IN HIS SCM commentary on Luke, C. F. Evans makes a big claim for this passage from the Gospel, calling it a “linchpin from both a literary and theological point of view”. He is right that Luke does not give us this glimpse of Jesus’s family background simply to add a bit of context, or help us feel that we have a hero with an emotional hinterland. Nothing that Luke tells us here is mere decorative detail.
What unfolds through the encounter between the two pregnant women is a fusing together of their stories, and of the stories of their two sons. One is angelically announced to his father, the other to his mother. One is conceived through a minor miracle (but not one unknown in scripture: 1 Samuel 1.1-2.10), the other through a unique one. One, it will emerge as their stories unfold, may be senior in time, but the other will be infinitely senior in status.
We cannot know for sure, but it is interesting to speculate whether Luke was trying to establish a hierarchy of divine inspiration. When Jesus appeared to be baptised by John, at the start of his years of ministry, it might have seemed as though, at most Mary’s son could only be an Elisha to John the Baptist’s Elijah. Certainly, all four Evangelists, in different ways, insist that John himself understood his own position to be that of a forerunner. He was a holy man in the old style: a prophet like Micah, looking forward beyond the difficulties of the present (this would be clearer if Micah 5.1 were included in the lection) to a time of peace. Jesus would turn out to be something — someone — altogether different.
So much we can glean from looking at how the story is constructed, and from comparing it with similar texts (Evans’s “literary point of view”). Now we turn to the theology. What have Christians reasoned from this passage? The first thing that comes to my mind may not be the most obvious, but it matters to me, because I took the name of John-Baptist at my ordination, to ally myself with the saint whose calling it was constantly to speak the truth.
John’s leaping in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth, is a normal part of later pregnancy. It’s fun to watch your child’s head roll from one side of your swollen belly to the other. Yet the Church has made even more of this movement than Elizabeth could have done. For her, it was a sign that her own son had recognised Jesus, not only as kin, but as Lord. For later generations of Christians, that leap of joy came to be the mark of the Holy Spirit at work in John. This pre-natal gracing with the Spirit is — for him alone, save for Mary herself, among the saints — the reason that Christians celebrate his nativity (24 June) rather than his death as his principal feast. And it is why white is the colour of that feast.
In such theology, meaning accumulates over time. Layers of faith and reason are laid down like the deposits of sediment which time and pressure turn gradually from mud into rock. From a practical point of view, it also does away with what might otherwise have been a problem: that John died before the salvific death of his Lord. Another solution for that difficulty emerged later as a way to incorporate other righteous people in John’s position: the harrowing of hell. But that was not adequate for John’s unique place in the story. In the history of Christianity he had earned his interstitial place, one foot in the Old Testament world of the prophets, the other in the New Testament world of the Church.
Sometimes we need to think outside the realm of the familiar to make sense of people who don’t fit neatly into our categories. We can see the author of Hebrews using what he knows about sacrifice and priesthood to make sense of how he — a Christian — experienced the death of Christ. We should notice that, when the old categories of sacrifice and priesthood are not adequate for the task, he does not reshape Christ to fit the categories. Instead, he redefines the categories to be true to God’s Son — as he encountered him then; and as we still do today.