Today is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This Feast of the Visitation of Our Lady was instituted by Urban IV, in the year 1385, and confirmed by Boniface IX, in the year 1389.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
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? (3)
Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
by Abbot Gueranger
Our Lady’s visit to Her cousin Elizabeth already engaged our attention whilst we were preparing for the Christmas festival. But it is only fitting to return again to an event so important in Our Lady’s life; the mere commemoration of this Mystery made on Ember Friday in Advent would be insufficient to bring forward all it contains of deep teaching and holy joy. Since in the course of centuries the holy liturgy has been gaining more and more completeness, it is but natural that this precious mine should come to be further opened in honor of the Virgin Mother. The Order of St. Francis, it would seem, as well as certain particular churches, such as Rheims and Paris for example – had already taken the initiative, when Pope Urban VI, in 1389, instituted today’s solemnity. The Pope counselled a fast on the vigil of the Feast, and ordered that it should be followed by an Octave; he granted for its celebration the same indulgences as Urban IV had, in the previous century, attached to the festival of Corpus Christi. The Bull of promulgation, stopped by the Pontiff’s death, was again taken up and published by Boniface IX, his successor on the Chair of Saint Peter.
We learn from the lessons of the Office formerly composed for this Feast, that the object of its institution was, as Urban conceived it, to obtain the cessation of the schism then desolating the Church. The Papacy, exiled from Rome for 70 years, had barely re-entered it, when Hell, infuriated at a return which crossed all its plans, had taken revenge by ranging under two leaders the flock of the one sheepfold. So deep was the obscurity wherewith miserable intrigues contrived to cover the authority of the legitimate Shepherd, that numbers of churches, in all good faith, began to hesitate, and ended at last in preferring the deceptive staff of a hireling. Thicker yet was the darkness to grow, till night should be so dense, that for a moment the conflicting mandates of three “popes” would simultaneously spread through the world; whilst the faithful, struck with stupor, would be at an utter loss to discern accurately which was the voice of Christ’s true Vicar. Never before had the Bride of the Son of God been in a more piteous situation. But Our Lady, to whom the true Pope had turned at the first rising of the storm, did not betray the Church’s confidence. During all those years whilst the unfathomable justice of the Most High let the powers of Hell hold sway, She stood for the defence of Holy Church, trampling the head of the old serpent so thoroughly under Her victorious foot, that in spite of the terrific confusion he had stirred up, he was unable to sully the faith of the people. Their attachment was steadfast to the unity of the Roman See, whosoever might be, in this uncertainty, its veritable occupant. Thus the West, divided in opinion, but in principle ever one and undivided, reunited herself spontaneously as soon as God’s moment came for the return of light. The hour having arrived for the Queen of Saints to assume the offensive, She would not content Herself with merely re-establishing at its former post the army of the elect; Satan now must expiate his audacity by being forced to yield back to Holy Church those conquests which for centuries had seemed his forever. The dragon still raged at Basel (the city where the schismatic faction had remained, while the loyal bishops continued the 17th General Council at Florence), when Florence already beheld the heads of the Greek schism, the Armenians and the Ethiopians, the cavillers of Jerusalem, of Syria and of Mesopotamia, all compensating by their unhoped-for adhesion to the Roman Pontiff for the anguish just suffered in the West.
It was now to be shown that such a return of nations, in the very midst even of the tempest, was indeed the work of Her who had been called upon by the Pope, half a century before, to assist the Bark of Peter. Even they of the factious assembly of Basel gave proof of this, in a way which has unfortunately been too much overlooked by historians who undervalue the high importance that liturgical facts hold in the history of Christendom. When about to separate, these last abettors of the schism devoted the forty-third session of their pretended council to the promulgation of this Feast of the Visitation, in the establishment of which Urban VI had, from the outset, placed all his hopes. Notwithstanding the resistance of some of the more obstinate, the schism may, from that hour, be said to have ended. The storm was subsiding; the Name of Mary, invoked thus by both sides, shone resplendent as the sign of peace amidst the clouds, even as the rainbow in its sweet radiance unites both extremities of the horizon.
But, it may be asked, why was the Feast of the Visitation specially chosen, more than any other, as the monument of restored peace? The answer seems to be suggested in the very nature of the mystery itself and in the manner of its accomplishment.
Here, more particularly, does Mary appear as the Ark of the Covenant, bearing within Her the Emmanuel, the living testimony of a more true reconciliation, of an alliance more sublime between Earth and Heaven, than that limited compact of servitude entered into between Jehovah and the Jews, amidst the roar of thunder. By Her means, far better than through Adam, all men are now brethren; for He Whom She hides within Her is to be the Firstborn of the great family of the sons of God. Scarcely is He conceived than there begins for Him the mighty work of universal propitiation. Arise, then, O Lord, Thou and the Ark which Thou hast sanctified, whence Thine own sanctity will pour down upon the Earth! During the whole of Her rapid passage from Nazareth to the mountains of Judea, She shall be protected by wings of Cherubim jealously eager to contemplate Her glory.
Favored with benediction was that Levite’s house, while for three months it sheltered the Most High hidden in the Ark of the Covenant; more favored still the home of the priest Zachary, harboring, for the same lapse of time, Eternal Wisdom enshrined in Mary’s virginal womb. Yet beneath Zachary’s roof, blessed as it was, the enemy of God and man was still holding one captive: the angelic embassy that had announced John’s miraculous conception and birth could not exempt him from the shameful tribute that every son of Adam must pay to the prince of death, on entering into this life. As formerly Azotus, so now Dagon may not remain standing erect in face of the Ark (1 Kings 5). Mary appears, and Satan, at once overturned, is subjected to utter defeat in John’s soul (which was cleansed from original sin and sanctified at the sound of Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth), a defeat that is not to be his last; for this new Ark of the Covenant will not stay its victories till the reconciliation of the last of the elect be effected.
Let us, then, hail this day with songs of gladness: for this mystery contains the germ of every victory gained by the Church and Her sons: henceforth the sacred Ark is borne at the head of every combat waged by the new Israel. Division between man and his God is at an end, between the Christian and his brethren! The ancient Ark was powerless to prevent the division of the tribes; henceforth if schism and heresy do hold out for some years against Mary, it shall be but to evince more fully Her glorious triumph at last. Let us join the tribute of our songs to John’s exulting gladness, to Elizabeth’s sudden exclamations, to Zachary’s canticle; therewith let earth re-echo! (4)
Image: Crop of Visitation, from Altarpiece of the Virgin (St Vaast Altarpiece) by Jacques Daret c. 1434 – 1435. (8)
Research by REGINA Staff