The Incarnation of God in Christ is the event that, together with the Resurrection, defines our Christian faith. The Gospel stories about Jesus’ birth, known as the infancy narratives, help us to ponder what the Incarnation means about God’s love for us and desire for relationship with us. In this blog for Advent, we will look at how the writers of Matthew and Luke use the infancy narratives to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. We will see how these stories, far from being mere folk tales, weave themes into an intricate tapestry of history and theology that conveys the meaning of Jesus’ birth, a meaning that can be learned only through prolonged listening and contemplation. To illustrate, we will take a new look at a very familiar infancy narrative: the Visitation.
In this blog I rely on three main sources: Sofia Cavalletti’s The Religious Potential of the Child (Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago, 1992); Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah, (Yale University Press, New Haven, CN, 2007); and Herman Hendreckx’s The Third Gospel for the Third World, Vol. I (Claretian Publications, Quezon City, Philippines, 1996).
Signs of the Mystery
The infancy narratives, found only in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, thought to be the gospels most recently written, come from deep, prolonged meditation of the Church on who Jesus was. History, theology, and interpretation are interwoven. In The Religious Potential of the Child, Sofia Cavalletti writes,
we cannot separate theology from history in the Bible, for if we did we would be unfaithful to the message.(106) [In the infancy narratives] the theology is almost “hidden” in the text. It is a theology completely different from the textbook kind of theology; it cannot be learned through academic study but rather gleaned through a prolonged “listening” to the text.(108)
Luke’s gospel is not a history in the sense we would use that word today. Using stories that he knew would help people recognize Jesus as Messiah, he wrote in order to communicate truths, but not in the literal way a newspaper tries to write the truth. Rather, Luke sought to convey the true meaning of salvation history through an artfully written narrative that combines stories, only some of which actually happened, in an overarching pattern in order to convince both Jews and Gentiles that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s unbroken promises to the people of Israel.
In The Birth of the Messiah, the late biblical scholar Raymond Brown writes that we need not know whether the infancy narratives actually happened; instead, we need to recognize how the evangelists used these stories to vividly introduce the crucial themes of their gospels. For example, we find the motif of dreams in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in Matthew, and the motifs of angels and their words, “Do not be afraid,” are found in both the Hebrew Scriptures and Luke. Luke
lets us discover, that the new event he is proclaiming is the conclusive link in a long chain of events. . . . In this way, we become accustomed to discovering, in the literary form of biblical passages, the “signs” of the mystery. (Cavalletti, 109)
Other themes in the infancy narratives that are developed throughout the gospels include:
- Jesus, born of a woman and of the Holy Spirit, is the first-born of a holy humanity. God’s continuing love and presence with his people is made concrete in this child: Immanuel. In Jesus, God will be present to us in a new way. It is the highest point in salvation history.
- The way of God is slow and hidden. God carefully prepares his people for the revelation in Jesus Christ.
- Jesus is truly God and truly man. His names indicate this dual nature of Christ.
- Jesus who existed for all eternity initiated his human story in a particular place and time, and like all is born an infant, a helpless baby. In Jesus we see both tremendous vulnerability and tremendous greatness. The births of John the Baptist and Jesus are so humble and simple, and yet the heavens are opened. Luke juxtaposes the humble and the exalted, the great within the small.
- In the conception and birth of Jesus God shows us the impossible over- shadowing the probable. Cavalletti calls this phenomenon a movement “From a minus to a plus.”
- The presence of the Messiah brings great rejoicing. Fear and doubt are replaced by grace.
- The Spirit of God comes to communicate to those who wait and listen. For example: the prophets, and Simeon and Anna.
Elizabeth: Ordinary Woman, Disciple, and Prophet
The story of the Visitation, Luke 1:39-45, 56, available here, illustrates the presence of these profound themes in an apparently simple story, and the tremendous potential for wonder that lies in each one of the infancy narratives.
Bible scholar Herman Hendrickx has written about the importance of the Visitation to the overall gospel of Luke. Contrary to the silence of most scholars on Elizabeth, Hendrickx writes of her as a woman whom Luke presents as a model of discipleship. Elizabeth’s discipleship does not consist solely in being the mother of John the Baptist, but in her own right as a woman and a prophet: Elizabeth’s recognition of Mary as the Mother of Our Lord encourages Mary in her own role as the model disciple. Elizabeth is the Old Testament side of the Old Testament-New Testament bridge, the other side of which is Mary. Elizabeth and Mary, representatives of the people of the Old Testament and the New Testament, are united by their faith in God. Luke shows this bridge being made in the Visitation.
Luke wants to show that the God of Jesus, who is the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rachel, Elkanah and Hannah, is a God who is faithful. The saving of Israel was required for the salvation of the gentiles as well as the Jews. Luke uses Elizabeth and Mary to symbolize this critical juncture between the Old Testament and the New. And what is the link? Their powerlessness. The very powerlessness of Elizabeth and Mary is the symbol of God’s power. One is reminded of Paul in Second Corinthians: “[the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’”(2 Corinthians 12:9).
As soon as she hears Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Her cry is like the blast of a trumpet heralding the dawning of the Kingdom. Elizabeth is the first human being to witness to the universal significance of Mary’s “Yes.” The mother of the prophet John the Baptist is herself a prophet.
Mary is the focus of Elizabeth’s speech; she is “the one who believed.” Yet Mary is never named by Elizabeth. Hendrickx points out that Mary is recognized by Elizabeth in a way that links her to the plan of God. “It is not Mary in her own right who appears in the speech, but Mary in relation to God’s plan.” (p. 112) In this way, Mary is held up as a model of true discipleship.
Elizabeth, too, is a model disciple. She has lived a righteous life in piety and hope. When God intervenes in her life, she accepts her role without question, and affirms her sister in faith. In so doing, she, with Mary, enables God to accomplish God’s will for humanity. Elizabeth shows us that ordinary women have a crucial role in bringing the kingdom.
Elizabeth proclaims, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Here, the Greek word for blessed, makarios, means “the condition of happiness resulting from being favored.” The Visitation teaches us that the condition of happiness resulting from being favored by God is recognized and therefore most vividly experienced in relationship. What does Luke tell us about how Mary felt after the Annunciation? He says she was greatly troubled when the angel appeared to her, and pondered what the angel’s greeting could mean. She was afraid. She might have been incredulous (“How can this be?” Luke 1:34). Could it be that Mary, full of conflicting emotions, didn’t fully realize how happy and blessed she was until Elizabeth told her so? Only after Elizabeth says “blessed are you” two times and “blessed is the fruit of your womb,” does Mary say the Magnificat.
Joy is a prominent sign of the Kingdom (See Luke 15:7,9,22-24). The happiness of Elizabeth and Mary was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence both in and among them. Hendrickx writes:
Joy is the keynote of the messianic age. . . . This joy will not be limited to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but will be shared by “many” in Israel. “Many” is probably a Semitic expression for the totality of the people of Israel. God’s invitation knows no limitations.” (p. 66)
In the Visitation, we can see that the Kingdom is, even now, already but not yet, in the relationship of Elizabeth and Mary.
The things spoken to Mary by the Lord–God’s promises– are nothing less than all the expectations of Israel. In Luke’s gospel, these promises include the dream of a new David; the coming of a new age, the age of the Son of Man (Daniel 7-12); Elijah’s return before the Day of the Lord; salvation of only a remnant of Israel, those humble enough to accept it as an undeserved gift from God; and the coming of redemption to the Daughter of Zion (Zephaniah 3:14). These hopes are present but hidden in the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary: Jesus is present, the new David and the Son of Man. Elijah is present in John the Baptist. Mary and Elizabeth represent the remnant of Israel, the lowly ones to whom Jesus brings the kingdom. Redemption comes, in physical form, to Elizabeth, a true daughter of Zion: she is depicted as a pious Jewish woman, of priestly ancestry, a righteous one, deserving of honor due to her lineage and her age, who has been shamed because she was barren. Elizabeth, the mother of the new Israel, recognizes and affirms Mary, the mother of all the nations of the world. “The two great ideas of Luke, the universality of salvation and love for the lowly, are both contained in this symbol of the ‘Daughter of Zion.’”(Hendrickx, 34)
Hendrickx writes that Luke understood the proclamation of the kingdom of God to mean the fulfillment of God’s promise to renew the people of Israel as God’s holy people in the midst of the nations. In the Visitation, we are given a hint of what this renewal consists of: not a restoration of status in the hierarchical model of the world, but a restoration of the wholeness intended in creation. In the eyes of her culture, Elizabeth’s pregnancy restored her to wholeness. Elizabeth, the representative of the holy people of Israel who were shamed by the Exile, a condition that they were powerless to rectify, regains her deserved status through recognizing the coming of the new age and helping to bring it to birth. Elizabeth shows Israel the path to restoration of wholeness. It cannot be accomplished without God, and it cannot be accomplished without recognition of our own role. God needs our conscious cooperation.
Far from being simple stories, the infancy narratives are rich sources of meaning which shed light on the entire gospel. When we cease to look upon them chiefly as a script for a pageant, and instead ponder them in openness, humility and wonder, we allow ourselves to learn more about the tremendous gift of love and salvation that God is constantly inviting us to receive. Through the infancy narratives, God prepares our hearts to receive the Light of Christ anew this Christmas, and every Christmas.