Feastday Highlights: The Visitation
The Church closes the month dedicated to Our Lady with the Feast of the Visitation falling on the last day of May. This feast celebrates the events described in Luke 1:39-56, with the Blessed Virgin Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth after the Annunciation. The feast arose from medieval times, with St. Bonaventure introducing the feast to the Franciscan order in 1263 and it being extended to the universal Church and added to the General Roman Calendar in 1389. Originally the feast was celebrated on July 2, but with the 1969 Roman Calendar reform the celebration was moved between the solemnities of the Annunciation (March 25) and the Birth of John the Baptist (June 24).
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While the Visitation has great spiritual depths and truths, there is the human and familial element that easily identified by all, especially children. This is not a feast that has many traditions or customs attached, rather it inspires prayer and contemplation on the spiritual and prayer elements, the pro-life and familial aspects, and the role of charity in our lives.
Spiritual and Prayer Elements
We can see the workings of the Holy Spirit throughout this scene:
Mary greets Elizabeth and “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,” replies: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This response is now repeated daily across the world as the second phrase of the Hail Mary.
Catholic tradition believes at that moment when the infant in the womb, that is, John the Baptist, leapt, he was cleansed of Original Sin. Elizabeth said: “For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.“ We are given a peek at a very powerful moment. The Holy Spirit was preparing the way for Christ’s redemption. First we have Mary’s Immaculate Conception, then the Incarnation of Christ in her womb. Then the Holy Spirit works with extended family members who will help prepare the way for the Lord. Elizabeth recognizes the Mother of God and the Messiah in her womb, and St. John within her womb, also recognizes her voice and leaps for joy as he is filled with the Holy Spirit, and cleansed of Original Sin.
Then we hear Mary’s response to Elizabeth, an overflow of praise of God and her humility in the beautiful Magnificat:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.
What prophetic words, “all generations” have called Mary “blessed!” This moment is forever preserved in our liturgy at every evening in Vespers or Evening Prayer when the Canticle of Mary or Magnificat is prayed.
If you or I had been standing right at this scene we probably wouldn’t recognize this rich inner workings of the Holy Spirit. From the external it only looks as a greeting from one cousin to another and their words might not have meant anything to us. We are blessed to have St. Luke preserve this scene with all the dialogue. We can ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand more deeply, and pray with the words of Elizabeth and Mary often so that we can be united to Christ more closely.
Pro-Life and Family Feast
This scene also points at the blessedness of life at all stages. In this one scene we see many aspects of St. John Paul II’s “Gospel of Life” (explained in his Evangelium Vitae): here we have an older woman, who is pregnant, a younger expectant mother, and two infants in the womb. Within this visit there is recognition of the value and preciousness of the unborn child, particularly of the Son of God. There is also the mutual support and help which is often needed at different stages of life, such as pregnancy, childbirth and old age. Elizabeth as the elder provides the moral support, since she recognizes that Mary is the Mother of the Messiah, which allows Mary to discuss her secret. Mary, as the younger, more able-bodied woman, comes to help her elderly cousin.
This is also a feast that emphasizes the important role of the family, including extended family. In our modern era, we are not repopulating which is a crisis for our times. George Wiegel gave some startling statistics (these are also found in his The Cube and the Cathedral) (emphasis mine):
Several decades of below-replacement-level birthrates have created situations that would have been unimaginable when what we now know as the European Union was taking its first institutional baby-steps in the late 1940s and early 1950s. By the middle of this century, some demographers estimate, sixty percent of the Italian people will have no personal experience of a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, or a cousin; Germany will lose the equivalent of the entire population of the former East Germany; and Spain’s population will decline by almost one-quarter. Europe is depopulating itself in numbers not seen since the Black Death of the 14th century. One result of these unprecedented demographics is a Europe that, in British historian Niall Ferguson’s striking term, is increasingly “senescent”—and senescence is not, to put it gently, a condition conducive to political vigor.
And in an interview elaborated:
There is not a single country of today’s 27 member states of the European Union that has a replacement-level birthrate. In some countries, that has been the case for multiple generations now.
These numbers point again how we much we need to practice the “Gospel of Life.” My husband, my children, and I have wonderful cherished moments with our siblings and extended family. A life without my sisters and brothers would be empty and sad! And for all of us, our aunts and uncles and cousins have been a true continued blessing throughout our lives. It is the Visitation that should make us remember the importance of family. But we are not just remembering our family, but honoring and praying for them and helping them in times of need, and if able, encouraging a pro-life attitude so that Weigel’s prediction of “no personal experience of a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, or a cousin” will not become a universal reality.
The Mass readings for the feast of the Visitation provide a choice for the first reading, either from Zephaniah 3:14-18 or Romans 12:9-16. It is the latter that really echoes the love and charity Our Lady had for her cousin Elizabeth.
...love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.
The Visitation is a perfect reminder of how we need to practice charity and good works. But is there also a small message that it begins with family? (“Charity begins at home?”)
This event in the life of Christ is one that all ages can celebrate and contemplate. Just as the Holy Spirit came upon Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist, let us ask for the Paraclete to come (especially in these days before Pentecost) and enlighten our hearts to be able to realize the deep mysteries of this feast and provide the graces to help live the charity and the Gospel of Life in imitation of Mary and Elizabeth.
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