Today we celebrate the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her cousin, Saint Elizabeth, in ‘the hill country…a city of Judah’ (Luke 1:39). Mary travelled to see Elizabeth after the angel Gabriel had announced to her that she would be the one to bear the ‘Son of the Most High’ (v.32), and that her cousin, though barren, was six months pregnant with a son – Saint John the Baptist, who even now, whilst still in the womb, would prove himself to be the forerunner of Our Lord; the greatest of prophets, who would point others to Jesus and ‘give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins’ (v.77).
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes in the final instalment of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy:
‘Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, made as a consequence of the dialogue between Gabriel and Mary (cf. Luke 1:36), occasions an encounter in the Holy Spirit between Jesus and John even before they are born, and this encounter at the same time makes visible the relationship between their respective missions: Jesus is the younger of the two, the one who comes later. But he is the one whose proximity causes John to leap in his mother’s womb and fills Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 1:41). So, in Luke’s annunciation and nativity narratives, what the Baptist was to say in John’s Gospel is already objectively present: “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me’” (1:30).’
Jesus ofNazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), pp.25-26, Bloomsbury.
In the narrative of the Visitation, we see already why it is that Mary is blessed among women (c.f.; Luke 1:42) – because the ’fruit’ of her womb, Jesus, is the one who not only precedes John the Baptist, but he who precedes all of us, who could say later on ‘before Abraham was, I AM’ (John 8:58). Elizabeth, who as Luke tells us, is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 1:41) recognises in the leaping of John in her womb at Mary’s arrival a sign that something extraordinary is present before her. We must remember also that Zechariah is still struck dumb at this point, and so has not been able to tell his wife of the prophecy that he received – Elizabeth receives this revelation purely through the inspiration of the Spirit.
Many have seen this episode therefore as an illustration of Our Lady’s mediatory role – that in this moment, the divine grace present in the infant Jesus, still hidden in His mother’s womb, was delivered to Elizabeth (and John) through Mary, providing sanctification for the infant Baptist, and divine illumination for his mother. Saint Elizabeth also draws explicit attention to Our Lady’s special role in salvation history, when she says ‘blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord’ (Luke 1:45), highlighting both the depths of what had been revealed to her, and the pivotal role of the Blessed Mother’s pure faith in the drama of the Incarnation.
It is this statement from Elizabeth which prompts Mary’s great song of praise to the Lord – the Magnificat – which emphasises both her total trust in the Lord, and also the character of the Lord in whom she places her trust. He whom she carries in her womb is one who ‘has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’ (v.51) and ‘exalted those of low degree’ (v.52). He has ‘regarded the low estate of his handmaiden’ (v.48) and His ‘mercy is on those who fear him’ (v.50). We see here that Mary trusts in a God who reverses the usual order of things – who values faith and humility, and who repudiates the proud posturing of those who garner earthly praise.
She trusts and loves a God who she knows loves her, and He does so because she is pure of heart; humble enough to see things as they reallyare. Our Lady, conceived without sin, sees things this way because she is rid of the constant need for placing the self at centre stage, and therefore can instead gaze upon her Lord truly as Lord – as the one whom our lives must be properly ordered towards and so find their true being. It is this purity of heart (and therefore purity of intention) that allows her to truly say that her soul ‘magnifies the Lord’ (v.46) – by gazing upon Him, and thinking nothing of herself, she allows her very life to be a conduit through which His goodness and mercy can move and act in the world.
So, in the Feast of the Visitation, we see that the reason we can say of Our Blessed Mother ‘blessed art thou amongst women’ is precisely because we also say ‘blessed is the fruit of thy womb’ – all the attention we give to her is because of Him who she bears in her womb, and brings into the world. Her gaze, her whole life even, is fixed upon Him, and all she wishes to do is to turn us towards Him also, so that our souls may also magnify the Lord, and that we may become conduits of grace as well. Though Our Lady, chosen before all ages to bear the Son of God into the world, is a special case in this regard, and we remain disposed to sin in a way she never was, she still remains for us a powerful example to follow, and a sure guide to lead us faithfully to Our Lord.