the Lord: This canticle – the Magnificat – is clearly modelled on a similar canticle found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Luke presupposes some familiarity with the Ole Testament. Thus, “the birth of a significant figure must be announced beforehand by a messenger (angel) from God, as in the case of Samson (Judges 13:2-7). An even more prominent feature is that the mother in each case has been childless up to now. This is the situation of Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-28; also Sara, wife of Abraham [Genesis 16:1]), as it will be that of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist” (Brendan Byrne SJ, op cit, 27). This is an example of a repeated theme in Luke – indeed repeated throughout the Bible – that ultimately it is God’s work being accomplished here.
Reflection: “Not everything is as it seems”
What we generally refer to as the “real world”, is largely constructed by human beings. It is a necessary fiction. Imagine trying to live without (at least some) shared meaning and values, agreed rules, regulations, and so on. Chaos and anarchy would ensue – at least until someone or some group takes charge and constructs an alternative “real world”. Dystopian movies such as the Mad Max series make much of this horrible possibility.
An early twentieth century philosopher reminds us what is going on behind our individual and communal constructions: “Life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his ‘ideas’ are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defence of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality. The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic ‘ideas’ and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost – he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground” (José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, W W Norton, 1957, 157).
It cannot be overemphasized that we must construct “worlds”. The alternative is madness. So, are we condemned to a choice between fiction and madness? Today’s Gospel – Luke 1:39-56 – gives a powerful reply to that question.
Firstly, Luke reminds us that our constructed “worlds” can in fact be sacramental. They are context for the Incarnation! Every person, every event and everything, is constantly saying: “Not me, more than me!” Blessed are they who appreciate the sacramentality of the “real world”. The “real world” – pathetic as it may be or grand as it may seem – ultimately has value because it is the place God has chosen to dwell. God is with us! The death of expectations – expectations unconsciously constructed in tune with the “real world” – can be a breakthrough moment. The very fragility of the “real world” and its sheer inability to give us what we really want, is in fact full of grace.
Thus, secondly, Luke’s Gospel speaks to us of the reversals of the “real world”: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. This pattern of reversal can be seen in the choices God makes of people who are to take on special roles. Mary is to be understood in this context. She questions the angel: “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). The angel reminds Mary that “nothing is impossible to God” (1:37). Mary’s response is exemplary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). With this as the background, our Gospel today then says simply: “Mary set out . . .”