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 comes in 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:

See, I am the slave girl of the Lord. Let it happen to me just as you have said.

It is shortly after this that Mary travels south from Galilee to a town in Judah (the province where Jerusalem was). 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,

How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant 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 has come to serve and not to be served.

It is part of this 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.

Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.

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.

The hungry he fills with good things while the rich are sent empty away.

The ‘hungry’ are those who are aware that they have nothing of themselves 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.

Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, Jerusalem!

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

The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst…The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty saviour. He will rejoice over you with gladness and 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 sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honour.

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], exercise hospitality…Bless those who persecute you…Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If possible, on your part, live in peace with all…”

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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