Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Feast of the Visitation

 The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth is one of the very human moments in Luke's Gospel. It is a moment with which we can identify.  It resembles experiences many of us have had.

Upon learning that she was to be the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the Mother of Jesus, Mary hastened to visit her relative Elizabeth, who had been thought to be barren but was now in her third trimester.  Kinship was understood differently in the Ancient Near East than it is today.  Though called cousins, we do not know the degree or type of relatedness between Mary and Elizabeth.  We never will know.  It matters little. 

There are one or two important elements about the Visitation that make it even more human. The distance from Mary's home in Nazareth to Elizabeth's in Hebron, was about eighty miles as the crow flies.  It was probably closer to 100 miles when following established roads.  At that time, and even today, someone traveling unencumbered on foot could cover about 20 miles a day. Thus, Mary's journey to Elizabeth required between five and seven days.  She probably traveled with a group rather than on her own.  Robbery and other forms of mayhem were as much a risk then as they are today.  It is most unlikely that Mary was wearing watered silk robes embellished with rhinestones no matter how medieval painters depicted the scene. Probably didn't have a halo or other aura surrounding here either.

So, there they were, a young girl and an older almost menopausal woman.  What did they talk about?  Did Mary stay until John's birth as pious legend holds?  What did Mary think about on her arduous return trip to Nazareth?

Luke's Gospel has given the Church her most beautiful prayers.  Mary's Magnificat, the last half of the Gospel, is recited every evening at vespers.  It has been set to music by many composers over the centuries in settings ranging from Gregorian chant that are still used to composers of the mid-twentieth century.  The list of composers who set the Magnificat  to music is unwieldly.

"Magnificat anima meo Dominum 
et exsultavit spiritus meus
 in Deo salutaris meo."

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, 
my spirit rejoices in God my savior."  

There are certain lilies that must never be gilded.  Mary's Magnificatis one of them.  Her prayer does not need elaboration. It does not need explanation. It resembles Hannah's prayer in the Temple as recounted in the First Book of Samuel.  It is likely Mary was aware of Hannah's prayer.  Did Mary actually say it extemporaneously?  Did Luke take the words from Hannah and attribute them to Mary?  As is often the case with many of the points about which biblical types like to argue, the questions and answers are irrelevant. 

The prayer speaks of quiet contemplation and profound understanding of God's will.  It is meant for the solitude of our souls and the silence of our hearts.  It does not require academic debate, acrimonious argument, or a gender-free feminist translation.  The Magnificatrequires nothing more than meditation. 

The Annunciation. 
The Visitation. 

Mary and Elizabeth are examples of faith. They show us how to keep faith when things don't seem to fit together. They are examples of faithful obedience in the face of dramatic change.  They are models of fidelity for those who find themselves in places they never expected to be. 

Reread the Magnificat today.  Then spend some time sitting with these two women. Listen to their conversation.  Pay attention to their silences. Watch them as they go about their daily tasks. 

" . . . the Lord has done great things for me."

The Lord has done great things for all of us. 

The photo above is the painting of Mary, Help of Christians in Brezje, Slovenia.  Of the several Marian shrines in Slovenia, Brezje is the most frequently visited.  I had the opportunity to celebrate an English-language Mass for a group of people participating in a workshop.  As they came from all over Europe English was the only language they had in common.  It was a great honor.  

The church in which the chapel is located is a Basilica.  It is not overwhelmingly large but it is spacious.  The chapel holding the painting is very small.  I celebrated Mass with my back to the congregation.  The chapel can hold approximately thirty people.  The elaborate frame surrounding the painting takes up the entire wall.  Behind the frame the devout have posted hundreds of petitions.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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