Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (19 December 2021)
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” (Luke 1:39-45 – NRSV).
This must surely be one of the most delightful passages in the whole of the Sacred Scriptures – this and the passage that follows immediately upon it (see Luke 1:46-56). Two strong women meet and share their joy and faith in the works of God! Words such as “set out,” “went with haste”, “leaped”, “filled”, “exclaimed”, “loud cry”, together convey a sense of great energy.
Both women are set in motion by the Spirit of God, both are totally given over to God’s work. Because Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” she understands instantly what is happening with them and she announces it “with a loud cry”. Freedom abounds!
Mary set out and went with haste: Mary is acting with specific intent and that intent is given her by God. She has total trust: “‘Nothing will be impossible with God’. Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’” (1:37-38). She is sparked into action by her encounter with God through the Angel. Mary says “Yes!” to her place in God’s plan. A similar description is used of Abraham in Genesis 22:3.
blessed: The English word “blessed” is used three times in this passage. In the first two instances – “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” – the Greek verb is eulogeō. It means “bless” or “praise”. In the third instance – “blessed is she who believed” – the Greek adjective is makarios. This points to a specific quality in the person, indicating special standing in the sight of God. The same word is used in the so-called Beatitudes. One commentator writes: “In contrast to verse 42, Luke here uses makaria rather than eulogoumenē. It can mean ‘happy,’ but that misses the resonance of the biblical tradition, which uses the word to denote the condition of righteous existence before God (cf. e.g., Pss 1:1; 2:12; 83:4; 93:12 [lxx]), so that the term becomes almost technical as a ‘macarism’ or ‘Beatitude’; this is the term used by Jesus in his Beatitudes (6:20–22)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 41).
In Luke 11:27 – where the woman in the crowd cries out, “blessed is the womb that bore you” and Jesus responds by saying, “rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” – the adjective makarios is used in both instances.
mother of my Lord: “This is Elizabeth’s most dramatic statement, dropped almost casually. ‘Lord’ is a title first of all for God (as already in Luke 1:6, 9, 11, 15, 16, 17, 25). Of Jesus, it is used most properly as a resurrection title (see Acts 1:21; 2:34–36; 4:26, 33; 8:16, etc.). But Luke, even more than Matthew, uses it for Jesus not only as a greeting but also as a title (see Luke 2:11; 7:13; 10:1; 11:39; 12:42; 17:6; 18:6; 19:8, 31; especially 24:3 and 34). At the very least, Elizabeth recognizes the infant as ‘master’, but a deeper dimension is surely implied” (Ibid).
Reflection – “Gathering”
We are communal animals. It is in our nature to gather. It is not surprising therefore that the Incarnation manifests itself in human beings gathering. It is our faith that the gathering can become empowered and informed and shaped and led by the Holy Spirit of God. Today’s Gospel – Luke 1:39-45 – is a good example. Mary, prompted by the Angel’s message to her – “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; … And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son” (1:35-37) – goes to Elizabeth. When she greets Elizabeth, John is brought into the gathering – “he leaped in her womb”.
The Greek word for “gathering” is ekklesia. The word quickly took on a specific meaning for those first followers of the Way. Whilst it had a particular organizational and political force at the time, the word ekklesia had been used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew, qahal Yahweh, “the assembly of God”. It thus carries a rich history, an affirmation of God at work in us and through us. What the first followers of the Way called ekklesia, we now call the “Church”.
I suggest that it is better to think of the “gathering” – that is the Church – as a verb rather than a noun. It is an action word! It points to a dynamic, living, evolving reality, like any human gathering. Except that it is “the power from on high” that governs this gathering. In order to participate, therefore, we must first and last be dedicated to listening together in order to say with some realism: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.”
Pope Francis has introduced us to a new word – synodality – to describe this ancient reality. Synodality means “journeying together”. Like the word ekklesia, it gets its proper meaning from the Bible rather than secular culture. In 2015, Pope Francis addressed the Synod of Bishops on their fiftieth anniversary: “A synodal church is a listening church, knowing that listening ‘is more than feeling’. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. Faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: we are one in listening to others; and all are listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), to know what the Spirit ‘is saying to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7)”.
What happens to a family when the members stop listening to each other, journeying together? The gathering becomes superficial at best. At worst it can become destructive. This also applies to the Church. We lose our way when we stop journeying and listening together. As Pope Francis said in that same Address to the bishops, “synodality is constitutive of the Church”. In other words, we cannot be Church if we are not journeying and listening together for the guidance of the Spirit.
When we do gather primarily as a listening community, submitting our various fears, anxieties and private interests to the work of the Spirit, seeking to open our minds and hearts together to that same Spirit, we truly become Church.