Christmas Reflection Part 3

Luke 1:39-56 – Jumping in the Womb

Following the announcement that Mary would be bearing the Messiah, Luke tells us that she leaves to go and visit her cousin Elizabeth, also with child, who is staying in the hills of Judea. Even before Elizabeth can respond to her cousin’s greeting, her unborn baby (who the angel announced would be filled by the Spirit of God even from the womb) has realised who it is that Mary is carrying. Elizabeth is then inspired by the Holy Spirit to also recognise what has happened to her cousin Mary, even though she has not been told about the situation. Prior to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it was not considered a common thing to be filled by God’s Spirit (his breath, or presence). That was a unique event, a special case of God’s intervention and inspiration. Later in Acts 2:17-18 (also written by Luke) we are reminded of the prophecy from Joel 2:28 which indicates that the Spirit of the Lord will be poured out on all people, and that they will know and speak the message of the Lord. In this case, Elizabeth is inspired to know that Mary is pregnant… … with her “Lord”. This word could be seen to mean “God”, though it is possible that Elizabeth had not totally understood that yet. Elizabeth has understood, however, that Mary’s child will be unique, greater even than her own special child, and worthy of such a lofty title.

Baby John the Baptist jumping in the womb is the beginning of John’s witness to Jesus. And it is a witness infused with joy, as is Mary’s song. The birth of the Messiah is seen as the culmination of God’s action and purpose within Israel. Mary’s song is not just thanking the Lord for his mercy towards her, but towards all of Israel. This act is the promised deliverance and redemption for the people of God, the long-awaited vindication of the poor and needy, and the judgment on the rich, proud oppressors.

Mary’s song echoes the song of Hannah from 1 Samuel 2:1-10 so clearly that it cannot be a coincidence. This is a song Mary would have known as a Hebrew, and perhaps it was just on her mind as an appropriate summary of her situation. More likely, though, Luke is intentionally drawing the reader’s attention towards the story of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 1-25). As we have already seen, Samuel’s mother Hannah prayed for a son though she was barren, and the Lord gave her Samuel in a miraculous circumstance, (not unlike the announcements of John and Jesus’ births). Hannah dedicated Samuel to the service of God in the Temple, and he grew up to be a great Prophet and Judge, the one whom God used to announce judgment upon Israel and the family of Saul, and to anoint David as King. It is not difficult to see the connection between the story of Samuel and that of John the Baptist, and it is important to remember this as we read through the rest of Luke. Luke is presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, as the decisive moment in God’s work of salvation, and this salvation was foreshadowed throughout the history of Israel.

In Mary’s song she praises the Lord and declares that he is Saviour; that he took notice of her even though she was a lowly servant; that the Lord, the Mighty One, is holy in the things he has done for her; that he has shown mercy to generations; that he has filled the hungry and sent the rich away, exalted the humble and scattered the proud, essentially overturning humanity’s disordering of creation; and that he has been merciful to Israel, remembering his promises to her. The power of God as judge of his enemies, of those who have disobeyed and gained power off the backs of the poor and innocent, is invoked in this song as well. Israel’s salvation was always pictured in terms of release from slavery or return from exile – that is, the overthrow of those powers that were crushing her. The implication is that the same God who brought about the Exodus has also brought about the baby in Mary’s womb. Luke shows a special concern in his gospel for the poor and the oppressed, and is pointing out here that the coming of God’s salvation through Jesus will and should result in a different way of being with one another, in particular giving a new hope to the poor.

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