Many commentators have rightly noted that Luke’s Gospel is filled with both hospitality and the Holy Spirit. Hospitality is evident in Luke’s frequent mention of food and feasting, as well as in encounters between “others” (e.g., Jews and gentiles, women and men), while S/spirit is named repeatedly, especially in the first half of the Gospel: a form of pneuma shows up 34 times in Luke – far more often than in the other Gospels – and 69 times in Acts. Luke’s pneumatological emphasis is clear from his first chapter, where pneuma appears seven times in critical and relational ways, as both the divine Holy Spirit and the core spirit of human persons. In this post, I will engage with Luke 1 to explore the fruitful interplay of these Lukan foci, S/spirit and hospitality.
The foundational opening chapter of Luke narrates the Holy Spirit as actively engaged in divine-to-human and human-to-human meetings and speech: Gabriel announces to Zechariah that the son of his old age will be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” even in utero (1:15); the same heavenly messenger proclaims to the perplexed Mary, a virgin, that she will conceive a child by the power of “the Holy Spirit [that] will come upon you” (1:35); when the pregnant Elizabeth receives Mary in her home, the Holy Spirit prompts a joyful welcome from the older woman (1:41); and Zechariah, his tongue finally unstopped, receives the very gift promised to his son, and the exultant father, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks words of prophecy and praise (1:67). These episodes reveal a Spirit who crosses the barriers between heaven and earth, between human impossibility and divine promise – a gracious Presence who enters even into closed hearts and wombs to bring life and joy.
Present also in this chapter is human spirit (lower-case), both distinguishable from and enmeshed with Spirit. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, it is promised, will prepare the way for the Lord “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:17); after John’s birth, Luke reports, the child “grew and became strong in spirit” as he made the wilderness – now barren but later filled with crowds – his home (1:80). And Mary, rejoicing with Elizabeth about their blessed pregnancies, proclaims, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (1:48).
The narrative arc of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s intertwining story/ies in Luke 1 is particularly rich with respect to the relation of hospitality and S/spirit. Elizabeth, once isolated from her neighbors in the disgrace of childlessness, is being drawn into community through God’s activity, through which she is host to both the unborn-John and the Spirit who fills him. For the five months since her conception, though, she has been in seclusion from others. Mary, through the power of the same Spirit, has become host, in the most intimate of ways, to the Son of God. The electing and overshadowing God has “hosted” her in the divine household, and she in turn has received God as guest, through her faithfully hospitable response to the annunciation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38). Now Mary hastens from her home in Galilee to Judea, eager to be the guest of her relative Elizabeth, whose seclusion she breaks. Elizabeth’s hospitality to her younger relative – or is it the hospitality of her fetal son or that of the Spirit . . . or can such distinctions even be made? – wells up from within: the child jumps in her belly, and the mother cries out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (1:41-3). Mary, responding to Elizabeth’s warm blessing and embrace, sings her signature spiritual song (see Col. 3:16), “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:46-48). So complete is Elizabeth’s hospitality that her guest stays for three months. Mary leaves soon before Elizabeth gives birth, but Elizabeth is not left alone, for her S/spirit draws in neighbors and relatives who rejoice together with her when her child is born ((1:58).
The dance of S/spirit and hospitality, guest and host, human and divine, is beautifully evident in this story. Hospitality abounds: God to Mary, Mary to the Son of God, Elizabeth to the Spirit, the mothers to their sons, Elizabeth to Mary, the Gospel to the women . . . The hospitality is reciprocal, blurring fixed definitions of guest and host, and filled with both wonder and rejoicing, giving a doxological tone to the account. Who sings in the Magnificat, Mary or the Spirit? The fertile ambiguity of pneuma – encompassing Spirit, spirit, ghost, wind, and breath – blows open a hospitable and broad space of encounter in which distinct persons interact intimately, almost perichoretically. The Spirit who is the love between the Father and the Son in the Trinity goes forth to inspire analogous encounters among human creatures, including strangers. While Elizabeth and Mary are admittedly not estranged others, the same Spirit who creates their hospitality of spirit will also, especially in Acts, bring together those who are dramatically separated, as in the story of Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10).
In sum, Luke 1 depicts how the true spirit of hospitality is enabled and embodied by and in the Spirit. As Amy Oden says, “The spirit that gives life to hospitality is . . . humility and gratitude, arising as a response to God’s initiating grace” (100). God initiates, the women respond with modesty and thankfulness, and the relatives participate in a broadening, deepening hospitality that draws together the Trinity, the two of them, their yet-unborn sons, and ultimately all of God’s chosen people, both Jew and gentile.