Luke 1:39-45. The Visitation

The visitation of Mary to the home of Elizabeth is the subject of our reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent. It is replete with symbols suggesting that the baby Jesus is the Messiah- a most apropos passage for the final week of Advent.

Elizabeth’s Baby Leaps for Joy

The Visitation
The Visitation. Ghirandaio, 1491. The Louvre, Paris.

When Mary encounter’s Elizabeth, the infant in Elizabeth’s womb “leaps for joy.” This incident parallels the conduct of King David in 2 Samuel 6:14-15,

Then David came dancing before the LORD with abandon, girt with a linen ephod. David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts of joy and sound of horn.

It is most ironic that David dances before the Ark of the Lord, in much the same way that John the Baptist leaps in the presence of Mary – a first century ark of the Lord. 

Oh Highly Favored Mary… or Blessed?

Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, greets Mary with the compliment, Blessed are you among women (NAB, KJV), or highly favored are you among women (NIV). In Greek, the phrase is expressed  εὐλογημένη  σὺ  ἐν  γυναιξὶν (eulogeme su en gunaixin). The literal, and incorrect, translation might be, you are “highly-spoken of among women.”

The reader should take note that while the literal translation of the verb eulogein is “to speak well of,” that is not the intended meaning in the original language. Those fluent in Spanish and Italian know, for instance, that the literal translation of benedire in Italian and bendecir in Spanish is “to speak well of.” Yet these terms mean “to bless” in both languages.

We have the same situation in Greek, where eulogein literally means “to speak well of” yet is used almost exclusively to signify “to bless.” For instance, the Gospel authors chose eulogein when they spoke of Jesus blessing bread (Mark 6:41, Matthew 14:19). Jesus did not speak well of bread – he extended a blessing upon it. Many Protestant translations of the Gospels (Tyndale 1526, King James 1611, Webster Bible 1833, ASV 1901, RSV 1946, New Century 1987, NLT 1996) are in agreement with the NAB: Mary is blessed among women.

The Mother of My Lord

Elizabeth also awards Mary another totally unexpected title in this passage: she calls Mary the mother of my Lord. One might suggest that Elizabeth is simply flattering or extending a further compliment to Mary. However, it is socially out-of-place, and even inappropriate for a woman to call her cousin’s unborn infant “my lord” over and above her own husband or her husband’s son. In Scripture, “Lord” can obviously refer to the Messiah or to YHWH. It is also used by a son when speaking of his father, by a citizen when addressing a judge, or as a term reserved for a person of distinction. In order to understand what Elizabeth means, we need to look at the context in which it is said.

Elizabeth’s Testimony of Faith

Luke’s account of the Visitation gives us an indication as to who exactly, the child of Mary is destined to become. The Gospel author Luke does not editorialize. Rather he recounts the experience of Elizabeth so that we can understand how Elizabeth perceives her encounter with Mary, who is with child.

In the presence of Mary, Elizabeth’s baby leaps for joy like King David before the Ark of the Lord. Elizabeth calls Mary “blessed” and her unborn son “Lord.” We infer that Elizabeth understands the child of Mary may be destined to be the Messiah. And Luke makes it especially clear that Elizabeth infers this on her own, with no help from Mary.

Is the child of Mary destined to be the Messiah? At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth’s faith experience leads us to that possibility – a possibility that can only be confirmed as the ministry of Jesus unfolds. Elizabeth’s prophetic testimony about Jesus and Mary is, indeed, a testimony of faith. As the passage states, she was filled with the Holy Spirit.

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