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The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives

Mary Visits Elizabeth

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In a scene that links the announcements of the births to the births themselves, Mary visits her kinswoman Elizabeth. She discovers that the sign given by Gabriel about Elizabeth’s pregnancy is indeed correct. Luke is the only New Testament author who establishes a blood relationship between Jesus and the Baptizer. This probably relates to his interest in comparing the two figures, with Jesus always emerging as preeminent. Elizabeth addresses Mary as the “mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43) and blesses her as one who believed what God told her (Lk 1:45). This continues Luke’s presentation of Mary as worthy of admiration, not so much because she was Jesus’ mother, but because she models discipleship. Mary answers with the first of Luke’s “canticles,” the Magnificat, which draws heavily upon the song of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel.

Many biblical researchers think that Luke’s canticles are adaptations of psalms developed by early Jewish believers in Jesus Crucified and Raised. These “Jews in Christ” used standard methods of knitting together biblical phrases into their lyrics. They revered Jesus as the one who fulfills their hopes for the rescue of Israel, especially in Davidic terms. The songs may also reflect the situation of the anawim, or “poor ones” in Israel, who in their weakness rely on God alone. Luke may have taken such early Jesus-songs, adapted them, and wove them into his story of Jesus’ birth.

In the Magnificat, Mary begins by describing herself as one “of low estate,” a “handmaiden,” just as earlier to Gabriel she had called herself the handmaid of the Lord. So, too, Hannah had prayed for God to “look with pity on the low estate of your handmaid.”  For Luke, Mary symbolizes the lowly ones whom God rescues. She then rejoices in the reversals that the Lord brings upon the poor and rich. This also parallels Hannah’s song, but in addition anticipates the beatitudes and woes that the Lucan Jesus will utter in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke chapter 6. The Magnificat also anticipates the words of the Lucan Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue about bringing glad tidings to the poor and oppressed.

Importantly, all of these divine deeds that Mary praises are seen to be in accord with God’s covenant with Abraham. Only the phrase “all generations will call me blessed” explicitly applies to Mary. The other words of the Magnificat represent the hopes and dreams of Israel’s poor. The Magnificat thus emphasizes God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel and the Lucan Mary’s role as the model of discipleship.