Upon learning that she was to be the Mother of Jesus, Mary hurried to visit her relative Elizabeth. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the herald who preceded Jesus, was in her sixth month of pregnancy. Kinship was understood differently in the Ancient Near East than it is in 21st century U.S. Thus, though referred to as cousins in some translations and kinswomen in others, we will never know the degree of relatedness between Mary and Elizabeth. In the end, how they are related is irrelevant to the narrative.
The journey from Nazareth to Hebron where Elizabeth is thought to have lived was not easy. While the distance was about eighty miles as the crow flies, it was closer to one-hundred miles when following the established roads. To get an idea of that distance, walk out of the driveway here at St. Patrick, make a right and stroll until you get to Hartford, CT.
Someone traveling on foot could cover about twenty miles a day. Thus, Mary's journey to visit Elizabeth took between five and seven days. As it is certain that she traveled with a group rather than alone the trek probably took closer to seven days than five, or perhaps more. The dangers of being on the road were as much a risk then as they are today.
So, there they were, a young girl and an older woman together for three months. What did they talk about? Did Mary stay until John's birth as pious legend holds or did she leave beforehand? What did Mary think about on her return trip to Nazareth, a trip made while three months pregnant?
Mary's prayer, the Magnificat, is recited every evening at the close of vespers. Over the centuries it has been set to music by many composers, with good reason.
"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 can never be gilded. Mary's Magnificatis one of them. 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 about whether it was adapted from Hannah's prayer, or a gender-neutral all-male-pronouns-removed feminist translation. The Magnificatrequires nothing but daily repetition and frequent meditation.
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 despite dramatic change. They are models of fidelity for those who find themselves in places they never expected to be.
Reread the Magnificat later today. Then spend some time sitting with these two women. Listen to their conversation. Pay attention to their silences. Watch them go about their tasks. Ask questions. Offer to do the dishes.
" . . . the Lord has done great things for me."
The Lord has done great things for all of us.
One of the challenges of the Church's liturgical calendar is that Easter and all of the related feasts are based on a lunar calendar (Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the equinox) while the major feasts are fixed on the solar calendar. I will only point out that Christmas is always on 25 December with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Thus, this year the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is always on 31 May, follows the Ascension (which is celebrated on Thursday in the Archdiocese of Boston, forty days after the Resurrection), by one day.
It is a particularly favorite feast as I hope the homily makes clear.
A statue of the BVM at the monastery in VT. It is quite small. It is surrounded by wildflowers.
No idea what kind of flower it is. I call it purple.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD