The Quickening of St. John the Baptist

“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

The imagination of artists and poets has long been transfixed by this scene from Luke’s Infancy narrative. And no wonder! John, the unborn child of Elizabeth, feels the Lord drawing near and leaps in his mother’s body with the joy of discovery.

It is curious that some thirty years later, the very same John, now John the Baptist, confesses to the crowd as Jesus approaches on the banks of the Jordan, “I myself did not know him.” John did not know Jesus, he repeats, until he saw the Spirit descend upon him and say, “This is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” (Jn 1:29-34)

Thus, Scene One: the unborn child, hidden in watery darkness, senses that Jesus draws near and leaps for joy in his mother’s womb. Scene Two: the adult man, in the full light of day, does not recognize the Lord until the Spirit opens the eyes of his heart. The difference between these two scenes is worth pondering.

How is it that the unborn child in the womb is better able to know Jesus than the adult man in the full light of day? The former “knows” by way of feeling, by multisensory perception from within the mother’s body; the latter stands alone, and would know, typically, by way of empirical-rational processes. Or better, perhaps we can say, that mysterious prenatal way of knowing-as-feeling-while-tethered-to-another was reanimated in John by the same movement of the Holy Spirit that stirred his grasp of Christ from within the dark watery womb.

In a marvelous poem of 1949, “The Quickening of St. John the Baptist,” Thomas Merton wonders at this prenatal encounter between John and Jesus. For Merton the womb of Elizabeth becomes a kind of figure for the monk’s cell, and more broadly, those silent rooms where every Christian prays in longing and expectation for the coming of God into the world: 

The day Our Lady, full of Christ, / Entered the dooryard of her relative
Did not her steps, light steps, lay on the paving leaves like gold? / Did not her eyes as grey as doves / Alight like the peace of a new world upon that house, upon miraculous Elizabeth?

Her salutation / Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John / Wakes in his mother’s body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery.

Sing in your cell, small anchorite! / How did you see her in the eyeless dark? / What secret syllable / Woke your young faith to the mad truth
That an unborn baby could be washed in the Spirit of God? / Oh burning joy!

What seas of life were planted by that voice!
With what new sense
Did your wise heart receive her Sacrament,
And know her cloistered Christ?

The poem dares the reader to imagine herself with the child in the womb of Elizabeth, and to ponder the crucial question: How will I know—how will I feel, in my whole person—when the living Christ approaches? Are my senses fully alive so that even in this “eyeless dark,” even in “this stone valley,” I am alert to the divine good that hides in all things, in every person who comes before me?

What secret syllable will wake your faith to the mad truth that your Lord approaches?

Merton at Fourth and Walnut wondered precisely about this gift of seeing other human beings, former aliens and strangers to us, shining like the sun: “I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

That wonderful word “quickening” implies that something primordial trembles and breaks open within us, like a mustard seed, and begins to come alive (again). We might call it faith, or hope, or love, or radical empathy, or mercy. Where once our hearts were closed, our minds rigid, our imaginations blocked with weariness or fear, apathy or cynicism, the great promise of the Gospel trembles and breaks the heart open again.

Behold! In the book of life and in the story of the human-planetary community, there are many more pages yet to be written. The seeds of divine-human possibility lay dormant in all things, so long as the eyes of our hearts, the senses of the whole body, remain open. And open together.

Returning again to John, we tend to picture the Baptist as a wild and lonely figure, a solitary crying out in the desert, feeding on locusts and honey. With a twinge of horror we might even picture his severed head, lying inert on the gilded platter of a lustful king. But long before these climactic moments, God, it seems, was quietly preparing him to prepare the way for the Lord in the rhythmic pulse of his mother’s womb, attuning all his spiritual senses.

As Merton’s poem intimates, Advent for us is a period of learning to see again “in the eyeless dark.” No less than John, child of Elizabeth, son of Israel, the seeds of Christ-awareness are planted in us from before the very beginning, seeds that begin flowering into flesh in our mother’s womb.

It could only be thus. We are never born — and never reborn — alone. The eyes of the heart are first opened by our mothers, tethered to her beating heart, first within and then beyond the womb. And then by many others, kin and strangers alike, who become mothers and fathers to us, sisters and brothers, midwives of the Holy Spirit’s quickening in our hearts. In truth, each of us can be that gift for others, reflecting God’s Advent into the world, shining like the sun.

Sing in your cell, small anchorite! In this holy season, in this year of intensified darkness, may God give us the courage to believe it to be so.  

Mary Visits Elizabeth
by Steve Gamba

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