Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (23 December 2018)
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 is sparked into action by her encounter with God through the Angel. 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.
It was not until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), that the Catholic Church began to think and speak seriously about dialogue. The eminent Catholic Church historian, John O’Malley SJ, speaking of the language of the Council, noted that “the words ‘dialogue’ and ‘conversation’ abound” (John O’Malley SJ, What Happened at Vatican II, The Belknap Press, 2008, 50). O’Malley continues: “Dialogue manifests a radical shift from the prophetic I-say-unto-you style that earlier prevailed and indicates something other than unilateral decision-making. Collegiality too belongs in this category” (Ibid).
This signalled a shift from a thinking preoccupied with universalist and abstract declarations of truth towards a thinking shaped by “relationships in which mutuality and the sharing of experience and beliefs were the hallmarks” (John O’Malley SJ, op cit, 80). Dialogue stands with relationships both as cause and effect. In human communities, where relationships are treasured, dialogue is also treasured. Pope Paul VI thought the issue of dialogue was important enough to warrant his full attention in his first encyclical – Ecclesiam Suam (1964). Thirty years later, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Dialogue is an indispensable step along the path toward human self-realization, the self-realization both of each individual and of every human community” (Ut Unum Sint (1995) #28).
The fact that the Catholic Church needed serious attention in this regard in the middle of the twentieth century, was one of the drivers of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, it remains an urgent challenge for us today.
This brings us to one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century – Martin Buber (1878-1965). A leading Catholic thinker, Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his book, Martin Buber and Christianity, says Buber is “the originator of the ‘dialogical principle’” (cited by O’Malley SJ, op cit, 80). Buber’s seminal work – I and Thou (1928) – is a philosophical and poetic exploration of human relationships and how they thrive through dialogue.
Using Buber’s insights, we can think of the encounter and language between Mary and Elizabeth in terms of an “I-Thou” relationship. See today’s Gospel – Luke 1:39-45. Whereas the language of our individualistic and acquisitive culture is typically abstract and prosaic, the language of relational cultures is more like poetry than prose, appealing to the imagination as much as to the rational mind. Language here expresses relationships and in turn nurtures relationships. The in-between is cherished. Buber offers a telling example: “In the beginning is the relation. Consider the language of ‘primitive’ peoples, meaning those who have remained poor in objects and whose life develops in a small sphere of acts that have a strong presence. The nuclei of this language, their sentence-words—primal pre-grammatical forms that eventually split into the multiplicity of different kinds of words—generally designate the wholeness of a relation. We say, ‘far away’; the Zulu has a sentence-word instead that means: ‘where one cries, “mother, I am lost”’ (Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Charles Scribner, 1970, 69-70).
What difference might Buber’s insights make to our understanding of today’s Gospel and the Magnificat that follows? What difference might those insights make to the way we live?