Year C: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Mary visits Elizabeth

Luke 1: 39-45

During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice, and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Where in your life have you most trusted the process of hearing, holding, and acting on the Lord’s word? Tell the story.
  2. What personal qualities do you most admire and desire in Mary? What can you learn from her about trusting in your own experience of God?
  3. Mary is a perfect disciple of The Word. As a disciple, how do you practice becoming more open to receiving (“pregnant”) the Word and stirring it into activity for others, not just at Advent but throughout the year?
  4. Do you have difficulty saying to God, “be it done unto to me according to thy word”? Why or why not?
  5. Whom in your life that you know personally, do you consider most blessed, and why?

Biblical Context

Luke 1: 39-45
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

 On the fourth Sunday of Advent, for the first time in this liturgical year, we read one of the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus. To understand the full significance of the story we must know a little about birth narratives.

Birth narratives are stories about the birth of someone who later becomes very great. The story is composed, not to describe a birth exactly as it occurred, but to teach the significance of that person’s birth as it is later understood in the light of subsequent events. The story of Mary visiting Elizabeth, referred to as the visitation, is a post resurrection story. It was written after the resurrection to teach what was understood about Jesus in the light of the resurrection. This story is not primarily about Mary or Elizabeth; it is primarily about Jesus. The story of the visitation is teaching that Jesus is divine.

In Luke’s Gospel the story of the visitation follows immediately after the story of the annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive a child through the Holy Spirit and that the child will be called “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Luke’s Gospel is the only Gospel that brings Mary on stage for the annunciation, and the only Gospel to picture the visitation. Both stories are teaching Jesus’ divinity.

As we read today’s story of the visitation, we already know the identity of the child in Mary’s womb. However, Elizabeth does not know what the reader knows. The fact that Elizabeth, and even the child in her womb, recognize that they are in the presence of their Lord is attributed to the Holy Spirit. “… Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

By picturing Elizabeth greeting Mary with these words, Luke is alluding to an Old Testament passage. When we recognize the allusion, Luke’s teaching becomes even clearer. In 2 Samuel we read how the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people, was recaptured from the Philistines and brought back to Jerusalem. David, in awe of the Lord’s power, says, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9). By having Elizabeth echo David’s words, Luke is picturing Mary as the new ark of the covenant, and Jesus as the God who has come to dwell with God’s people. That is why John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb. He too recognizes the presence of the Lord.

While the story of the visitation is primarily about Jesus’ identity, the story also teaches us something very important about Mary and about why the church honors Mary as we do. Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Why does Elizabeth call Mary blessed? One reason is that Mary believed the words of the angel as they affected her personally. Mary’s faith-filled response to the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth was, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

However, when we read Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s words (not included in this week’s reading; see Luke 1:46-56), we see that Mary understood God’s promises to her in a much wider context than her own personal life. Mary says,

“He has helped Israel his servant,

remembering his mercy,

according to his promise to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever/ (Luke 1:54-55)

Through Mary’s response Luke is teaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s covenant promises to Israel. 

Evangelizing the Child in the Womb

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

Spiritual teachings often use images from physical and social reality as analogies to understand and cooperate with the more subtle movements of spiritual reality. However, these images are open-ended, and an adequate understanding of the point of comparison between the image and the spiritual reality must consider the context.

Womb is an important image that is used to illumine spiritual reality. It is taken from female reproductive anatomy and is used in variety of contexts. In the highly poetic early centuries of Christianity, it was said that Mary conceived through the ear. In other words, it was the Word of the Lord spoken by Gabriel and heard by Mary that initiated the pregnancy. It was also said that Mary conceived in her heart. In other words, she pondered the Word of the Lord in the space where the human person is connected both to God and to the world of action. It was also said she conceived in her womb. In other words, the Son of the Most High took flesh in the human condition. These three forms of conceiving—ear, heart, womb—came together as a spiritual process of incarnation. Mary heard the word in her ears, pondered its deeper meaning in her heart, and embodied it in action, conceiving the Word in her womb and giving birth. In this context, womb means the embodiment of the spiritual.

The image of womb is also used to suggest the slow movement of growth from darkness to light or from the hidden to the revealed. The Word of the Lord is a seed that is planted in darkness, in hiding. It grows slowly in that place, gradually becoming more visible. When it is fully matured, it pushes forth into the world. The pregnant womb bears the meaning of a slow ripening with the attendant wisdom, “When the fruit is ripe, it falls from the tree.” In this context, womb is the place where the fruit ripens, and Jesus is called the “fruit of Mary’s womb.

The image of womb is also used to convey God’s complete knowledge and guidance of each person. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. . . . For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:1,13). “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isa 49:15). In this context, womb is the origin of the human person whom God knows from the beginning and to whom God is unalterably committed.

In the story of Mary and Elizabeth, the emphasis is on Elizabeth’s womb. A child is growing there who is sensitive to the greeting of Mary that arrives through the ears of Elizabeth. We are told twice, once through the storyteller’s description and once through the witness of Elizabeth, that the greeting was positively received. The child leapt for joy. In this context, I suggest the “child in the womb” is a promise that accompanies each human birth, and Mary’s greeting is the fulfillment of that promise.

That Jesus is the fulfillment of human history as well as Hebrew faith, is suggested throughout Luke’s Gospel. When the child Jesus is in the arms of the aged Simeon, Simeon sings to God that what he holds is both “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Jesus is meant for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Also, the Lukan genealogy, which is placed after the baptism of Jesus, moves through a long line of Jesus’ Hebrew ancestors to arrive climactically at “son of Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:38). The Hebrew lineage is ultimately rooted in the single progenitor of the human family making Jesus the Son of Man. However, Adam has been directly created by God, making Jesus the Son of God. The full truth about Jesus is—Jew, human being, and divine son.

The meeting of two pregnant women symbolizes this threefold truth. The historical Jewish level is assured by their ethnic identities. The universal human level is assured by the pictures of pregnancy, the way all people are introduced into life. The divine dimension is assured by the angelic appearances to Zachary and Mary and the fact that Elizabeth’s directly addresses God’s activity. Therefore, Mary’s greeting causes the infant to leap for joy in the womb of Elizabeth, in the womb of every woman, and among the angels in heaven.

Although we are not told what this joy-producing greeting was, I speculate that it was the standard Christian greeting, “Peace.” Mary is not only the mother of the Lord but the perfect disciple who hears and keeps the word. When these disciples enter a house, they are to say, “‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5-6). Mary entered the house of Zachariah and her greeting of peace rested on one who shares in peace, for it had been predicted of John that he would guide people’s “feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). In the Christian community, peace connotes the restoration of relationships based on God’s initiative. This is what the angels sing at the birth of Jesus. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14). The connections between heaven and earth and among all creatures on earth are rightfully ordered.

This is the promise accompanying each child growing in the womb. Of course, this hope for a world of communion rather than alienation will not be fulfilled. The divine and the human will not be integrated, and the relationships between people will not be harmonious. But the Christian response is: it was in one man. Jesus was one like us in all things save sin. He was, as Paul Tillich said, essential God-Manhood, the New Being, under the conditions of existence (Systematic Theology, Vol. II: Existence and the Christ [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19571 118-35). He lived in communion with God and neighbor in a world that lived in alienation from God and neighbor. He was the fulfillment of the promise of every child in the womb. And, by the way, he was the firstborn (Luke 2:7). There can be others. But first they must hear this good news. When Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, they evangelize the child in every woman’s womb.


Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph.

Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.