The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Commentary on Zephaniah 3:14-18 or Romans 12:9-16; Psalm Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 1:39-56

Today’s feast commemorates the visit that Mary, already pregnant with Jesus, made to her older cousin, Elizabeth, who was pregnant with the future John the Baptist. This story is within the Infancy Narrative of Luke’s Gospel, immediately after the account of the Annunciation, when Mary was asked by the angel to become the mother of Jesus. She had given her unconditional assent to the request, even though at first she found it difficult to understand because, although she was already committed in marriage to Joseph, they had not begun to live together. Nevertheless, after the assurance of the angel, she put herself totally in God’s hands:

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. (Luke 1:38)

It is shortly after this that Mary travels south from Galilee to a town in Judah (the province where Jerusalem was located). We are told that she went “in haste” as if keen to congratulate her cousin, who strictly speaking was well beyond the age to have a child. She entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. Immediately, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt in joyful welcome. It is not Mary who makes the child do this, but rather the Child that Mary is carrying.

Elizabeth, inspired by the Spirit, then cries out:

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

And then she asks in surprise,

And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

For there is a surprise here. If anyone should be making the visit, it really should be Elizabeth to the Mother of the Son of God. But no, it is Mary with Jesus who visits. It is an anticipation of something that Jesus will tell his disciples later on:

…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…
(Mark 10:45)

It is part of his kenosis, the self-emptying of Jesus as part of his mission to communicate God’s love to us.

Elizabeth then goes on with words of praise for Mary herself:

And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

It is the faith of Mary in God’s word that she praises. Although not having had intimate relations with any man, her trust in the words of the angel have been vindicated – and she is carrying the Child.

It is then that Mary, in response to Elizabeth’s words, speaks her hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God, a hymn we know as the Magnificat, from its first word in the Latin version. It is a hymn which has many resemblances to the hymn that Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel sings, after she, although past child-bearing age, gives birth to her son (1 Sam 2:1-10).

First of all, Mary thanks God for taking notice of Mary in her lowliness. She was a simple girl living in a small town, someone of no consequence in the eyes of the world. Yet, as she rightly foresees, all ages will call her blessed because he has done such great things for her – called her to be the earthly mother of God’s Son, and the instrument by which he would come to share our human nature. And she has words for all those who submit themselves in loving obedience to God: His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.

On the contrary, it is those who think they are powerful and strong, those who are arrogant in mind and heart, who meet their downfall, while those who accept their lowliness before God are lifted up.

…he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.

The ‘hungry’ are those who are aware that they themselves have nothing and that all is a gift from God. The rich are those who think they have it all when in truth, they have nothing that lasts. It is a teaching that will go right through the Gospel.

Mary, of course, lived out this prayer all during her life as she supported and stood by her Son to the very end. It seemed to end in disaster at the foot of the Cross, but that was not the end. New life, a life that no one can take away, was to come.

There is a choice of two First Readings. The first is from the prophet Zephaniah and reflects the joy of the Visitation, the joy of the two cousins with their children as they greet each other:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!

For indeed the birth of these two children is a cause of joy for all God’s people:

The Lord, your God, is in your midst…he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love…

Yes, their Saviour is already in their midst but they do not know it yet. They will have to wait another 30 years until Jesus appears on the scene and brings the Good News of his Father. But the beginnings of the story are already here in today’s celebration.

The alternate First Reading suggested for today is from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It consists really of instructions on the spirit in which we should live our lives. It summarises, in part, the teaching that Jesus will later communicate to his disciples and all those who make him their Lord. Later, Jesus in his manhood will communicate these lessons not just by his words, but by the way he lives and relates to all those he encounters:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

This is just what we see taking place between Mary and Elizabeth as they meet together. It is the way in which we, too, should behave in dealing with all the people who come into our lives.

Further on, Paul says:

Contribute to the needs of the saints [the hagioi, members of the Christian community]; pursue hospitality…Bless those who persecute you…Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

A challenging programme! But we know that it is the only way to go. Let us, then, today truly give our welcome to Jesus and do that by our every word and action.

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