The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Archangel Gabriel, while announcing to the Blessed Virgin Mary the mystery of the Incarnation, informed her also of the fact that her cousin Elizabeth, who, advanced in years, had long been barren, was about to be blessed with a son. Mary rejoiced greatly at this news, and having given thanks to the Almighty for the priceless grace of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, she hastened to visit her cousin. This, however, was not done, as some heretics maintain, because she doubted the words of the Angel; for, Elizabeth herself, when already filled with the Holy Ghost, proved the contrary by the words with which she received the Virgin: “Blessed art thou that hast believed.” Quite different were the reasons which led Mary to make this visit. I shall here give two of them, taken from the holy Fathers of the Church. The first is from St. Chrysostom, who says: “The Son of God, who came into the world to save mankind, desired, immediately on His entering the world, to prove His love for man, and fulfil the divine office of Redeemer. Hence He moved the heart of His holy mother, in whose virginal womb He was concealed, to visit her cousin Elizabeth, in order that by His presence He might cleanse His fore-runner, John, whom his mother still carried in her bosom, from original sin. He could have done this while absent, but He intended to give us a glorious example of humility, in visiting one who was so infinitely below Him. “The greater,” says St Ambrose, “went to the lesser: Jesus to John.”
The second reason is from St. Jerome, who thus writes: “As the Virgin greatly rejoiced at the favor the Almighty had bestowed on her pious cousin Elizabeth, she desired to manifest her joy to the latter, to congratulate her, and to give thanks and praise with her to the divine Mercy which had bestowed upon both of them such great benefits. Besides this it was her intention–which she also carried into effect–to wait on her cousin, who was already in the decline of life. Perhaps also, the great favor which our Lord would bestow upon Elizabeth and the yet unborn John by this visit, was revealed to her. Certain it is that her object was most holy, and that she left us a splendid example of humility and kindness, showing us that we must not only love our neighbors, but also assist and visit them, and, according to circumstances, serve them, regardless of their being much lower than we; as she, the Blessed Virgin, although raised to the highest dignity as the mother of the Lord, hesitated not to visit and assist her cousin, who was so much below her. Actuated by these motives, Mary set out, and went from Nazareth to the city of Hebron, which belongs to the tribe of Juda. According to some authors, this city is 38 or 40 miles from Nazareth, and could be reached only by travelling over a hilly country; hence this journey was very fatiguing for so delicate a maiden as Mary. But she undertook it rejoicingly.
The Gospel says: “She went into the hill country with haste.” Why with haste? Not only to show her joy and willingness, but also, as Origen writes: ” Because the Saviour, concealed in her bosom, desired to cleanse His precursor and to sanctify him; “or, as St. Ambrose says, “because Mary was filled with the Holy Ghost, who is never satisfied with hesitating and tarrying.” The love within her, the grace of the Holy Ghost, persuaded Mary to hasten. Mary went hastily over the mountains that she might the sooner return to her beloved solitude. She did not wish to be for a long time out of her house. This additional reason is given by the above cited St. Ambrose, who adds: “Learn from it, maidens, not to wander about in strange houses, nor to remain in the streets, nor to hold long conversations in public places.” Having arrived at Hebron and entered her cousin’s house, she joyfully greeted Elizabeth, and at the same moment a twofold miracle happened. John, still in his mother’s womb, leaped with joy, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. This leaping is regarded by the Holy Fathers as a more than natural movement of the child, and at the same time as a sign that John, endowed, by especial grace of God, with the light of reason, recognized by revelation, in the virginal womb of Mary, the presence of his Saviour, and, full of joy, worshipped Him. “He recognized the Lord in the mother’s womb, and greeted Him with exultation,” says St. Irenaeus. It is the opinion of the Holy Fathers that John was at that time cleansed from original sin and filled with the Holy Ghost. For, the Angel who had announced his birth, had, at the same time, foretold that he should be filled with the Holy Ghost while still in his mother’s womb.
Elizabeth was also filled with the Holy Ghost when she heard Mary’s greeting, and recognized by divine revelation that Mary would become the mother of the Incarnate Word. Hence she cried: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” With these words Elizabeth proclaimed that Mary was raised by God above all other women, and was more than all others blessed, because she had become the mother of Him who is the source of all graces and blessings. On account of the blessed, and more than blessed fruit of her womb, namely, on account of the only-begotten Son of God, whom she was carrying in her virginal womb, is she blessed, blessed far above all human kind. Thus spoke Elizabeth, full of the Holy Ghost; and it is to be remarked that those who deny this, like the heretics, do not speak filled with the Holy Ghost, with the Spirit of Truth, but prompted by the spirit of falsehood. Wherever the Holy Ghost has spoken out of the mouth of man, He has praised the Virgin. Whoever, therefore, speaks of her disparagingly, does not speak the words of the Holy Ghost, but those of the spirit of error.
After Elizabeth had thus praised Mary and exalted her above all women, she said, full of deep surprise: “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She esteemed herself not worthy to be visited by the mother of her Lord, as in later years, her son esteemed himself not worthy to loose the latchets of His shoes. Hereupon, she related what had happened to her child, how it had leaped for joy and added: “Blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.” This proves that she knew by revelation what had taken place in the Blessed Virgin and what the Angel had further prophesied. Mary, the Divine Mother, heard all this, but her deep humility allowed her not to elevate herself in the least on account of it. She recognized that all that was done to her was done by the grace of the Almighty, to whom she therefore owed praise and thanks. Hence she sang a hymn of praise which far surpassed all those sung by Moses and his sister, by Anna and Deborah, Ezechias and the three companions of Daniel. In this hymn of praise, she first exalts the Lord for the graces which He had bestowed upon her; secondly, for the favors which He had bestowed on His people before the arrival of Christ; and finally, for the fulfilment of the promises in regard to the Incarnation of His only-begotten Son. The beginning of this hymn is as follows: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Volumes are filled with commentaries on this mysterious hymn of praise, and the Christian Church uses it daily in the office, to thank and praise the Almighty for the immeasurable grace of the Incarnation.
This is what we know from Holy Writ of the history of today’s festival; and it is only to be added that the visitation of Mary conferred great blessings to the house of Elizabeth. These were without doubt augmented by the prolonged sojourn of Mary, who, as the Gospel relates, remained with her cousin almost three months. If the Almighty richly blessed the house of Obededom, because, as Holy Writ tells us, the Ark of the Covenant was kept there during three months, how great must have been the blessings He bestowed upon the house of Zacharias and Elizabeth, whilst the living Ark of the New Testament, the Blessed Virgin, remained there. St. Ambrose entertains no doubt that the purity and innocence of St. John’s life was the result of the grace which Mary’s presence poured into his soul. We must also consider how willing Mary is to come to our assistance. No sooner had she become Mother of the Lord, than she desired to show that she had become also the loving mother of mankind. She was not called, she was not entreated to come, but went to Elizabeth, prompted by her own kindness. She proved herself gracious to the sinner as well as to the just. Through her Son she purified St. John, stained with original sin, and bestowed on the pious Elizabeth many precious graces. What confidence towards the Blessed Virgin should this awaken in us, whether we be counted among the sinners or the just!
Finally, let us consider in what manner the Lord, having become man, bestowed His grace. He desired to purify His forerunner from original sin, and sanctify him even before his birth. This first spiritual gift He imparted through Mary; for, no sooner had she greeted her cousin, than John leaped for joy and was then cleansed from original sin. When, many years afterwards, at Cana in Galilee, He bestowed His first grace on man in temporal need, Mary was the mediator. The sanctification of John was the first miracle He wrought before His birth; the changing of water into wine, the first that He publicly wrought when He walked upon earth. Both were done through the intercession of Mary. The object of this was to teach us, as St. Bernard says, “that it is the will of God that we shall receive everything through Mary,” that is, through her intercession. Who, therefore, would hesitate to fly to her confidently for refuge in all temporal and spiritual troubles?
Besides the instructions you have already received above, consider the kindness of the divine Mother, not only towards Elizabeth, but also towards the unborn John, and renew your confidence in her compassion and mercy. Further, renew your devotion to her, and let her, the loving and mighty Mother, be your guide in all your spiritual and temporal cares. If you are a sinner, she will obtain for you pardon for your iniquities, through true repentance; but if you belong to the righteous, she is ready to ask of God new grace for you, that you may continue on the path leading to life everlasting. “She opens for every one the bosom of mercy,” writes St. Bernard, ” that all may receive of her plenty; the prisoner, liberty; the sick, health; the sorrowful, comfort; the sinner, pardon; the righteous, grace.” You need only take refuge with her, and invoke her with filial confidence. Today’s festival tells you that she, with loving kindness, visited and filled with graces her who had not even invited or asked her to come. What then will she not do for you, if you request and call to her? She has shown herself so kind when she was still upon earth, what will she not do now, being glorified in heaven?” Great was the mercy of Mary when she was still living upon earth,” writes St. Bonaventure, “much greater is it now that she reigns in Heaven. She bestows now on mankind countless benefits and greater mercies, because she now recognizes our misery much better.” Hence, make the resolution, always to give her due honor, and to invoke her with filial confidence in every distress. “Call on Mary, in every event of your life,” says St. Basil, “for, God has ordained that she shall come to our assistance in all our cares and sorrows.”
The divine Mother did not visit her cousin Elizabeth through love of idleness, or because she was weary of solitude or work: her end and aim was holy, while she remained, she spoke only of God, the benefits He bestows upon us, and gave due praise to Him. Are the visits you make of a like nature? Examine your conscience carefully, and in future be very solicitous that the cause, end and aim of your visits are not vain or sinful, that you make not a habit of them, or neglect the duties of your station in life by prolonging them without sufficient cause. Be careful what you say or do while they last; for, you may be sure that you may commit great sin and render yourself liable to everlasting punishment, by visits during which you make use of indecent language, or slander your neighbors, or occupy yourself in dangerous games, in which people sometimes seek amusement. And even though nothing were lost but the priceless time, this alone should be enough to prevent you from unnecesary visits. St. Bonaventure says rightly: “No loss is greater than that of time; for, it was given to us by Divine Goodness to work out our salvation, and, once lost, it can never be recalled.”
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.