Mary Visits Elizabeth

Luke 1:39-45

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[e] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”


In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 

Luke used an insignificant meeting between two pregnant women in order to connect to two of the most important movements in first century Judaism: the followers of John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus.

It is the idea of Joy shared. All the Advent readings are about joy, despite the apocalyptic language of the first and second weeks.  Joy at the coming of Jesus, God-With-Us; joy at the end of waiting, the end of exile; joy at the ongoing presence of Jesus in our lives.

Note – the pace – “On that day” and “with haste” indicate the immediacy of Mary’s trip after hearing the angel’s message.

The reason for the trip is not given. Some possibilities:

1 Maybe Mary was frightened at what was unfolding with a child and needed the comfort of someone who would understand.  A woman who was engaged to one man but who willingly had sexual relations with another man was to be stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 22:23, 24).

Jewish marriages unfolded in 3 stages:

Engagement -A formal exchange of consent before witnesses. First step amounted to a legally ratified marriage, even though the wife continued to live with and be supported by her own family for about a year. The engagement was often made when the couple were only children. It was usually made through the parents, or through a professional match-maker. And it was often made without the couple involved ever having seen each other. Marriage was held to be far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart. At this point the engagement, entered into by the parents or the match-maker, could be broken if the girl was unwilling to go on with it.

Betrothal – The transfer of the wife to the husband’s home and his assumption of her support. Mary and Joseph were betrothed and she was still living with her family. They had not yet come to live together, nevertheless, he had specific marital rights and she had the obligation to remain a virgin. So, how could she be pregnant, unless there was some illicit behavior?

The betrothal was what we might call the ratification of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. Once the betrothal was entered into, it was absolutely binding. It lasted for one year. During that year the couple were known as man and wife, although they had not the rights of man and wife. It could not be terminated in any other way than by divorce. They were betrothed, and if Joseph wished to end the betrothal, he could do so in no other way than by divorce; and in that year of betrothal Mary was legally known as his wife.

The third stage was the marriage proper, which took place at the end of the year of betrothal.

Matthew’s Gospel dwells on Joseph’s problems with Mary being pregnant. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. In Matthew an angel tells Joseph in a dream that the pregnancy is through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Joseph is instructed to name the child Jesus. Importantly, such a naming has significance in law. It makes Joseph the legal father of Jesus, thus affirming the Davidic descent so important in Matthew’s genealogy.

Thus, Mary sought refuge – she was overwhelmed, Mary considered what to do next. . Remembering the words of the angel telling her that her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant, Mary went with haste to Elizabeth’s house seeking a refuge in her time of need.

The connection in our time.  During Advent we may also want to seek out a place of refuge, a special place where we can escape from everything that overwhelms us. Just as the stars may be obscured by pollution and the glare of the city lights, so also the light, hope, love, joy, and peace of the Advent message can be obscured by the noise of shopping malls, the ever-present consumerism, the myriad parties and celebrations, and the persistent media buzz. We need to uncover that place this Advent where we can be silent, reflective, and prayerful…We need to uncover that place this Advent where we can be silent, reflective, and prayerful. During this time of waiting, our eyes, ears, and minds can adjust to the radiant presence of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

How can you shift your gaze from the bright lights and glitz of the holiday season to the small and inconspicuous? How can you be ready for what God wants to reveal to you?

2 Perhaps it was a form of seclusion given the social stigma that would unfold in the coming months.

3 Mary goes to Elizabeth presumably to confirm the angel’s word about Elizabeth’s pregnancy and perhaps share in her joy. It could be understood as a sign of Mary’s faith — “I’m going to see what God has done with Elizabeth;” or a testing of the angel’s message — “I’m going to see if what the angel said about Elizabeth is true.”

She made the journey alone, independent and courageous,  A three day journey, on foot , alone and without protection:  It was about 70 miles from Galilee to Judea, more than that if you take the longer route around Samaria as Mary undoubtedly did.  The enmity between Jews and Samaritans ran deep, and not without reason on either side.  Jews would typically take the long way around Samaria rather than set foot there.  Thus, she probably journeyed 100 miles.

Travel for other than (religious purposes) was often considered deviant behavior in antiquity. While travel to visit family was considered legitimate, the report of Mary traveling alone into the “hill country” is highly unusual and improper.

Note- The historically powerful (1:5, 2:1, 3:1) are noticeably absent in this scene, replaced by two pregnant cousins. Similarly, the politically or prophetically significant cities of Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth are not the locale for this action, but rather the hill country of Judea.


When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit

The “greeting” was traditionally a formal address containing a statement about the person, eg. “Hail, King of the Jews.”

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Mary’s song, the Magnificat in the next lesson, is actually a direct response to her relative Elizabeth’s statement to her, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

Mary’s greeting is mentioned three times in the text (40, 41, 44).

Note the progression:

In 40, Mary “embraced” Elizabeth, or, Mary “took Elizabeth to herself.”

In 41, this “embrace” is again mentioned and paired with John’s first “leap.”

In 44, Elizabeth announces “behold!”–unfortunately not translated in the New Revised  Standard Translation–and then cites Mary’s “embrace” as, again, the reason her child “leaped,” this time “for joy.”  The implications of Mary’s “embrace” are fully explored.


and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

John kicked in the womb – There is precedent in Old Testament tradition for unborn children to provide clues to God’s work in the world (Gen 25:22-23, Jer 1:5).

It is through the work of the Holy Spirit here (v. 41; in Gen 25:23 it is the Lord directly), that Elizabeth interpreted the baby’s movements as paying homage to Jesus. God makes known His purposes (in other contexts we call this inspiration).

When a person is filled with the Holy Spirit, we praise Jesus Christ.

This is the first reference in the New Testament to Jesus being called “my Lord.” Throughout the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, the author wants us to call Jesus “my Lord.” Note the word, “my.” The word, “my,” is intensely personal and Luke wants you and me to know Jesus as “my Lord.”

Up to this point in the story, we heard that the words, “the Lord,” referred to God. Now the words, “the Lord,” refer to Jesus.

All mothers are “blessed”, but Mary has received a unique blessing. Mary is “fortunate” in that God has “favored” her as mother of the messiah, but also because she took the Lord at his word (“believed”).

The greeting caused a movement of Elizabeth’s fetus and so served as a confirmation that the Holy Spirit was involved, not only in Mary’s pregnancy, but her own.

The phrase, “filled with the Holy Spirit”, is common to Luke. It is used in the Old Testament sense of someone empowered by God to perform a special task, often a prophetic one. The Spirit comes upon the prophet and he speaks. Such a “filling” is for the task at hand and is not ongoing.

This is the second reference to a person being filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke wants us to be filled with the Holy Spirit, just as the first Christians in the Book of Acts were filled with God’s Spirit.

The leaping of John anticipates his role as the forerunner of the “one who is mightier than I” (3:16).

It also became obvious to Elizabeth that there was something special about Mary and the baby she was carrying. Her knowledge didn’t come from an angel, but from a kick in her womb!

Frequently in Luke/Acts being filled with the Spirit resulted in a speech.

  • After Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, she exclaims with a loud cry (1:41).
  • After Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit, he speaks a prophecy (1:67).
  • After all are filled with the Holy Spirit, they speak in other tongues (Ac 2:4).
  • After Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit, he speaks (Ac 4:8).
  • After all are filled, they speak the word of God boldly (Ac 4:31).
  • After the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, they speak in other tongues (Ac 10:44).

“She has come to Elizabeth.” Elizabeth’s joy at her own pregnancy after so many years of barrenness is overshadowed by the joy at Mary’s visit — or rather that the unborn Lord would honor her with his presence.

“She believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary needed divine reassurance, with the encouragement God provided her through Elizabeth’s experience.

It wasn’t until she saw Elizabeth, who astonishingly already knew about Mary’s condition, that it all came together in Mary’s young mind, and then she sings this song with all her heart. Even for Mary, the Mother of the Christ, her “yes” was not blind faith. Rather, like us, she had to ponder and work through her mind all that the angel had told her would come to pass. 

But unlike Mary, Elizabeth’s pregnancy has taken away the disgrace she endured among her people.  For unlike Mary, Elizabeth had been barren, and she and her husband Zechariah were getting on in years. And unlike Mary who had no husband, the angel Gabriel announced their pregnancy to Zechariah.

In this reading, the unborn John salutes the unborn Jesus and the mother of John is the first to recognize who Mary is:  the new temple, a temple of flesh, not a stone building.

And the implication of John’s witness has to be stated:  just as God’s grace can, and did, bypass the sacrificial religion of the temple – indeed, it anticipated its destruction; so also God’s grace can bypass the certainties and authorities of current church structures.

Mary understood the greatness of God’s power to transform her ordinary human life.

The promise from Mary in her song is that those who do not restrict God’s activity in their lives will never be the same. The ability to believe is the most striking childlike quality.

John (and his lineage) represented the end of the Old Testament prophets. He was an unusual desert wanderer who preached from conviction and reckless abandon; his speech and lifestyle summed up the prophetic tradition in Judaism.

Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will … make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Luke 1:15-17.

This is the child – whom we know as John the Baptist – who leaps in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth.

John’s elderly father, Zechariah, represented Judaism and its priestly tradition. Judaism did mediate God to his people, but its ancient character stifled novelty. Hence, presented with a new revelation about his desired son, the priest Zechariah was struck speechless.

However, John’s elderly mother, Elizabeth, represented the open, trusting tradition of the female in Judaism. Just as the elderly Sarah became the mother of Isaac and the old Hannah became the mother of Samuel, Elizabeth could receive and rejoice in the birth of a son, even at an old age.

These two women – one old, the other young – receive a treasure from God in private.  By sharing that private treasure, isolation is broken; the moment of redemption is shared, and the act of sharing causes an increase of grace.  John’s conception was marvelous, perhaps miraculous; now the mystery deepens, as he is called, and responds to the call, even before he is born.

Notice the themes of exaltation and humility. Through the figure of Mary, he exalted the new revelation. Through the meeting, he bridged the old to the new. From this moment on, Luke would exalt Jesus and diminish John’s role. For Luke, the time of Judaism had past; the time of Christianity had dawned.

This passing matched the historical events of the first century. With the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 A.D., forty years after Jesus’  crucifixion, and with the dispersion of the Jews from their homeland, Luke saw Judaism and its movements (i.e., those who tried to keep John’s ministry alive) on the wane. At the same time, Christianity was gaining strength in numbers. A time that honored the unchanging was undergoing massive change.


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