Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. ... And she cried out with a loud voice and said “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:39–45)
I’m a sucker for Christmas and all the cultural trimmings. I love the smells and the lights, and I shop for stocking stuffers year-round. And I am moved yearly by meditating on the squalling sweet baby wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in the manger, and by meditating on his young mother and dreaming father. Babies are such a gentle, hopeful motif in general, and this babe is literally the Hope of this dark world.
But for all the sweetness, Christmas is really quite fierce.
In this Bible passage, we have the two pregnant mothers and their two in utero babes, meeting and praising God for what he has done. The event is full of powerful action, with Mary getting up and hurrying into the hills and greeting Elizabeth, with Elizabeth yelling her greeting back, accompanied by her baby leaping for joy inside of her! And of course, Mary’s faith in believing that what the angel has said to her will be fulfilled is the most powerful action of all. There is great happy vigor all around.
Jesus and his cousin, John, still fetuses in this story, are yet both clearly present as themselves. Baby John the Baptist is leaping for joy in his mother’s womb at the presence of the Lord whom he will follow and die for. Here we see the prophet already established as a person by God and recognized by his parents, acting with intention: “leaping for joy” inside of his mom. And Jesus the Messiah is established as himself, too, with Elizabeth calling Mary “the mother of my Lord.”
And we see the joy of the pregnant women echoing the joy of the baby prophet John at the presence of the Lord Jesus in his mother’s womb. The long-promised Messiah has come to his people! Joy to the world!
Pregnant Mary mirrors for us what the church will become. She is the model disciple already: waiting for God’s Word with a prepared heart, receiving and believing God’s Word, and in faith obeying and yielding to God. Then she carries Christ inside of her, literally having him ‘formed in her,’ a picture that the Apostle Paul will use in his letter to the Galatians years later: “My little children for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). The church carries Christ, and like Mary, brings witness of his life in us, demonstrating him to everyone.
Yet death is looming throughout this story.
John will die a violent death in prison, beheaded by the thoughtless promise of a lust-driven ruler who doesn’t want to lose face in front of his partying friends, tricked by a wicked older woman who uses her nubile young daughter as political currency. Mary will see this. Jesus will die a torturous death on the cross, his life blood gushing from his wounds onto the chalice of the Judean earth. And Mary will see this.
So even as the joy of the two women’s voices echo the joy of the infant John inside his mother, we are aware that Mary’s baby is “The Lord” of them all. And it will take his death to give birth to us all. And Mary will see this. Mary will see the birth of the church. And here then is Jesus’ joy: “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross.” We are his joy.
Betsy Barber (Psy.D. ’96) is an associate professor of spirituality and psychology in the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology and director of the Center for Spiritual Renewal.