by Br Julian McDonald cfc

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, saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…” Luke 1 39-45

While the gospel-reading for today illustrates how God’s love is reflected through human interactions (as seen in how Mary and Elizabeth engage with one another), pivotal to a proper understanding of the Incarnation is the reading we hear from Hebrews. The writer of Hebrews attributes to Christ words from Psalm 40 which he addresses directly to God, telling God that he appreciates that God has no interest in blood sacrifices: “Sacrifice and offering you (God) did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me; holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in” (Hebrews 10, 5-6).

Did Jesus actually direct these words of Psalm 40 to God, or did the writer of Hebrews conclude that he did, by closely examining the implications of Jesus’ actions and teaching? But one thing that is clear from the life of Jesus is that the God he and the people of Israel worshipped had no appetite for blood sacrifice. Had Jesus prayed Psalm 40 publicly, as the writer of Hebrews records, his prayer would have helped to undermine a custom that had kept the Temple treasury in Jerusalem afloat. The bottom would have fallen out of the sale of doves, pigeons, sheep and goats destined to be sacrificial offerings. Anthropologists through the ages have noted how almost every culture of the ancient world had its gods, of whom people lived in fear. Ordinary people, along with their leaders, engaged in sacrifice in an effort to appease or mollify their gods. Anyone who refused to offer sacrifice to the local gods was accused of angering them, needling them into delivering divine retribution. Seemingly, that’s why early Christians, who refused to offer sacrifice to idols, were done to death. There were others who struggled with what they saw as capricious, heedless and unpredictable behaviour of gods, who seemed to ignore the sacrifices designed to win divine favour, provide plentiful rain and good crops, bring victory in battle, give protection from disease or deliver financial prosperity. Shakespeare was alert to such doubters, as can be seen from the words he put into the mouth of Gloucester in the tragedy, King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” (Act 4, Scene 1, lines 41-42). This reading from Hebrews offers a preview of the impact on the world that would be made by the two unborn children about whom Elizabeth and Mary are rejoicing in today’s gospel-reading.

It’s hardly likely that Mary, already pregnant and the subject of local gossip, would have ventured alone and without protection on the eighty-mile journey to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah. I suggest that Luke made no mention of Zechariah and Joseph in order to highlight that the entry of John and Jesus into the world was announced and managed by women of very humble origins themselves, and regarded as having no credibility, simply because they were women in a male-dominated society. The circumstances of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth complement the message of today’s first reading from Micah that the longed-for Messiah would come from a village as humble and insignificant as Bethlehem, a village that hardly merited a place on the map.

Even a cursory reflection on Luke’s account of the conversation that transpired between Elizabeth and Mary is sufficient to lead us to conclude that it must have been Spirit-inspired and Spirit-filled, alerting us to the reality that God’s Spirit is ever alive and active in our world, even in the most ordinary circumstances, and even in the conversations and meetings in which we engage every day. All this reinforces something that we can easily forget, namely that God’s Spirit is ever at work in our world in new and creative ways and, indeed, can choose us to be the instruments of grace for others.

Let’s not forget that Zechariah was still unable to speak. So, there was no opportunity for him and Joseph to be off in a corner speaking men’s business. What they heard as Mary and Elizabeth exchanged their experiences would surely have left them gobsmacked.

That meeting between Mary and Elizabeth sets the stage for the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ of God, which becomes the centre of our reflection within a few days. At one level, the Incarnation consists of the factual reality that God has become one of us in the person of Jesus. As one of us, Jesus is our brother. Of equal significance is the almost incredible reality that God’s love for humankind has been given undeservedly, freely and without condition. In contrast, we know that our love is given and shared all too often with conditions attached.

Many of us are familiar with St Irenaeus’ encouraging assertion: “The glory of God is women and men fully alive.” We may be less familiar with another of his observations: “Because of his great love for us, Jesus, the Word of God, became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.” But we have to let him into our lives so that he can engage us in the transformation. Then, with Jesus we might come eventually to say to God: “Here I am, I come to do your will” (Hebrews 10, 7).