Next week we celebrate the lovely feast of the Visitation when Mary went to visit her much older cousin, Elizabeth. This came about because Gabriel, the Angel who told her she was to be the mother of Jesus also gave her more extraordinary news when he said Elizabeth was going to have a child. This was unexpected because Elizabeth was past child-bearing age. Mary’s heart compelled her to make this visit to her cousin and as she did so she was being watched over from above.
The two female cousins could be mistaken for mother and daughter and loved each other like sisters, yet they were no longer tied only by bonds of blood. They were now linked by divine intervention, through the love and the will of God.
It is likely that Mary went in haste to see Elizabeth because she was concerned about her, but probably too the deep experience of God that she received at the annunciation is something she needed to share with another who had a divine experience.
John O’Donohue catches the biblical meaning well, imagining the moment Mary and Elizabeth:
Two women locked in the story of birth
Each mirrors the secret the other heard. (Conamara Blues)
They also mirror one another, two pregnant mothers, favoured by God to further the story of salvation.
We do not know exactly where Mary went only that it was located in the hill country of Judah. A tradition going back to the sixth century points to the delightfully situated village of Ain Karim, five miles west of the city of Jerusalem. Elizabeth was married to Zechariah, an Aaronite priest. The couple had been childless for a long time, which in the Jewish context in those days was interpreted as a sign of God’s remoteness. Now, however, Elizabeth was six months pregnant. The two women would remain together for about three months, until just before John was born.
The greeting of the two women is presented as a prophetic event. Elizabeth feels the child ‘leap’ in her womb. The Baptist unborn is already a prophet of the Most High. We are told that Elizabeth ‘was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out loud “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? ” (Lk 1, 41-43).
Elizabeth, then, was the first to recognize Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Many others before Elizabeth had looked towards the day that Israel’s hope would be fulfilled: one day the Messiah would come, the one with whom everything would be different. Now He is here and Elizabeth has the powerful eyes to see him through the womb of her young cousin and proclaim him aloud.
Mary is also filled with the Holy Spirit; in response to the prophetic discourse of her cousin, she pronounces the wonderful and softly powerful Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour: for he has looked upon the lowliness of his handmaiden; for behold this, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” (Luke 1, 46-55).
The Three Blessings
The Evangelist Luke is the evangelist of the Holy Spirit and he celebrates the Spirit’s presence on the blessed day of the Visitation. That bountiful word ‘blessed’ which tells of God’s giving is heard three times.
“Of all women you are the most blessed.” Mary is somebody who was specially chosen by God and addressed by the angel as being full of grace. In 1822, the poet William Wordsworth wrote a sonnet called The Virgin, in which, though a Protestant he praised Mary:
‘Woman! Above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.’
“Blessed is the fruit of your womb: In this second blessing, Elizabeth celebrates how the grace bestowed upon Mary will be the source of divine fruitfulness for all of us.
The graces that God offers have to be accepted in total trust. This is where Elizabeth recognised Mary’s third blessedness. “Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Perhaps Elizabeth was thinking of her husband Zechariah, who doubted the angel’s promise and lost the power of speech until John was born. Mary expressed her total acceptance of the annunciation. “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
The Visitation is mentioned only in Luke’s Gospel.
‘For your choice of Elizabeth,
Pregnant much later than she dreamed,
For your choice of Mary,
Pregnant much sooner than she expected:
We bless you, Father, with a full heart.’
(From ‘Prayer’, pg. 22, Praying the Rosary , a journey through scripture and art, Denis McBride)
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan