Feast: Liturgical Color: White
Only in the Catholic Church would a Feast Day first celebrated in the 13th century be considered “new.” But that is when the Visitation first appeared in some liturgical calendars. Our oldest liturgical feasts date from the apostolic period. That is, they were likely celebrated by the Apostles themselves in the years immediately following the earthly life of Christ. The original historical events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday transformed into liturgical events so rapidly and so naturally that the earliest Christian writings are of a liturgical nature. Other Feast Days, such as Christmas, Mary the Mother of God, and the Birth of John the Baptist had to wait their turn. They are ancient but cede pride of place to the core foundational events of Holy Week, just as America’s Presidents’ Day must cede to Independence Day. Without a country, there would no presidents, and without a death and resurrection, there would be no Christianity or Christian calendar in the first place.
The Visitation falls, liturgically, when it happened historically. Mary conceived Jesus Christ in late March. The birth of St. John the Baptist occurred in late June. And it was between these two bookends that pregnant Mary visited her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Perhaps it was in late May. We may be surprised with joy in heaven to discover that many of our biblically based feast days are commemorated on the exact historical dates they occurred. Would God deceive us otherwise? After all, no good Father would tell the family to celebrate his son’s birthday on a date the son wasn’t born.
It is the Gospel of St. Luke that recounts for us so many details of the life of Mary that otherwise remain untold. St. John writes at the end of his Gospel that Jesus did and said many other things which are not written down. Perhaps the same could be said of Mary. Many words were spoken, gestures made, and events transpired, yet so much remains a mystery. Yet if we knew all that there was to know about God and the things of God, then heaven would be a bore, and not be heaven at all.
The Visitation is the first time that Mary publicly exercises her role as Mediator of the Son of God. God chose not only to become a man but to become such in the same way that all men do, through gestation and birth, with his virginal conception the sole miracle. Catholicism is a religion that believes in secondary causality. God rarely directly intervenes in creation, but instead invites His creatures to perfect His creation. God did not cure the cancer. The skilled surgeon removed the tumor. He used the gifts God gave him. It was not a direct intervention. It was not a miracle. It was the doctor’s mind and hands being put to their highest use. Mary generously accepted to mediate the Incarnation, placing her body at God’s disposition. She, the Mother of the Church, carries the entire Church in her womb. She, the Ark of the Covenant, houses a treasure more precious than Moses’ stone tablets of old. And she, the Morning Star, shines in the blackness before the blazing sun rises in the east, dawning a new day.
Christ’s presence in Mary’s womb radiates outward with x-ray power and reverberates in words and gestures of faith and praise from Elizabeth and her child, John. Jesus’ cousin leaps for joy inside his mother. And Elizabeth first speaks those graceful words, which countless voices will pray, in countless languages, many billions of times in the centuries since, now, and in the ages to come: “Blessed are you among women, and Blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” The Visitation is one of the sources of the Hail Mary.
Elizabeth is a prophet. We are her hearers. For a prophecy to be a prophecy, it has to come true. Elizabeth’s words were true and are true. Mary is blessed among women, and her fruit has changed the world itself. Mary’s humility instinctively deflects. She praises the source of all goodness, God, rather than the goodness in her own generosity. All things, save evil, can be traced back to God. Mary is at the head of the trail in clearing the weeded path neglected since the sin of Eve, mankind close behind, leading them back to discover anew the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty.
Mary and Elizabeth, your generosity in cooperating with God’s will initiated the events of the New Testament. May we be equally generous in cooperating with God’s plans for our lives, knowing the beginning but not the end, sparking a fire that warms the lives of unknown others.
THE angel Gabriel, in the mystery of the Annunciation, informed the Mother of God that her cousin Elizabeth had miraculously conceived, and was then pregnant with a son who was to be the precursor of the Messias. The Blessed Virgin out of humility concealed the wonderful dignity to which she was raised by the incarnation of the Son of God in her womb, but, in the transport of her holy joy and gratitude, determined she would go to congratulate the mother of the Baptist. “Mary therefore arose,” saith St. Luke, “and with haste went into the hilly country into a city of Judea, and entering into the house of Zachary, saluted Elizabeth.” What a blessing did the presence of the God-man bring to this house, the first which He honored in His humanity with His visit! But Mary is the instrument and means by which He imparts to it His divine benediction, to show us that she is a channel through which He delights to communicate to us His graces, and to en, courage us to ask them of Him through her intercession. At the voice of the Mother of God, but by the power and grace of her divine Son in her womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost, and the Infant in her womb conceived so great a joy as to leap and exult. At the same time Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost, and by His infused light she understood the great mystery of the Incarnation which God had wrought in Mary, whom humility prevented from disclosing it even to a Saint, and an intimate friend. In raptures of astonishment Elizabeth pronounced her blessed above all other women, and cried out, “Whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary, hearing her own praise, sunk the lower in the abyss of her nothingness, and in the transport of her humility, and melting in an ecstasy of love and gratitude, burst into that admirable canticle, the Magnificat. Mary stayed with her cousin almost three months, after which she returned to Nazareth.
Reflection.—Whilst with the Church we praise God for the mercies and wonders which He wrought in this mystery, we ought to apply ourselves to the imitation of the virtues of which Mary sets us a perfect example. From her we ought particularly to learn the lessons by which we shall sanctify our visits and conversation, actions which are to so many Christians the sources of innumerable dangers and sins.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.