βρέφος

Luke uses the same word for the newborn Jesus and the unborn John

Today is the Solemnity of the Visitation, commemorating when Mary — in her first trimester — made a 90-mile trip from Nazareth in Galilee to Ein Karem in Judea to tend to her “kinswoman” Elizabeth, in her third trimester. We will celebrate the birth of John the Baptist next month, six months — and at the half year mark — from Christmas.

Luke’s Gospel speaks of quickened children. Remember, as Catholics we do not oppose nature and grace. If Elizabeth was in her third trimester, she undoubtedly felt her son move. But she also discerns a special thing about this day: he leaped when she heard Mary’s greeting. Mothers know these things. This was not some involuntary spasm. As the saying goes, “trust women!”

Luke 1:44 says “the baby (βρέφος) leaped in my womb for joy.” (The same term is in Luke 1:41.) Let’s look at the word Βρέφος:

  • Luke’s βρέφος is not translated as “fetus,” “embryo,” “product of conception,” or “clump of tissue.” It is translated as “baby.”
  • For anybody who thinks some right-to-life mega-MAGA anti-women people are putting words in Luke’s mouth, please check out Luke 2:12 and 2:16. In 2:12, Mary wraps the βρέφος in “swaddling clothes.” That βρέφος is no longer intra-uterine; Jesus has been born. That happened six months after John leapt. Luke uses the same word for John in utero and Jesus ex utero.
  • In 2:16 the shepherds, having heard the angel’s message, go to Bethlehem and find “Mary, Joseph, and the βρέφος” lying in the manger. Again, the same word for the newborn Jesus as the unborn John.
  • Should anybody be surprised? In the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, the identity of someone is known to God even before birth: “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart” (Jer 1:5). Was Yahweh ignorant of gynecology and obstetrics?

I note this very clear Gospel text because there are far too many Christian wolves in pastoral sheep’s clothing who claim one can be Christian and support abortion (in whatever gauzy language, e.g., “the right to choose,” it’s wrapped in). Some of those false prophets even finger Rosaries. Perhaps they should meditate on the second joyful mystery. Today’s Gospel is crystal clear.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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