A Homiletical Exegesis; Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C Luke 1:39-45 ~ Rev. Richard Eslinger
The Fourth Sunday of Advent is Mary’s Sunday in both Year B and Year C of the lectionary. In Year A, the First Gospel is featured and, therefore, the focus Matthew’s birth narrative is given to Joseph (Matt. 1:18-24). Here in Year C, the Gospel lesson in Luke’s evocative narrative of the Visitation. Luke has already provided the account of Zechariah and Elizabeth up to the place in the story where Zechariah is rendered unable to speak by the angel Gabriel. His active priesthood temporarily set aside, he returns to his home and, indeed, Gabriel’s startling prediction comes to pass! The elderly Elizabeth conceives and begins a time of seclusion. The angel Gabriel, having done with Zechariah for a season, appears to Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) and reveals God’s plan for her and for the child who will be holy and called “Son of God” (1:35). Her “let it be” is confirmed. Having thus developed the miraculous conception narratives of both Elizabeth and Mary, the Third Evangelist delays his account of matters related to the births of the two cousins. Between the conception and the birth narratives, Luke inserts the profound story of the Visitation along with the two hymns, canticles of ecstatic praise, the Magnificat and the Benedictus! Scholars tend to see the material in Luke 1:39-56 either as a kind of “transition,” 1 or as a distinct episode. 2 The latter, more emphatic valuation is to be preferred since Luke is providing the audience with new knowledge about the two figures who will be born including the quality of their relationship—John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at the presence of “my Lord” (1:43)—and especially the implications of the birth of the Messiah for God’s people Israel and for all the earth. Much of the wonder of God’s work in this great mystery is revealed in the Two Hymns, as Mary and then Zechariah sing of what is being promised and foretold in the births soon to come of John and Jesus. To be sure, the narrative and hymns in 1:39-56 do serve to connect the conception narratives and the birth stories, but the Visitation and the expansive and Spirit-infused vision proclaimed in the Two Hymns are essential to Luke’s entire Gospel.
The Visitation brings the two women together in a singular and awesome encounter; Mary hastens to Elizabeth to “acclaim this marvel of which the angel had spoken,” 3 Raymond Brown emphasizes. Brown adds,
[The angel’s words], “Nothing said by God can be impossible,” were an implicit directive to Mary, with the result that the visitation comes under a divine imperative. 4
The narrative of the Visitation begins with Mary’s traveling “to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (1:39-40). Upon Mary’s greeting, “the infant leaped in her womb” and now “filled with the Holy Spirit,” Elizabeth cries out a prophetic series of revelations and blessings (1:41-45). This “inspired exclamation honors Mary,” Robert Tannehill notes, “first because she has been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.” 5 Tannehill then invites us to consider the second meaning of this inspired exclamation: Mary “is ‘blessed’ (here the word is makaria which can also mean ‘fortunate’ or ‘happy’) because she believed.” 6 We now turn to an analysis of the pericope.
39-40. The literal text begins, “Having risen up (Anastasa), Mary…” Luke employs anastasa and its variants both to mean the physical act of standing up, and as the term referring to Jesus rising from the dead. Our translation deletes the familiar Lukanism, “In those days…” Perhaps Raymond Brown’s conclusion that this phrase yields no meaning other than “to indicate the beginning of an act” 7 influences the decision to not translate the phrase. Much attention has been directed toward Luke’s use of “in haste” to describe Mary’s travels up to the hill country of Judah, some of it assuming to probe Mary’s psychological motivation or to assume that she is fleeing from Nazareth. However, as noted above, Luke’s intent remains focused on the mystery of God’s plan for Mary, the Christ Child, and all the world.
41. Two responses are evoked by Mary’s greeting. First, “the infant leaped in her womb” (eskirtēsen to brephos en tē koilia). This is, as Tannehill notes, “a prophetic sign of recognition of Mary and her child.” He adds, “The future role of John as proclaimer of a ‘more powerful one than himself’ (3:16) is here anticipated.” 8 The second outcome of Mary’s greeting is that Elizabeth “is filled with the Holy Spirit” (eplēsthē Pneumatos Hagiou). This outpouring of the Holy Spirit will move Elizabeth to make these “prophetic utterances.”
42. Our translation honors Luke’s intention to emphasize Elizabeth’s utterances. She “cries out in a loud voice” (anephōnēsen kraugē megalē). Luke’s use of kraugē brings with it a vocalization both extreme in volume and filled with emotion. Doubling down, the Evangelist adds megale, underlining that this sound made by Elizabeth was “great.” Elizabeth now speaks in that great loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” In both cases, the Greek word translated “blessed” is Eulogēmenē/os and Elizabeth addresses this loud cry to God. At the Meal culminating the “Walk to Emmaus” Jesus “took bread, blessed (Eulogēsen) and broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30).
43. Lit.: “And from where to me this that should come the mother of the Lord of me to me. Here, Elizabeth’s use of Kyriou (”Lord”) refers to Jesus himself.”9
44. “For at the moment the sound (or “voice,” phōnē ) of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” Now it is clarified that the leaping of John in Elizabeth’s womb “for joy.” (or “in exaltation!”) Emphasized the physicality of the Baptist’s leaping, St. Ambrose of Milam referred to him in one of his homilies as “the little athlete.”
45. Now the second meaning of “blessed” is provided. Here, Luke employs makaria, a word that he will use as Jesus preaches the Beatitudes (6:20-22). This word conveys the meaning of “how fortunate” or “how happy.” Elizabeth addresses this state of being blessed to Mary because of the plan and action of God. Judith Jones nicely contrasts the two terms used by Luke regarding these varieties of being “blessed”:
Our English translations obscure the fact that Elizabeth uses more than one word for “blessed.” When she pronounces Mary “blessed … among women” and proclaims that the fruit of Mary’s womb is blessed, she uses the term eulogemene/os, which emphasizes that both present and future generations will praise and speak well of her and her child. But when she says, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (v. 45), she uses the word makaria, the same term that Jesus uses to bless people in the Beatitudes. We might well translate Elizabeth’s words as “Happy is she who believed … ” Mary is blessed because despite all expectations her social status has been reversed: she will be honored rather than shamed for bearing this child. But she has also been blessed with divine joy — with beatitude — because she has believed that God is able to do what God promises to do. 10
Many homilies will be preached on this Fourth Sunday in Advent that offer praise and glory to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Deeply embedded in Catholic piety, of course, is the Second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, prayerfully lifting this story of the Visitation. Another approach to the homily on Advent 4 in Year C is to “run the narrative” of this sublime story, pausing at strategic locations to reflect through image and examples how we are invited into this world that Luke weaves for us. One approach to running the story of the Visitation might be shaped as follows:
Introduction. Here, we begin the homily as Like opens the story itself. We can briefly sketch Mary’s long, tough journey by herself up to the hill country of Judah. We are offered the opportunity here to image out of our assembly’s experience some analogy for Mary’s moving “with haste.” Does she “scamper along,” “race walk,” “outpace other pilgrims”? (Your choice of an image is important here, but I hunch we agree that Mary is best not imaged as “scampering”!)
Excursus 1. Here we put the narrative temporarily “on pause” as we explore some of the depths of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. Perhaps some research into painting and sculptures of this unique event may well be employed as we invite the listeners into this mystery. Some paintings have others present in this scene—even Joseph and Zechariah along with cats and dogs and villagers. More profound, though, are the paintings of this scene that center on the two women without others around. Choose one rendering of the scene and “paint it” into the communal consciousness of the listeners.
Excursus 2. The “little athlete” leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. Inventory numerous images of leaping that already reside there in the assembly’s consciousness. Some are too triumphalist—such as the leaping of football players when a “Hail Mary” pass is completed for a game winning touchdown. Others are set aside because they gloat over someone else’s’ misfortune. But surely some contemporary images of leaping for joy will connect with our congregation and evoke a perhaps unspoken “Amen.”
Excursus 3. The matter of the two blessings might be explored now. Judith Jones helps us here as she defines the two meanings we translate by the same word,
“blessed.” Jones continues her commentary by observing that “Elizabeth continues the pattern of social reversal by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honorable than herself.”11 Some contemporary examples of our ministry in Mary and Jesus’ names may well bring the full meaning of “blessed” to concretion.
Conclusion. Can any better outcome be conceived than that of Luke’s sharing with the Church Mary’s song, the Magnificat? Won't it serve well for a cantor, the choir, or the entire assembly to sing Mary’s song?
1 Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: Crossroads, 1984), 22.
2 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, The Anchor Bible (New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981, 357.
3 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke, New Updated Ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 341.
5 Robert C. Tannehill, Luke (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 53.
7 Brown, Messiah, 332.
8 Tannehill, Luke, 52.
9 Fitxmyer, Luke, 364.
10 Judith Jones, ““Commentary on Luke 1:39-45,” Working Preacher, Dec. 20, 2015, accessed Dec. 9, 2021, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-139-45-46-55-3.