The lovely month of May – Mary’s month, the month of the Mother of God – comes to a close most beautifully with one of the most moving Marian feasts, the Feast of the Visitation. Recounted in the Gospel of Saint Luke (1:39 – 56), the passage describes Our Lady’s journey from her home in Nazareth to the hill country of Judea to spend time with her kinswoman Elizabeth; but this was no typical visit.
Why not? What makes the idea of a “visitation” different or special? Father Peter John Cameron, O.P., explains it this way: Unlike a mere visit, “a visitation is an encounter that carries within it a meaning that is significant or even exceptional” (Mysteries of the Virgin Mary: Living Our Lady’s Graces). The feast upon which we reflect certainly embodies those characteristics.
One notable aspect of this journey is that Mary undertook it “in haste” (Lk 1:39). Despite being past child-bearing age and barren, Elizabeth had been reported by the Angel Gabriel as in the sixth month of pregnancy. Perhaps it was this remarkable revelation which spurred Mary, newly pregnant herself, to begin her lengthy journey quickly, to be of service to her older relative. Then again, we cannot discount the influence of the Holy Spirit, whose workings run like a golden thread weaving throughout this inspirational account featuring two very holy mothers-to-be.
It is beautiful to imagine the joy of their meeting, the wonder of Mary and Elizabeth at the mysterious workings of God in their lives and within their bodies, the powerful connection they felt – united by blood, gender, and the salvation history en-fleshed in the babies they carried.
The original Ark of the Covenant had ensured the presence of God among the ancient Israelites; as the Ark of the New Covenant, Mary carried God Himself within her to Judea. Cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is the daughter of Zion in person, the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells” (2676).
Other important aspects of the Visitation paralleled by Old Testament events include these:
~ The Second Book of Samuel relates King David’s joy as he accompanied the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, leaping and dancing before it (6:14, 16); the unborn John the Baptist leaped for joy at the presence of Jesus within Mary’s womb (Lk 1:41).
~ As to the question of worthiness: David wondered, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9); while Elizabeth asked, “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43).
~ Regarding the location of these events, both David and Mary “arose and went,” according to one translation (2 Sam 6:2; Lk 1:39), journeying to the same area – the hill country of Judea. God’s plan of salvation – foretold in the Old Testament, carried to fruition in the New.
Charity, service, and humility were hallmarks of this episode in the life of Our Lady. Mary, the personification of charity, would have helped with household chores and offered emotional support during those final months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Elizabeth, for her part, could provide insights into what to expect as Mary’s own pregnancy progressed.
Throughout the gentle, peaceful days of their three months together, the kinswomen shared many happy, Spirit-filled moments – while within them grew the Messiah and the one who was to announce His coming.
Theirs was a perfect example of woman-helping-woman, blessing both giver and receiver – all the while marveling at the goodness of God.
As beautiful as this reciprocal relationship between Mary and Elizabeth was, their womanhood was elevated and magnified even more greatly by the roles they were given to play; by the very nature of the babies in their respective wombs. Still, Mary’s humility was evident from the outset of their meeting – in her heartfelt song of praise and thanksgiving, the Magnificat (Lk 1:46 – 55).
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.
Commenting on this Marian hymn in a 2013 address, Pope Francis stated, “[Mary’s] Magnificat is the canticle of the People of God on a journey, and of all men and women who hope in God and in the power of his mercy.”
God’s mercy, power, and care for His people are threads running through Mary’s song of praise. Her heart overflowed with love as the lowly one upon whom God had showered the greatest of all possible blessings – the presence of His own Son within her. One most humble and unassuming had been raised to spiritual heights she never could have imagined. She had been privileged to become the Theotokos, the bearer of God.
Returning to Father Cameron, we read: “The Blessed Virgin’s initial impulse, once God takes up residence in her body, is to bear that presence to others ….. In the Visitation the Mother of God draws us toward that invisible presence who is our strength.”
Mary continues to ensure Jesus’ presence among us today. In this is the crux of the Visitation message: Mary accompanies us, God’s people, on our own journey – our journey to Him.
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