Feast of the Visitation - Thursday, May 31, 2018
Today’s feast of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth invites us into a deeply personal moment of the Scriptures (Luke 1:39-56). The Precursor and the Lord are both hidden from each other. Yet even before the two women embrace, John leaped for joy in his mother's womb, having recognized the presence of the Lord and Messiah in the womb of Mary. Both births are hailed by two beautiful canticles: the Benedictus sung by Zechariah, father of the Baptist, at his son's birth (1:68-79) and the Nunc Dimittis prayed by Simeon, the "righteous and devout" man in the Jerusalem temple, as he takes the infant Jesus in his arms (2:22-35).
There are two aspects of the Visitation scene to consider. The first is that any element of personal agenda of Mary and Elizabeth is put aside. Both had good reason to be very preoccupied with their pregnancies and all that new life brings. Both women had a right to focus on themselves for a while as they made new and radical adjustments to their daily lives. Mary reaches out to her kinswoman to help her and also to be helped by her. These two great biblical women consoled each other, shared their stories, and gave each other the gift of themselves in the midst of the new life that they must have experienced: Elizabeth after her long years of barrenness and now sudden pregnancy, and Mary, after her meeting with the heavenly messenger, and her "irregular" marriage situation and pregnancy.
The second point of this moving story is Mary's haste. Luke tells us that she undertook in haste the long and perilous trek from Nazareth to a village in the hill country of Judea. She knew clearly what she wanted and did not allow anyone or anything to stop her.
In his commentary on Luke's Gospel, St. Ambrose of Milan describes this haste with an almost untranslatable Latin phrase, "nescit tarda molimina Spiritus Sancti gratia," which means, literally: "the grace of the Holy Spirit does not know delayed efforts." Or we might express it better in English: "delayed efforts are foreign to the grace of the Holy Spirit." Mary's free choice to move forward and outward is reflective of a decision taken deep within her heart followed by immediate action.
How many things exist in our lives that we dreamed of doing, should have done, and never did? Letters that should have been written, dreams that should have been realized, gratitude that was not expressed, affection never shown, words that should have been said, etc.? Postponements and delays weigh heavily upon us, wear us down and discourage us. They gnaw away at us. How true is St. Ambrose's description of Mary's haste: the Spirit completely possessed the Virgin Daughter of Nazareth and compelled her to act. Such possession by God's Spirit is the only possession worthwhile, life-giving, hopeful, and joyful.
The story of the Visitation teaches us an important lesson: when Christ is growing inside of us, we will be led to people, places, and situations that we never dreamed of. We will bear words of consolation and hope that are not our own. In the very act of consoling others, we will be consoled. We will be at peace, recollected, because we know that however insignificant our life and issues seem to be, from them Christ is forming himself. The women of today's Gospel show us that it is possible to move beyond our own little personal agendas and engage in authentic ministry.
Ministry is not simply doing things for others, loving difficult people, serving the poor, teaching others. Authentic ministers allow themselves to serve and be served, taught, cared for, consoled, and loved. Such moments liberate us and enable us to sing Magnificat along the journey, and celebrate the great things that God does for us and our people.
Consider the words of Saint Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) on this feast:
In the mystery of the Annunciation and the Visitation, Mary is the very model of the life we should lead. First of all, she welcomed Jesus in her existence; then, she shared what she had received. Every time we receive Holy Communion, Jesus the Word becomes flesh in our life – gift of God who is at one and the same time beautiful, kind, unique. Thus, the first Eucharist was such: Mary’s offering of her Son in her, in whom he had set up the first altar. Mary, the only one who could affirm with absolute confidence, “this is my body”, from that first moment offered her own body, her strength, all her being, to form the Body of Christ.
(Images: Visitation by Ghirlandaio; Icon of the Visitation)