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.
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.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."
LK 1 : 39-45
Mater Admirabilis
Convent of the Sacred Heart, Malta

Mary's Visit to Elizabeth

An encounter between two pregnant women -- and so much more than that! Advanced in years, Elizabeth has conceived against all odds, not with IVF or the use of a surrogate, but through Divine intervention. And Mary, her young cousin, is with Child by the power of the Holy Spirit. Both women are aware of God's saving power; each knows that her child is destined for a special role in salvation history -- John as the one who will prepare the way and Jesus as the promised Savior. Their joy then, is not just about approaching motherhood. For Elizabeth, of course, the stigma of being barren will finally be removed; Mary, on the other hand, has surrendered to the Divine Will and, in so doing, has placed herself existentially at risk in a culture with zero tolerance for "unwed mothers." Dreams and angelic visions advance the parallel plots of both Matthew and Luke's Infancy Narratives, but after Mary's visit to Elizabeth, it is the story of Jesus' Birth that takes center stage. On a spiritual level, Lk 1:39-45 invites us to believe the impossible and to risk everything for the sake of God's kingdom. Like Mary, we, too, can be bearers of Light, pregnant with God's Word.

The Infancy Narratives

Traditionally, Christians have re-constructed the Christmas Story to include the following elements:
  1. Annunciation (Lk 1: 26-38)
  2. Mary's visit to Elizabeth (Lk 1: 39-56)
  3. Mary's pregnancy; Joseph's dream (Matt 1:18-24)
  4. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the manger (Lk 2:1-7)
  5. The angels' appearance to the shepherds (Lk 2:8-14)
  6. The visit of the shepherds (Lk 2:15-20)
  7. The circumcision and naming of Jesus (Lk 2:21)
  8. The presentation in the Temple (Lk 2:22-40)
  9. The visit of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12)
  10. The flight into Egypt (Matt 2:13-15)
  11. The massacre of the Innocents (Matt 2:16-17)
  12. The return from Egypt (Matt 2:19-23)

Written at a later date than the gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry, Passion and Death, the Infancy Narratives were not intended as "history" but as a post-resurrection reflection on the meaning of the life and death of Jesus. As such, they are filled with references to the prophecies surrounding the Birth of the Messiah to demonstrate that Jesus, in fact, fulfilled these prophecies. There is also material which emphasizes that Jesus is the Son of God from the moment of his conception (the Annunciation) and that his mission is not just to the House of Israel (the shepherds) but also to the Gentiles (the Magi). Moreover, scripture scholars such as Raymond Brown have pointed out that the Infancy Narratives can be read as a mini-passion play which prepares us for Jesus' violent death as an adult; commenting on this, I write, "there are epiphany moments, fear and resistance from the establishment, plots to kill the child, the massacre of the Innocents, the flight into Egypt ...." ( Jesus the Holy Fool , 67).

A Symbolic Approach to the Christmas Story

Though the majority of Christians probably read the Infancy Narratives on a literal level, I personally find that a symbolic approach allows one to go "deeper" into the text --in fact, many devotional practices ranging from the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary to Mexican posedas are based on these much-loved stories. As we move towards the celebration of Christmas, we might want to focus on the themes which speak to us the most -- the shepherds' joy, for example, or the Star that leads the Magi from darkness into light, or Herod's attempt to destroy the Holy Child, or the Magi's gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh...

And then we could go one step further: which people in "real time" are being "locked out of the inn" (literally and metaphorically) and left without even a manger for a sleeping place?
What gifts and "Magi" are being turned away from U.S. borders because of current immigration policies? Who are the "Innocents" that are being massacred at home and abroad because of gun violence and warfare?

Read at its deepest levels, the Christmas Story is not a cosy, re-assuring tale for children, but a story that challenges us to rejoice in the Good News while working towards building a more just society.

  1. What Christmas themes and symbols speak to you the most?
  2. What is the Good News that you long for this Christmas?
  3. What Christmas message does the world need at this time?
  4. How can the real Christmas story shine in a world given over to consumerism?