Lectio Divina: 4th Sunday of Advent (C)
Mary’s visit to Elisabeth
God reveals himself in the simplest things
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send Your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that You read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the bible, You helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of Your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create silence within us so that we may listen to Your voice in creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May Your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, may experience the force of Your resurrection and witness to others that You are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of You, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed the Father to us and sent us Your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
Today’s Gospel describes Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. They knew each other. They were related. But during the meeting, they discover in each other a mystery that they did not yet know and that fills them with great joy. How often does it happen that we meet people whom we know, but who surprise us by their wisdom and by their witness of the faith! It is thus that God reveals Himself and allows us to know the mystery of His presence in our lives.
The text of this Gospel of the fourth Sunday of Advent does not include Mary’s canticle (Lk 1:46-56) and barely describes Mary’s visit with Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-45). In this brief commentary we take the liberty of including Mary’s canticle, because it helps us better understand the meaning of the two women’s experience at the moment of this visit. The canticle reveals that what Mary experienced when Elizabeth greeted her helps her perceive the presence of God’s mystery not just in the person of Elizabeth, but also in her own life and in the history of her people.
As you read the text, try to pay attention to the following: “What gestures, words and comparisons made by Mary and Elizabeth express the discovery of God’s presence in their lives?”
b) A division of the text to help with the reading:
Luke 1:39-40: Mary leaves home to visit her cousin Elisabeth
Luke 1:41: When Elisabeth hears Mary’s greeting, she experiences God’s presence
Luke 1:42-44: Elisabeth greets Mary
Luke 1:45: Elisabeth praises Mary
Luke 1:46-56: The Magnificat (Mary’s canticle)
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, "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."
Canticle of Mary (Luke 1:46-56):
And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
3. A moment of prayerful silence
that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What pleased or touched you most in this text? Why?
b) What gestures, words and comparisons express Elizabeth’s discovery of the presence of God in her life and in Mary’s?
c) With what gestures, words and comparisons does Mary express her discovery of God’s presence in her life, in Elizabeth’s, and in her people’s history?
d) What is the source of the joy of both women?
e) What symbol from the Old Testament is recalled and realized in the description of this visit?
f) Where and how does the joy of God’s presence occur in my life and in the life of my family and community?
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) Yesterday’s and today’s contexts:
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ childhood is centered on the figure of Joseph, Jesus’ putative father. It is through “Joseph the husband of Mary” (Mt 1:16), that Jesus becomes David’s descendant, able to fulfill the promises made to David. On the other hand, in Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ childhood is centered on the person of Mary, “the betrothed of Joseph” (Lk 1:27). Luke does not say much about Mary, but what he does say is very deep and important. He presents Mary as model of life for Christian communities. The key to seeing Mary in this light is what Jesus says to His mother: “More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28). In the way Mary relates to the Word of God, Luke sees the best way for the communities to relate to the Word of God: hear it, incarnate it, deepen it, ponder it, give birth to it and make it grow, allow oneself to overwhelmed by it even when one does not understand it or when it brings pain. This is the background to chapters 1 and 2 of Luke’s Gospel when they speak of Mary, Jesus’ mother. When Luke speaks of Mary, he is thinking of the Christian communities of his time that lived spread out in the cities of the Roman Empire. Mary is the model of the faithful community. And, faithful to this biblical tradition, the last chapter of “Lumen Gentium” of Vatican II that speaks of the Church presents Mary as model of the Church.
Mary’s visit to Elizabeth shows another aspect typical of Luke. All the words, actions, and, above all, the canticle of Mary are one grand celebration of praise. It is like the description of a solemn liturgy.
In this way, Luke creates a double atmosphere: the prayerful atmosphere in which Jesus is born and bred in Palestine, and the liturgical and celebratory atmosphere within which Christian communities live their faith. He teaches the transformation of a visit by God into service of the brothers and sisters.
b) A commentary on the text:
Luke 1:39-40: Mary’s visit with Elizabeth.
Luke stresses Mary’s haste in responding to the demands of the Word of God. The angel informs her that Elizabeth is pregnant, and immediately Mary begins her journey to see what the angel had told her. She leaves home to help someone who needs help. It is more than 100 kilometers from Nazareth to the mountains of Judea. There were no coaches, no trains. Mary hears the Word and puts it into practice in the most efficient way.
Luke 1:41-44: Elizabeth’s greeting.
Elizabeth represents the Old Testament, which is coming to an end; Mary represents the New, about to begin. The Old Testament greets the New with gratitude and confidence, recognizing God’s free gift, which is given to realize and fulfill the expectation of the people. In the meeting of the two women, the gift of the Spirit manifests itself and causes the child in Elizabeth’s womb to rejoice.
God’s Good News reveals His presence in one of nature’s most common events, two women who visit together to help each other. Visit, joy, pregnancy, sons, mutual help, house, family: Luke wants the communities (and us) to see and discover the presence of the Kingdom in these things.
To this day, Elizabeth’s words are part of the best known and most recited Psalm in the whole world, the Hail Mary.
Luke 1:45: Elizabeth praises Mary.
"Blessed is she who has believed in the fulfillment of the word of the Lord". This is Luke’s message to the communities: belief in the Word of God that has the power to bring to pass what it says. It is the Word that creates. It gives birth to new life in the womb of a virgin, in the womb of the poor and abandoned people who welcome it with faith. Elizabeth’s praise of Mary is brought to completion when Jesus praises His mother: “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28).
Luke 1:46-56: Mary’s canticle.
It is most probable that this canticle was known and sung by the Christian communities. It teaches how one must pray and sing. It is also a kind of measure that reveals the level of the knowledge of the communities in Greece for whom Luke was writing his Gospel. To this day, it is possible to evaluate the level of awareness of communities from the canticles that we hear and sing there.
Mary begins by proclaiming the change that has taken place in her life under the loving gaze of God who is most merciful. Thus she sings joyfully, "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because He has looked upon the lowliness of His servant. Yes, from now on all generations will call me blessed for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is His name, and His faithful love extends age after age to those who fear him.” In order to understand the meaning of these very well known words, we need to remember that this is a very young girl, perhaps 15 or 16 years old, poor, from a remote village in Palestine, on the periphery of the world, but one who clearly knows her situation and mission, both hers and her people’s. Mary imitates the canticle of Anna, mother of the prophet Samuel (1Sam 2:1-10).
Then Mary sings of Yahweh’s fidelity towards His people and proclaims the change that the power of God’s arm was accomplishing in favor of the poor and hungry. The expression “the arm of God” recalls the liberation of the Exodus. This change takes place by the grace of the saving power of Yahweh: He has routed the arrogant of heart (1:51), He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly (1:52), He has filled the starving with good things and sent the rich away empty (1:53). Here we see the level of awareness of the poor in Jesus’ time and in the time of Luke’s communities, who sang this canticle and probably knew it by heart. It is worthwhile comparing this canticle with the canticles that today’s communities sing in church. Do we have the political and social awareness that we find in Mary’s canticle? In the 1970’s, at the time of the military dictatorships in Latin America, for the military Easter celebrations this canticle was censored because it was considered subversive. To this day, Mary’s awareness, the mother of Jesus, is still discomforting!
Finally the canticle reminds us that all this is an expression of God’s mercy towards His people and of His fidelity to the promises made to Abraham. The Good News is not a reward for the observance of the Law, but an expression of the goodness and fidelity of God to His promises. This is what Paul taught in his letters to the Galatians and to the Romans.
c) Further information:
Luke 1-2: the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament
In the first two chapters of Luke, everything revolves around the birth of two persons: John and Jesus. These two chapters give us a pleasurable taste of Luke’s Gospel. Their tone is that of praise and gentleness. From beginning to end, the mercy of God is praised and sung, a mercy that finally breaks out to fulfill its promises. These promises are fulfilled in favor of the poor, the anawim, of those who know how to wait for their fulfillment: Elizabeth, Zachary, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds and the three magi.
The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are well known but only superficially. Luke writes in imitation of the Old Testament scriptures. It is as though the first two chapters of his Gospel were the last of the Old Testament, thus opening the way for the coming of the New. These two chapters are the threshold between the Old and New Testaments. Luke wishes to show to Theophilus that the prophecies are being fulfilled. Jesus fulfills the Old and begins the New.
These two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are not history in our present day understanding of history. They act much more like a mirror where those for whom the Gospel is written, the Christians converted from paganism, discover that Jesus came to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament and to respond to the deepest aspirations of the human heart. They also symbolize what was happening in their communities in Luke’s time. The communities originating from paganism will be born from converted Jews. But they will be different. The New does not completely correspond to what the Old imagined and hoped for. It was a "sign of contradiction" (Lk 2:34), caused tensions and was a source of much pain. In Mary’s attitude, Luke presents a model of how to react and persevere in the New.
6. Praying Psalm 27 (26)
The Lord is my light, whom shall I fear?
Yahweh is my light and my salvation,
whom should I fear?
Yahweh is the fortress of my life,
whom should I dread?
When the wicked advance against me to eat me up,
they, my opponents, my enemies,
are the ones who stumble and fall.
Though an army pitch camp against me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
my trust will never be shaken.
One thing I ask of Yahweh, one thing I seek:
to dwell in Yahweh's house all the days of my life,
to enjoy the sweetness of Yahweh,
to seek out His temple.
For He hides me under His roof on the day of evil.
He folds me in the recesses of His tent,
sets me high on a rock.
Now my head is held high above the enemies who surround me;
in His tent I will offer sacrifices of acclaim.
I will sing, I will make music for Yahweh.
hear my voice as I cry,
pity me, answer me!
Of you my heart has said,
“Seek His face!”
Your face, Yahweh, I seek;
do not turn away from me.
Do not thrust aside Your servant in anger;
without You I am helpless.
Never leave me.
Never forsake me,
God, my Savior.
Though my father and mother forsake me,
Yahweh will gather me up.
Yahweh, teach me Your way,
lead me on the path of integrity because of my enemies;
do not abandon me to the will of my foes
-- false witnesses have risen against me,
and are breathing out violence.
This I believe:
I shall see the goodness of Yahweh,
in the land of the living.
Put your hope in Yahweh,
let your heart be bold,
put your hope in Yahweh.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank You for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May Your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which Your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, Your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.