I’m glad Luke included the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth while both young women were pregnant with their sons and the notion that John the Baptist “leaped in his mother’s womb” when the pre-natal Jesus came near. What a memorable way to begin the account of these two men’s lives and their complicated relationship!
It’s pretty clear that John had a greater following than Jesus, at least in the early days. Whether or not he had spent some time in the Essene community where he was exposed to the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” John would not have been comfortable there for long. The Essenes had chosen withdrawal from the world in the face of the oppressive Roman government in typical monastic fashion. John wanted to change the world.
He rails against the Empire and even confronts Herod for marrying his brother-in-law’s wife, eventually becoming such a nuisance and possible threat that Herod has him executed. It seems clear that John and his disciples and Jesus and his disciples co-existed for some time and may have even been friendly rivals.
So popular was John that the gospel writers take some pains to make it clear that John considered Jesus his superior (even though Jesus had once said that “there was none greater than John the Baptist) and was quite content to “decrease” so that his cousin might “increase” in popularity and influence among the people.
Mary and Elizabeth must have wondered about all this. Early on, they sensed that their sons would be destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel,’ but even they could not possibly have imagined the impact their boys would have. John, the last of the great Hebrew prophets; Jesus, the anointed one for whom they had waited so long!
Perhaps it could be said of both mothers, as Luke’s gospel has it said about Mary:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”