The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth
Today, the 2nd of July, we are commemorating the visitation of the blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth. There is a breathless quality about the Gospel for this day (Lk. 1:39-45). The passage is full of action: The newly pregnant Mary hurries to see her older relative, Elizabeth, who is also expecting as a result of divine intervention. The encounter is dynamic: Mary’s greeting of Elizabeth sets off a chain reaction. The six-month foetus in her womb leaps with joy in time with his mother. Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and cries out a blessing on Mary, which should be translated: “Most blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” She is overcome with a sense of unworthiness that the mother of the Lord of her (literally) should be visiting her. This leads to Mary’s great song of the Magnificat which is also full of divine action in upsetting and transforming the present order in favour of the poor and lowly, such as Mary herself.
As always in the Bible and, indeed, in the best of Tradition, Mary is exalted because of Jesus. She has been graced, prepared and visited for the sake of the one who is to be born of her. This is often depicted in icons of the Madonna and Child as Mary pointing to the infant Jesus. We need, nevertheless, to recognise the very special place she has in the scheme of God’s purposes. She is called here ‘most blessed amongst women’ and the mother of God incarnate. In her song, Mary repeats what Elizabeth has said and adds that ‘all generations’ will call her blessed, as, indeed, they have done.
Elizabeth calling her the ‘Mother of the Lord’ also provides the scriptural basis for the title bestowed on Mary at the Council of Ephesus (431AD) of ‘Theotokos’ or ‘God-Bearer’, popularly translated ‘Mother of God’ but more accurately Mother of God incarnate. Again, this has to do primarily with the incarnation and the unity of the Lord’s human and divine natures than with any intrinsic quality in Mary, which has not been brought about by the work of grace in her life.
For those concerned with the sanctity of the human person from the beginning, we can see that the unborn John the Baptist is referred to as a babe in the same way as the newly born Jesus is in the next chapter. In this narrative, Jesus is but an embryo of a few weeks and yet is referred to in fully human and divine terms! This is, of course, of a piece with rest of the Bible where the unborn are unselfconsciously spoken of as persons (Ps139:13-16, Jer1:5, Gal1:15). This is why the Church has resisted both infanticide and abortion throughout the ages, even as it has offered forgiveness and restoration to those who have terminated a pregnancy.
Let us pray that we too will have the eyes and ears of Elizabeth to recognise God’s work in the ordinary and the humble. Let us also pray with Mary that we will be prepared to listen to God’s voice, whatever the consequences for our ways of life, leisure and work.