The Heavenly Womb

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C: Micah 5:1-4a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45.

Today’s readings present us with a familiar scene, the kindly image of pregnant Elizabeth greeting pregnant Mary. This is the Visitation of Mary. Mary travels to the hill country, she “enters the house of Zachariah,” the women exchange pleasantries. It’s December 19th and Salt Lake City is covered in snow. The whole scene can lull us with its domesticity as I dream of cozying up to the fireplace and doing a puzzle this afternoon. The gospel reading with its overtones of “nesting” fits perfectly.

But, let’s dwell with the Word of God for a moment and let it reveal its wonder and wisdom to us. There is something deep happening in this gospel reading. We are witnessing the turning point of history, when the time of the Prophets meets the time of the Messiah. Hidden in this countryside meeting of cousins is a glorious revelation for the world, much like the glorious revelation Himself will soon be given to the world, yet hidden in a humble manger.

Icon of the Visitation | Image from legacyicons.com. There are plenty of beautiful paintings of the Visitation, but I wanted to choose one here to emphasize that this was as much a meeting of Jesus and John as Mary and Elizabeth. And while it is more common to see John depicted in a pose of humility in sacred icons, I like this one particularly because it shows John “leaping for joy.”

There are many present at this meeting – there is Elizabeth meeting Mary, but also John meeting Jesus, in fact the prophets (remember that Jesus will say, “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come,” (Mt 11:14)) meeting the Messiah, and finally the Spirit filling humanity. Let’s remember the central action of this scene. After Mary enters the house and greets Elizabeth,

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 and said, 
“Blessed are you among women, 
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Several things happen before Elizabeth speaks: first, the infant John reacts to the Messiah entering his presence. Remember, this is John’s entire reason for being – the Father has given him the solemn job of preparing the world for the Messiah and recognizing Him when He comes. John is more than a normal baby; he is chosen and exalted by God and because his soul is so much greater and full even at this stage of his life, he is able to model for us the true meaning of joy by leaping in the presence of the Lord (see last week’s reflection for more thoughts on this joy). John’s great soul seems to envelop his mother at this point because she herself prophesies! She is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “cries out in a loud voice” – both things we read of prophets in general and John in particular during his ministry. The Holy Spirit gives her the wisdom and courage to proclaim the truth present in front of her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

There is a reason the Hail Mary joins these words with the angel Gabriel’s words during the Annunciation (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”): this moment is John’s first pronouncement to the world that the Savior is present in his pure vessel, the virgin womb of Mary. God makes his Word heard, first through an angel and then through the Holy Spirit speaking through John and Elizabeth. Both times, the proclamation is made to Mary (and in the retelling of the gospel, to the world). Mary is, in fact, the archetype of the Church herself. The Church, who bears and protects and is transformed by Christ, is being announced as blessed and full of grace (literally and figuratively). The original Greek is worth noting, since Gabriel calls her Kecharitōmenē (One Whom Grace Inhabits) and Elizabeth calls her Eulogēmenē. I unpack Gabriel’s words in a prior reflection, but let’s understand what the Holy Spirit is saying through Elizabeth here. The root word is eulogéō, which is a combination of , meaning “well, good” and lógos, which we should all recognize as “word, reason,” or in this context “speaking,” which is how we arrive at “bless” for eulogéō. Greek scholars also note that this word can properly mean “confer what is beneficial” when we read of how God blesses His people and they bless him in return. The point is that there is an action combined with the word – the blessing is coming from someone, through being spoken, and is thereby conveyed on someone else. Who is speaking? The Holy Spirit! That means that God Himself is conveying blessings upon Mary and His Son in this scene. This scene is thus tied to not just the Annunciation but Jesus’s Baptism when the Father calls down from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17), as well as the Transfiguration when the Father proclaims, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen, listen to Him” (Lk 9:35). All of these scenes are the revelation of Christ to humanity, accomplished by the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Returning to today’s gospel passage, let’s look at the curious self-awareness that Elizabeth shows after God proclaims the blessedness of Mary and the presence of His Son:

And how does this happen to me, 
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, 
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.

How fascinating that her own voice is intermingled with that of the Spirit and John’s expansive soul. She is fully aware of the fact that Mary bears the Christ in her womb, and she marvels that she is lucky enough to be in the presence of them both. But she also calls attention to her own body, to the feeling of John leaping for joy. This, I believe is a purposeful and profound passage for us. We are invited to consider what it is like to be pregnant with another being growing inside us. I have no personal insights here, but I have two children and my mother had 10 pregnancies. From what I’ve observed and read, the feeling is at the same time alien and could not be more integral and personal. There is not just something growing inside you, but someone. I’ve come across this quote from author Anne Christian Buchanan and it seems insightful: “To be pregnant is to be vitally alive, thoroughly woman, and distressingly inhabited. Soul and spirit are stretched – along with body – making pregnancy a time of transition, growth, and profound beginnings.” There is something of this being “distressingly inhabited” and having one’s soul stretched going on in our gospel scene. Elizabeth is profoundly aware of the movement in her womb – something that is her but not her. She is doubly inhabited here because she is “filled with the Holy Spirit.” What are we being told about God’s will for us here?

The Visitation, Jakob and/or Hans Strüb (1505) | Image courtesy the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. I like the slightly distant looks in Mary and Elizabeth’s eyes here, as if they are witnessing the expansion of their souls, the meeting of the prophet and the Savior, and the Holy Spirit beside and within them.

Let’s take a look at Elizabeth’s final words: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” The final piece of the revelation puzzle begins to appear. Our work is trust in the Lord and acceptance of His will. It is Mary’s faith that has made her blessed. Mariologists would quibble here that she was blessed upon her own birth by her virgin mother, in fact blessed by God before time began. But the Holy Spirit is blessing her here for her belief and acceptance of God’s will, for she was granted free will and could have denied the incarnation of Christ offered to her. Thus, blessings come upon Mary (who is us, remember: the Church) when she accepts God’s will; more, even: when she accepts God Himself and allows Him to grow within her.

We are invited to consider the womb as the reality of our spiritual life here on earth. It is the intersection of our biology and our spirit. Our soul – that invisible and intangible essence within us that allows us to recognize and commune with God – needs to grow, just like the body. Sadly, many of us neglect it. But Christ has shown us the Way. We must empty ourselves of personal ambition and self-centeredness and open ourselves up to the Spirit, to God’s will.

Elizabeth and Mary are at the heart of God’s revelation of Himself to us because this is precisely how He works through us to achieve our salvation. Just as Mary is the living vessel for God, the Ark of the New Covenant, we are all to become vessels for the Spirit. Indeed, in today’s second reading during the Office of the Readings (part of the Divine Office), St. Irenaeus tells us, “Man is the vessel which receives God’s action and all his wisdom and power” (from Against Heresies). What’s more, we all undergo that mysterious, life-giving process of gestating something new and wondrous within us. Irenaeus continues: “if man perseveres in God’s love, and in obedience and gratitude to him, he will receive greater glory from him. It will be a glory which will grow ever brighter until he takes on the likeness of the one who died for him.” This is our deification, our ability to take our first steps in the Kingdom, imperfectly while still on this earth, but entrance to the Kingdom is indeed promised to us if we follow Christ the Way. What a marvelous plan that uses the very biological processes of gestating and becoming (processes He created, of course) in order to bring about the formation of the soul in the likeness of Christ. Note, though, that this plan is only made possible because of Christ. The Jews “persevered in obedience and gratitude” (off and on) but they still waited for a Messiah to save them. Humanity had no actual way to achieve eternal life or enter the Kingdom of God until Christ. Irenaeus elaborates: “He wanted to invite man to take on his likeness … establishing man in a way of life in obedience to the Father that would lead to the vision of God, and endowing man with power to receive the Father. He is the Word of God who dwelt with man and became the Son of Man to open the way for man to receive God, for God to dwell with man, according to the will of the Father.” To paraphrase Pope John Paul II, we must always remember to view the world through a Christological lens. Nothing makes sense without Him. 

So, located in this everyday, humble scene of two pregnant women, we find the glowing embers not just of the greatest prophet and the Messiah, but the wisdom of our entire religion. We are all “pregnant” with a soul. While it may seem foreign to us, this thing can be a person, just like pregnancy. We can allow God to inhabit our souls. God can fill us with His glory, helping our souls swell with His love and moving us toward perfect unity with Him and eternal life in the Kingdom. We are all invited to participate in a heavenly womb, at once foreign to us and also something that could not be more personal. If pregnancy is “a time of transition, growth, and profound beginnings,” then the heavenly womb wherein we gestate God in our souls is even moreso. Knowingly or unknowingly, we have been doing this since our own moments of creation, and as we turn to the gospels this Advent, we can recommit ourselves to this work of believing in God, accepting His will in a deeper and deeper way until we can also leap with joy simply to be in His presence.

Visitation of Mary to Saint Elizabeth, Cristoforo Gherardi (c. 1541), currently in the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse | Wikimedia Commons. Note how crowded this scene is as painted by Gherardi. An archetype for the Church, indeed!

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