"During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted 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, ‘Most 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.’" -Luke 1:39-45
Year after year, we hear this reading in the days leading up to Christmas. As we prepare for the day on which we celebrate the Son of God entering the world, we tend to hear this passage and focus on Elizabeth’s words: “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” and “blessed are you who believed.” Rightfully so, we concentrate on Mary’s fiat and, thus, the beginnings of the life of the one who would save us all. However, we may tend to overlook another thing Elizabeth exclaimed: “the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”
John the Baptist would go on to be the great “forerunner of Christ.” As we commemorate the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, we remember that it was he who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. John preached the coming of the Kingdom of God to the thousands that flocked to the desert to hear his preaching. It was he who baptized Christ in the Jordan, thus anointing him for his ministry. John the Baptist’s own ministry goes back to the moment when John, in his mother’s womb, hears the voice of Mary calling. That voice is not just that of a young woman, but a young woman who is the Mother of God. Thus, John, leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, seems to be recognizing and acknowledging the fact that the Lord Himself is present in Mary’s womb.
Several years ago, then-Pope Benedict XVI made a comparison to John’s leap for joy: “Mary, expecting the birth of her Son Jesus, is the Holy Ark that contains the presence of God, a presence that is a source of consolation, of total joy. John, in fact, leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, just as David danced before the Ark.” Benedict reminds us of the scene in 2 Samuel 6 when David dances excitedly as the Ark of the Covenant is brought into Jerusalem. In both cases, the Word of God is physically present. Before John, the Word is Jesus in the womb of Mary. Before David, the Word is in the form of the Ten Commandments within the Ark. For them, being in the presence of the Lord was not something they took lightly. They were not afraid or saddened, they were filled with a joy so immense and so uplifting that the only way they could express themselves was by jumping and dancing.
These Biblical events point to the line at the heart of Pope Francis’ exhortation: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” Faith in Jesus, who is the Word of God incarnate, is not something that should bring us down. It is not something that should feel like an overwhelming burden. When we go to a sports game or another competition, for example, we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting and hoping that our side will come out on top. When our team scores, we jump to our feet and cheer loudly. We clap and sing and even shed some tears. How much more, then, are we call to be excited when we are in the presence of God in the Eucharist or spreading the Good News to those we encounter?
We are invited to witness to our faith gladly, for we believe in a God who loved us so much that He gave His only son to die for our sins so that we might be able to have eternal life with Him (cf Jn 3:16). That kind of love reminds us to live our life of faith happily. Pope Francis once commented, “I cannot imagine a Christian who does not know how to smile.” He was correct. How could a true believer exemplify the love of God with a frown? Let us follow the examples of David and John the Baptist who show us that true faith does not bring about sadness or dread, but instead brings us joy and peace. When we encounter someone who may challenge our beliefs, do not yell and scream back, but face that opposition with grace and a smile. When we go to Mass and notice that those around us may be mumbling their way through the hymns, I invite you to sing loudly and proudly, remembering that you are glorifying God. And when we get tired in our faith lives, let us be reminded of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us and, like John the Baptist, “leap for joy” ourselves.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.