Sts. Mary and Elizabeth

The visit of St. Mary, the Theotokos, to St. Elizabeth in Luke 1:39–56 serves as the setting for the song of the Theotokos known as the Magnificat.  This title is the first word of the hymn in Latin translation, which begins, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum…”  Both St. Elizabeth’s greeting to the Theotokos upon her arrival, and the subsequent hymn, are steeped in Old Testament allusion and imagery. Much of St. Luke’s Gospel is redolent with such connections to the Old Testament, in particular to the text in Greek translation, and other associated Jewish literature in Greek. These connections and parallels to the Old Testament are particularly concentrated in the early chapters of the Gospel. Both St. Elizabeth’s greeting and the Theotokos’ subsequent hymn, by mimicking this language of earlier scripture, establish continuity with Luke’s narrative and proceed to introduce themes that will then play out through the rest of the gospel.

This portion of the text of St. Luke’s Gospel is remarkably stable, with an absence of significant textual variants. Because the greater body of the text consists of the Magnificat, its liturgical use stabilized the text. The Magnificat was used from a very early date as one of the biblical odes, with this constant repetition serving to stabilize the text.  The other eight of the nine biblical odes are drawn from the text of the Old Testament. These begin with the “Song of the Sea” from Exodus 15 and continuing in canonical order to the Magnificat. The singing of these odes was a feature of Christian morning worship from a very early period, and Jewish use of the earlier odes from the Hebrew Bible predates the Christian usage.  There is some discussion as to whether or not this liturgical usage shaped this portion of the text at a very early stage, though this is offset by the real possibility that St. Luke is here passing on a preexisting hymn associated with the Theotokos or the event of Jesus’ birth, meaning that the fixing of the text to liturgical usage may predate the composition of the gospel itself.

There is a scholarly consensus that the text of the Magnificat does, indeed, predate Lukan composition.  The text of the hymn itself is inconclusive in this regard as it draws heavily upon Greek renderings already common by the time of composition. While this is a common feature of St. Luke’s text, it is also common in early Greek hymnody. More relevant is the disparity between the vocabulary and syntax of the hymn and that of the surrounding narrative frame, the latter of which is clearly a Lukan composition. Further, the hymn taken by itself is formed after rhetorical genre conventions as an independent unit.

Regarding the specific genre of the Magnificat itself, there is some discussion as to whether the hymn represents a cento, a series of citations of well–known phrases, in this case from the Old Testament and other Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, or an imitatio, a new composition patterned after preceding literary examples. Though there are clear allusions and reflections of specific source material that might suggest a cento, the utilization of preceding material also takes place on the level of the structure of the hymn as a whole. This would tend to suggest that the hymn represents imitatio of preceding biblical odes, in particular those which accompanied great acts of deliverance in salvation history.  The Magnificat, therefore, represents a new instance of such hymns, but one which draws upon the language and imagery of those after which it is patterned.  This internal structure is the strongest argument that it represents an independent composition received by Luke and incorporated into his narrative.

The account of the Theotokos’ visit to St. Elizabeth immediately follows the annunciation of the birth of Christ to the Theotokos by the Archangel Gabriel. The themes established in the angelic greeting which St. Mary receives from St. Gabriel are continued by the greeting which she receives from St. Elizabeth, and then onward into the hymn of the Magnificat. This framing follows a prophetic pattern, with the angelic visitation representing a prophetic call, and the Theotokos’ hymn representing an instance of prophecy regarding the life and work of her son. In the episode of the annunciation, the Theotokos receives a revelation from God regarding her child. In her subsequent hymn, she proclaims and applies this revelation in a prophetic manner.

In addition to this prophetic context, there is an already established priestly context within the first chapter of St. Luke’s gospel.  St. Elizabeth, St. Mary’s kinswoman, is the wife of a priest. This means that the Theotokos is not only related to the kingly line of Judah beginning with David, as established in 1:27, but also to the priestly line. In the surrounding material of this first chapter, St. Zacharias has followed the prophetic pattern himself, by receiving a revelation through a supernatural, angelic visitation and then, after an attendant sign, prophetically proclaiming and applying that revelation regarding the birth of his own son.

In the Theotokos’ visitation to St. Elizabeth in St. Zacharias’ house, these two narrative lines are brought together with the latter, that of Jesus, superseding the former, that of St. John the Forerunner, in a way that foreshadows the narrative movement of the early chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel. St. John’s narrative does not stand alone but is made significant by the narrative of Jesus the Messiah to which it directly relates. This visitation, and the Theotokos’ hymn, stand in the center of the chapter’s narrative, between promise and fulfillment to St. Zacharias, causing the birth of St. John to serve itself as a sign of the reality of the prophetic revelation regarding who Jesus is and will be. St. John in St. Luke’s narrative thereby becomes the forerunner of Christ in his birth, his ministry, and his ultimate death at the hands of evil and corrupt men in authority.

Luke 1:39:  This introductory verse serves to both distinguish the beginning of a new literary unit, through the phrase, “in those days”, and to connect it to the preceding annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel through the mention of the Theotokos’ haste, which is occasioned by the preceding revelation. The phraseology “in those days” is used repeatedly by St. Luke to introduce a new episode in the overarching narrative (as in 2:1, 6:12, 20:1, and Acts 6:1 and 9:37). Though this journey is undertaken in haste, St. Luke has portrayed this journey as a significant one, setting the annunciation by St. Gabriel in Nazareth of Galilee, and the Theotokos’ journey as being from that city to the hill country of Judea.  This represents the first of several such journeys in the narrative of the Gospel, followed by the similar journey preceding the birth of Jesus in chapter 2, and ultimately culminating in Christ’s own journey to Jerusalem to face his death, beginning in 9:51, a significant transition point in St. Luke’s Gospel.

Luke 1:40:  Upon her arrival, Mary enters the house of Zacharias, then a serving priest, and greets his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s own pregnancy was offered by Gabriel as a sign to Mary of the truth of his annunciation (1:36). Mary’s confusion regarding her virginal conception is alleviated by the reality of Elizabeth’s conception in advanced old age. In this regard also, John can be seen to serve as a forerunner to the birth of Jesus through his own miraculous conception.  This pattern of a sign being offered, and the recipient hurrying to confirm the reality of this sign, is repeated in chapter 2 by the shepherds (v. 12–16). The making explicit of Mary’s greeting is therefore not merely an exchange of pleasantries but represents an acknowledgment of the reality of Elizabeth’s pregnancy as confirmation of the word received from Gabriel. Gabriel had indicated that Elizabeth was six months pregnant at the time of his visitation to Mary, with the journey from Galilee requiring additional time, indicating that Elizabeth would be recognizably pregnant by this point.

Luke 1:41:  The phrase “and it happened” used in this fashion represents a semiticism, which phrase was used hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible, and is translated consistently in the Greek with forms of the Greek word “γίνομαι”. This usage is mirrored in the New Testament twenty–two times, sixteen of them in Luke-Acts. In the narrative and hymn that follow, St. Luke utilizes a series of Old Testament images and references, with the mirroring of Old Testament forms in these early verses establishing the parallels.  At the greeting of the Theotokos, the infant in St. Elizabeth’s womb stirs. The particular word used here appears to be drawn from the language of Gen 25:22 in Greek translation. There, Rebekah is disturbed by the stirring of the infants in her womb and believes that something is wrong with the pregnancy, after which she is prophetically informed by the God of Israel that her sons will struggle with one another and become the fathers of nations which will likewise struggle.  Here, the same stirring is inverted in significance, as the movement of the infant St. John within the womb indicates an affinity and bond between St. John and the infant Christ already conceived within the womb of the Theotokos. This unity is the subject of subsequent prophetic speech just as the struggle between Jacob and Esau was in Genesis.

St. Luke uses the language of “being filled with the Holy Spirit” as a condition for prophetic utterance throughout his Gospel and Acts. While it has previously been prophesied that St. John will be filled with the Spirit even from his mother’s womb (v. 15) as a mark of his prophetic mission, St. Elizabeth is the first person to be filled with the Spirit and speak in St. Luke’s narrative, marking out what she is about to say as prophecy.  Subsequently, St. Zacharias will be filled with the Spirit and prophesy (1:67), Christ himself will be filled with the Spirit (4:1), the assembled disciples of Christ will be filled with the Spirit in order to collectively prophesy on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4), this phenomenon continues in the early stages of the church (4:8, 31), and St. Paul is filled with the Spirit to begin his own mission to the Gentiles (9:17, 13:9).

Luke 1:42:  The doubling of verbs of speech in the introduction of St. Elizabeth’s prophetic utterance is another typical semiticism carried over from hundreds of Old Testament usages. It is likewise a typical feature of St. Luke’s narrative, recalling that Old Testament usage. Strictly speaking, the phrase ‘and said’ is unnecessary after the indication that St. Elizabeth cried out with a loud voice, but it stands in parallel to the Hebrew phraseology which used a verbal form of ‘saying’ to introduce direct discourse.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, St. Elizabeth proceeds to bless the Theotokos and her unborn son, a priestly act.  The first blessing, that of St. Mary herself, parallels the blessing given by Deborah in another biblical ode, in Jdg 5:24.  This scriptural incident of one woman blessing another is a blessing given to Jael after her killing of Sisera, the oppressor of Israel. This same language is paralleled in later Jewish literature in Judith 13:18. Judith had killed Holofernes, another foreign oppressor of Israel, by way of a similar act of trickery, making the echo of the story of Jael in Judges obvious. In this instance, however, St, Luke applies this parallel and this language to the Theotokos, and to her act of birth-giving.  This brings the motif of the defeat of an oppressing tyrant to bear on the forthcoming birth of Christ.  The final clause parallels the language of Deut 28:4. Deuteronomy 28 lays out the blessings which Israel will receive based on obedience to the law and the covenant. Verse 4 names one of these as the offspring of the womb being blessed. St. Luke moves this language from the conditional to the indicative attaching to St. Mary’s birth-giving the promise of God’s blessing upon the people of Israel. This pattern of deliverance, followed by a blessing, parallels the overall movement of the Torah itself.

Luke 1:43:  St. Elizabeth identifies Mary as the mother of her Lord. Minimally, this is an identification of Jesus as the Messiah in her womb. The office of “gebirah,” or queen–mother, is in the books of Samuel and Kings a peculiarity of the Judahite monarchy, the line of David.  The language here parallels the language of 2 Sam 24:21, in which Araunah questions who he is that his lord the king should come to him upon David’s visit. There is, however, an additional suggestive possibility. The language of verse 43 also closely parallels the language of 2 Sam 6:9, and David’s statement upon the return of the ark of the covenant, “How is it granted to me that the ark of my Lord should draw near to me?”  If this is indeed the point of reference of this prophetic utterance, it would represent evidence of high Christology here threaded into St. Luke’s text not dissimilar from that found in the Pauline epistles.  While Christian hymnography has long identified the Theotokos with the ark of the covenant, this poetic comparison only functions if the child in her womb is Yahweh, the God of Israel.

Luke 1:44: St. Elizabeth repeats to the Theotokos what occurred upon her entrance and greeting of St. Elizabeth. The insertion of ἰδοὺ, “Behold,” here represents another semiticism, drawing on the typical language of the Old Testament. The same language is used here by St. Elizabeth as was used in the previous narration, with the addition of the detail that the movement of St. John within his mother’s womb was joyful, making clear the inversion of the previous pattern of Jacob and Esau.

Luke 1:45: St. Elizabeth’s final statement makes explicit the pattern of prophecy, sign, and belief that was begun by the Archangel Gabriel’s words to the Theotokos at the annunciation. There St. Mary had been offered St. Elizabeth’s pregnancy as a sign that what had been promised her would come to fulfillment (Luke 1:36). Now, having seen that St. Elizabeth is indeed pregnant, and having received her prophetic blessing, and the testimony of the yet to be born St. John, her happiness will come in the knowledge, based on this testimony, that she will, in fact, bear a son, and that what she has been told regarding that son will likewise come to fruition.

To Be Continued…

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.