Formations 12.08.2019: Happy Holidays

James Tissot, The Visitation, 1886–94

Luke 1:39-56

How many traditions can you name surrounding the birth of Jesus? Advent calendars and Advent wreaths, exchanging gifts, making and eating fudge and other special treats, Christmas carols and Christmas trees, Saint Nicholas in all his various forms. Some of these traditions are purely secular; others are deeply religious. I’d bet most of you have warm memories of each of these traditions.

And then there are the specific holidays associated with Jesus’ birth. It isn’t just December 25, after all. Christmas is a twelve-day season of the Christian year that lasts until January 5. Epiphany is January 6. The season of Advent begins the four Sundays before Christmas Day. December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ Day—the original Christian gift-giving holiday. December 26 is both Boxing Day and the Saint Stephen’s Day. There are so many special days to celebrate, and I’m down for all of them—so happy holidays, every last one!

There are also Christmas-themed holidays in other parts of the year. March 25—nine months before Christmas—marks the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel appeared to Mary to reveal her role in God’s saving plan. Two months after that, on May 31, is the Feast of the Visitation. Fresh on the heels of her encounter with the angel, Mary rushes to visit her relative Elizabeth, whom she has learned is also miraculously pregnant. When she arrives at Elizabeth’s house, she receives a number of powerful confirmations that she is, indeed, to be the mother of the Messiah.

Elizabeth greets Mary with a Spirit-inspired acclamation: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (v. 42). She explains how her own child leaped in the womb at Mary’s (and Jesus’) arrival. Moved by Elizabeth’s words, Mary breaks into a song about God’s saving works.

The divine plan involves more than individuals. What began with Mary and Jesus soon grows to include Elizabeth, and then, through Mary’s Magnificat, God’s people “from generation to generation” (v. 50).


• What are your favorite December traditions?
• What does Mary’s song reveal about God’s plans for the world—and our part in those plans?
• What does the song tell us specifically about Mary’s and God’s hopes?
• How does God use little things and seemingly inconsequential people to accomplish world-changing ends?
• How are your own hopes related to those outlined in this passage?

Reference Shelf


According to Luke 1:36, Elizabeth was a relative of Mary of Nazareth. While the term is too broad to define the precise relationship, tradition has suggested that the two were cousins. It is possible, therefore, that Mary may also have been of priestly descent. During the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary visited her in a city in the hill country of Judea. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped for joy (1:41); and filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth welcomed Mary as the mother of her Lord (1:42-44). Thus, just as John would function as the one who pointed the way to Jesus, so his mother Elizabeth is portrayed as the one who points to the significance of Mary’s child, Jesus. Some Old Latin manuscripts and a few Western fathers such as Irenaeus and Origin suggest that the Magnificat of Luke 1:46-55 may have originally been ascribed to Elizabeth.

W. Hulitt Gloer, “Elizabeth,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 246.

The Visitation

In our scene, the infant John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb; Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, offers prophetic blessing and oracles that may be poetry; and then Mary tilts back her head and belts out a Handelian recitative whose libretto is drawn from all over the Old Testament. According to v. 56, Mary stays there three months, almost until time for John to be born, but we do not get to see any of the everyday things that two kinswomen who find themselves unexpectedly expecting must have done. This is high drama, done for theological effect; it is not meant to tell us any- thing about the way first-century Palestinian women actually behaved. Realism is not the point, so we will take no time looking for explanations for how Mary could have memorized so much Torah or for what this story says about the social location of the two women.

The episode also is a sort of crux in the flow of the narrative. There are two birth announcements, two birth stories, and two childhood stories (both about Jesus), but only one story of the two mothers getting together. Mary’s Magnificat, at first glance, would be naturally paired with Zechariah’s Benedictus, except that Zechariah prophesies after John is born, and so that might make a better parallel to Simeon’s predictions while the baby Jesus is in the temple, or to the much shorter song of the angels just after Jesus’ birth. Some commentators, impressed by the structure of three paired stories, call this one a transitional episode. Others see it as more pivotal, as it merges the two story lines, puts the two mothers on stage together, and thereby previews for the reader how Jesus and John will relate. Even more important, Elizabeth and Mary are the first examples of roles that will be enormously significant for Luke-Acts. Luke uses them to set the standard for what is about to come.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 41.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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