Gospel: Luke 1:39-56

Blessing Upon Blessing

How does family bring you joy in your life?

I am a father. While my two children are now young adults, I remember the joy I felt when my wife Andrea was expecting. I remember the joy of their births and their younger years. I re-experienced some of that same joy when I found out my daughter was expecting. Her delivery was smooth. But the moment I will always treasure was the first sight of my daughter holding her baby in her arms. Her eyes were red from the tears of joy she had wept. The look of love on her face was a blessing to me as much as the birth of her child was a blessing to her.

Now, my daughter is a mother. And I am a grandfather. Blessing falls upon blessing.

The meeting of two pregnant relatives was a blessed moment, because of the joy they felt. But it was also a moment of blessing from the Spirit.

Popular Translation

After the angel Gabriel told Mary she would be the mother of the Messiah,

36 Mary got up and went as quick as she could to a town in the hills of Judea. 40 There, she entered Zechariah’s house and said “Hello” to her cousin, Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb suddenly moved a lot. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 “God has blessed you more than any other woman!” Elizabeth shouted. “And God has blessed the son in your womb!

43 You, the mother of my Lord, came to visit me. Why should this happen to me?

44 Listen, Mary! When I heard your greeting, my baby suddenly moved a lot in my womb. He is full of joy! 45 And you are happy because you believed that everything the Lord told you will really happen!”

46 Mary declared, "My heart shouts praise to the Lord! 47 God has made me so happy! 48 He looks upon me, his humble servant, with smiling eyes. From now on, people throughout time will honor me. 49 He has done so many wonderful things for me. He is powerful and his name is truly holy!

50 Throughout time, God shows his mercy to those who respect him. 51 With his power, he does great things. God scatters all who are full of themselves. 52 He topples powerful rulers and he raises the humble up high. 53 He fills the hungry with rich food. But he sends away the greedy with empty hands. 54 God sends help to Israel, his dear people. This is how he remembers his mercy to them. 55 This is the way he spoke to our ancestors, Abraham and his children. And he will speak this way to his people forever.”

56 Mary stayed with her cousin Elizabeth for three months. Then, she returned home.

The narrative of the Visitation can be divided into two parts: Elizabeth’s greeting and the Magnificat.

Literal Translation

39 Having stood up, Mary, in these days, traveled with haste into the hill country, into a city of Judah, 40 entered the house of Zechariah, and greeted Elizabeth. 41 It happened (that), as Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe in her womb (suddenly and vigorously) stirred. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and she shouted a great cry and said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 From where (was) this (encounter) to me that the mother of my Lord might come to me? 44 Look! For, as the sound of your greeting happened in my ears, the babe in my womb (suddenly and vigorously) stirred in exaltation. 45 Happy is the one having trusted that there will be fulfillment to the (words) having been spoken to her from the Lord.”

1:39 “having stood up” The verb “stand up” in Greek was used as a code word for resurrection. As it was used in this participle, the verb indicated the beginning of a motion. In other words, Mary stood up with the intention to travel. In the context (after the Annunciation), however, it was the Spirit who “raised Mary up” and sent her on her way. Like many other references in the Gospel, the act of faith changed the person (spiritual “resurrection”) and sent them on a journey (a mission).

1:41 Mary’s greeting catalyzed two simultaneous events: the stirring of John and the indwelling of the Spirit. In other words, Mary (under the influence of the Spirit) greeted Elizabeth. The Spirit entered Elizabeth and her babe (John) for the purpose of prophecy. John would prophesy for the Messiah; his mother would speak in a way to foreshadow that prophesy. As Elizabeth acknowledged Mary as the mother of the Messiah, so the elderly mother’s son would point to the girl’s son as Lord.

1:42 “Blessed . . . blessed” is literally “well spoken of.” The person pronouncing the blessing was God, not Elizabeth. Her shout of greeting was prophetic. It revealed the stature of Mary and her son. It was not a prayer of blessing upon Mary.

1:43 “From where (was) this (encounter) to me” is loosely “why have I been honored...” In a society that measured honor by age, the reversal (the older was honored by the younger) could only come from God. (The technique turning social norms upside-down was typical of Luke.)

1:45 “Happy” is sometimes translated “blessed.” Unlike the prophecy of 1:42, this sentence is phrased in the same way as a Beatitude. In other words, Elizabeth stated the source of Mary’s happiness was her faith.

In the study for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (Cycle C), the greeting of Mary by Elizabeth is discussed in detail. This study contains a summary of that one.

In the narrative, Luke turned tradition upside down when he portrayed the matriarch of Zechariah’s clan honor the younger relative, Mary. This turn of events was based upon the movement of the Spirit and the status of the mothers’ children. The elderly Elizabeth had the prophet of the Messiah in her womb, while the younger Mary was pregnant with the Christ himself.

Luke painted the scene of greeting as an opportunity for prophecy by Elizabeth, who declared the blessing of Mary. Mary was blessed because of her maternity and God’s favor. She derived her status because her faith and because of the importance of her son. (In a male dominated, gender segregated society, women derived their status based upon the social and economic importance of males in their lives: fathers, husbands, and sons.)

Mary would respond to Elizabeth’s blessing with a prayer of praise for her new status.

46 Mary said:

My soul makes the Lord great,
47 and my spirit is glad in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked upon the lowly state of his servant.

For, Look! from now on all generations will call me happy,
49 that the Powerful (One) has done great (things) for me, ‘Holy’ is his name,
50 and his compassion (is) on generation and (following) generation,
to the (ones) fearing him.

51 He did a mighty deed with his arm,
he scattered the arrogant in the ways of thinking for their hearts.
52 He torn powerful (men) down from (their) thrones,
and elevated the lowly in station;
53 (those) hungering he satisfied with good (things),
and (those) being rich he sent away hungry.

54 He grasped (to help) Israel, his (chosen) boy servant,
to remember his (past) mercy,
55 just as he told our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed, unto the (eternal) age.”

56 Mary stayed with her for three months, and she returned to her house.

1:46-47 “soul makes...great...spirit is glad” Some biblical scholars make a distinction between soul and spirit. The soul was seen as the seat of one’s inner life (which felt emotion); the spirit was seen as the God-given spark of life that insured the soul’s survival. But, in practical terms, the two phrases expressed the same idea: Mary was overjoyed by God’s blessing. So, this introduction contained a poetic redundancy.

1:49 “Powerful One...’Holy’” Both titles for God refer to the same idea, God is totally Other, the Transcendent One. This was another case of poetic redundancy.

1:51 “he scattered the arrogant in the ways of thinking for their hearts” This confusing phrase can more easily understood as: “God scattered the arrogant because of the way their hearts understand.” The context of the next two verses make this phrase clear: God would turn the world of the arrogant upside down. The rulers would become the ruled. The rich would become the new poor. Future circumstances would change the way these people would feel about themselves and their world.

1:56 “house” was the same as “family.”

Mary began the Magnificat with a song of joy. God had decided to use a lowly handmaiden to fulfill his will. His activity in Mary’s life was a reason for praise and was seen as an act of divine power. This line of reasoning paralleled Luke’‘s view of the crucifixion. Jesus died a shameful death in the eyes of his contemporaries, yet, in the eyes of the faithful, his lowly death was a mighty act of God. After all, just as the pain of childbirth gives way to the joy of new life, so the death pangs of Jesus gave way to the glory of the resurrection. The pregnancy of Mary was the first step in God’s immediate plan for salivation.

What would that pregnancy mean to Israel? Mary’s song listed two results: a sign of the faithfulness to the people and justice. God would change (even invert) the world order. The rich and powerful would be humbled. And the poor would be exalted. How? Through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. His life would mark the beginning of the end time, when divine justice would reign and God would bless even the forgotten among the people. In the end, God would keep his promises.

So, Mary had reason for joy. Her status was not based upon local opinion, but upon her place in God’s plan. She was the first to accept the Good News at the Annunciation. Now she was an instrument of God’s will and power. For that reason, her reputation would spread from generation to generation. She would be the mother of the Savior. And, the Mother of God!

All generations would call her blessed. How do you honor the mother of Jesus in your life?

One woman blessed another. And the blessed reveled in that praise. But that blessing and praise was not only based in the joy of shared maternity. Both were based in the Spirit. For, as the Spirit worked through the women, it would work mighty deeds in their sons.

As for my family, my daughter and my granddaughters (yes, there are two now, along with a grandson) are all doing well. And all are a blessing to me and my wife.

Reflect on the blessings in your life. Which ones come from family? Which ones come from the Spirit? Where do these blessings intersect? How are these blessings like those in the gospels, especially those like Mary received?