Word of the Week
December 9, 2023
Skirtaō: Exuberant Joy
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Next Sunday our pastor will light a pink candle. As part of the Advent celebration, we are following the tradition of lighting a candle each week to guide our meditation on the meaning of Christ’s coming to earth. The third candle is the Joy Candle. It reminds us that Christmas is preeminently a time of joy. After all, the standard greeting this time of year is “Merry Christmas!”
In the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth, everyone (except Herod) responds with joy. Mary says that her spirit rejoices (Luke 1:47). The angels brought good news of great joy (Luke 2:11). Simeon in the temple “blessed God” (Luke 2:28) and ancient Anna started giving thanks when she saw the baby Jesus (Luke 2:38).
Even a baby in his mother’s womb jumped for joy!
Luke’s account begins when the angel Gabriel informs Zacharias that he and his wife are about to become parents, even though they are way too old. Before long, his wife Elizabeth is pregnant with the baby who will one day be John the Baptist.
Meanwhile, Gabriel appears for a second announcement of a supernatural birth. Mary learns that she is going to be the mother of the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel. The angels adds a footnote: “Even your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age” (Luke 1:36).
No one in Nazareth is going to accept Mary’s story about a virgin birth, but there’s one person who will understand. So she goes to visit Elizabeth.
When Mary walked in the door and greeted Elizabeth, the unborn John “leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). Obviously, I don’t know what it’s like to have a baby leap inside you, but my wife has told me stories about the antics of our children while they were waiting to be born. John was clearly responding to the presence of Jesus.
Let’s look more closely at this unusual interaction between the unborn forerunner and the unborn Messiah. The Greek word for “leap” is skirtaō, and “leap” is the usual translation in English.
In classical Greek, this word was used to describe young horses galloping or sheep bouncing around in play. In the Greek Old Testament, Malachi used it to describe the way calves skip around when they are released from the stall (Malachi 4:2). It’s a picture of sheer exuberance!
I don’t have any sheep or calves around, but I can look out the window of my study and watch chipmunks, rabbits and squirrels. Sometimes a pair of squirrels will chase each other back and forth, playing tag. They look like they’re having so much fun!
Not every instance of leaping is an expression of fun. In Genesis 25:22, Rebekah was pregnant with Jacob and Esau and was startled with how much action was going on inside. She asked the Lord about it, and God explained that this was the beginning of a struggle between two nations. It was a wrestling match, shoving and pushing.
However, the infant John was jumping for joy. Elizabeth explained that “the baby leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:44). The passage says that this happened as Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and John’s spirit was evidently able to sense the presence of Jesus. He was jumping around as much as a baby in the womb can jump. He was excited and happy!
That exuberant reaction was the start of a lifelong attitude of joy. When John started his adult ministry, he pointed people to Christ. And when it became apparent that people were transferring their allegiance from him to Jesus, he responded, “So this joy of mine has been made full” (John 3:29).
The only other New Testament use of skirtaō comes in Luke 6:23, where Jesus tells His followers to leap for joy when they are persecuted, knowing that they will receive a great reward in heaven. Quite a switch from our natural reaction!
As we approach the Christmas season, we can take a hint from the baby John. He was exuberant in joy, so much so that he couldn’t help bouncing around inside his mother. There comes a time when dignity is no virtue. When you consider the greatness of God’s gift to us – really consider it – there will be times when you’ll want to express that joy.
You might be too old or feeble to leap, but you can sing or shout or clap your hands.
You might be too reserved to jump around, but you can join the Christmas carols – loudly!
You might find that you simply shed some tears of joy as you pray.
But one way or another, go beyond just analyzing the theology and bustling through the activities. Let the glad reality of the Incarnation seep deeply into your soul until you overflow with joyful, exuberant gratitude.
Skirtaō occurs several times in the Greek Old Testament and in other Jewish writings:
Joel 1:17 describes the restless movement of calves.
Psalm 114:4 speaks of mountains skipping like rams.
The Jewish philosopher Phil talks about animals that throw off the reins and leap unhindered.
Josephus the Jewish historian tells of an army officer who leaped for joy when his military stratagem was successful.
It sounds like kids streaming out of the building after a long day of school!
As we approach year’s end, we are deluged with ads enticing us to spend big bucks on presents and luxuries. Christmas can seem focused on piling up goodies, but we will look next week at a Greek word that puts possessions in perspective.
©Ezra Project 2023