Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame
Formerly commemorated on July 2, the liturgical calendar revision authorized by Bl. Pope Paul VI places the feast of the Visitation on May 31—after the Annunciation (March 25) and before the Birthday of St. John the Baptist (June 24). This year, the feast coincides with the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity and therefore will not be celebrated liturgically; nevertheless, it is well worthwhile to contemplate the mystery of the Visitation, and to ponder how it might be connected to the Trinitarian mystery.
In his 1974 Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI noted that “the liturgy (of the Visitation) recalls the Blessed Virgin carrying her Son within her and visiting Elizabeth to offer charitable assistance and to proclaim the mercy of God” (§7). Hence, this encounter of two pregnant relatives recorded in Luke’s Gospel is not just a friendly family reunion. The Visitation is a salvific event occurring at the intersection of the old and new covenant. Elizabeth, a type of the Old Testament’s promise, meets in Mary the New Testament’s fulfillment of her own destiny. Both find themselves in an extraordinary situation: an unwed teenager and a married woman who is beyond the age of child bearing. We can only imagine the sentiments with which each greets the other. Was there pure joy? Or was there also room for fear and unsettledness?
Scripture tells us that “Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea” (Lk 1:39). She travels the strenuous way of approximately 90 miles in intimate union with the Savior growing within her, confident that God accompanies her into the unknown future. The betrothed youth, still overwhelmed by what the angel had told her, needs this time away from Nazareth in order to ponder the incredible message that changed the course of her life and that of all generations to come. Who would believe her? She could hardly fathom this mystery herself! How will Joseph, her betrothed, react? Will he still marry her and assume the duties of parenthood of his foster son, or will he accuse her of disloyalty?
The narration of the Visitation offers an insight into Mary’s encounter with a human being after the Annunciation who not only made public Mary’s secret but who also shared in the mystery. How consoling it must have been for Mary to be welcomed by her relative whose embrace shelters, affirms, and encourages the “Mother of the Lord.”
St. John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Mater: “When Elizabeth’s greeting bears witness to that culminating moment [i.e. the Annunciation], Mary’s faith acquires a new consciousness and a new expression” (§36).
The simultaneous invisible encounter of their unborn children is even more significant. Luke notes that John leaps in his mother’s womb, as a result of “seeing Jesus.” Tradition maintains that at this moment Elizabeth’s baby was sanctified in his mother’s womb (cf. Lk 1:15) in anticipation of his mission as the precursor of his cousin, the Messiah.
Like all mothers, Mary and Elizabeth knew that their “Yes” to their children was not a one-time decision. Many new affirmations were needed as new paths and challenges open up. Did these two holy women also experience the dilemma between a ready Yes to God’s will and a trembling, hesitating Yes in view of the consequences? Were there long sleepless nights during which they tried to grasp the scope of God’s will for them? In such situations it is good to be in a net of relationships through which this Yes is mutually supported and protected. The narrative of the Visitation is one of the most beautiful stories of family bonds recorded in Sacred Scripture. Mary feels at home with her relatives and gives expression to her “joy of spirit” in the Magnificat.
Mary remained three months with her relatives, devoting her time and assistance to the elderly couple. Above all, she brings the Christ Child to this house, providing the most fitting ambience for their baby to be born. Overwhelmed by this bliss, Zechariah eventually regains his ability to speak and is able to profess: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them” (Lk 1:68).
What does the encounter at the house of Elizabeth and Zachariah teach us? The Visitation highlights that the first journey of the Son of God after having been conceived in His mother’s womb was to a couple in crisis. This finds resonance with the challenges faced by married couples and families throughout the world today. Pope Francis is presently devoting his Wednesday audiences to the dignity and challenge of matrimony and family life. Two synods on the family as well as the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia are proof of the Church’s endeavor to fortify couples in their calling.
Where is the family without problems and worries, where everything runs perfectly and all are of one heart and mind? Aren’t we all in need of a visitation? Why not invite Mary to bring her Son into our homes? Then “salvation and joy” will also visit our family, helping all to love one another more faithfully, to become not just a group of people living under the same roof, but a communion of persons—a more faithful reflection of the divine love shared by the Persons of the Trinity. And it is here that we perhaps find a fitting connection between the mystery of the Visitation and the Solemnity being celebrated this Sunday, May 31.