Peter Canisius, S.J.
I like to think of the Christmas story as made up
of a number of smaller stories that are woven together to form a
whole. In today's gospel reading we have one of those stories, the
Visitation. St. Luke sets the story for us very well. The two women,
Mary and Elizabeth, are the only persons present in the story, but
the as yet unborn baby Jesus is very much a part of the story, as
are the Holy Spirit and John the Baptist.
This story, as all the stories about Christ's birth, lends itself
very well to our imagination. Medieval paintings of the Visitation
help us to focus our imagination. We follow Mary as she proceeds
on her journey south from Galilee to Judah. It is a much easier
journey for Mary now early in her pregnancy than the later journey
she would make with Joseph when the time of her delivery was upon
her. Luke does not mention that anyone accompanied Mary on her journey.
But, given Mary's young age and the length of the journey, it is
reasonable to suppose that her parents would have arranged for someone
to accompany Mary. Perhaps a maidservant or a family friend. They
proceed to the hills of Judah near Jerusalem, to the home of Zechariah
and Elizabeth. Luke has already told us that Elizabeth was advanced
in years. Mary makes the journey rather than having Elizabeth journey
to her out of deference to Elizabeth's age and seniority.
The arrival of Mary at Elizabeth's house is the occasion of the
intervention of the Holy Spirit. At Mary's greeting to her, Elizabeth's
baby - John the Baptist - leaps in her womb and the Holy Spirit
reveals to her that Mary's baby is the long awaited savior. Elizabeth
is probably the first person - after Mary and Joseph - to be favored
with this knowledge. I don't think that we today can fully understand
how momentous an announcement this was. For centuries the Jewish
people had been promised by God that a savior would come, and for
centuries the people had remembered that promise and waited expectantly.
As time went on, the longing for the fulfillment of the promise
grew. By the time of Mary and Elizabeth the longing had become very
great. When it was revealed to Elizabeth that the long awaited promise
was about to be fulfilled, it was truly a momentous occasion. Elizabeth
was favored by God with advance knowledge of the wonderful things
to come. She responded with great joy.
The joy that Elizabeth felt also caused her to have great humility.
She realized that Mary, because of the child she was carrying, was
due great respect and honor. She felt that she should show deference
and respect to Mary, and she wondered aloud how it has happened
that the mother of the Lord has come to visit an insignificant person
like her. Elizabeth truly feels great humility in the presence of
Mary, and praises her for her acceptance of God's will.
Luke wisely concludes the story here, and leaves the two women to
visit privately. He has used the story to show how important a figure
Elizabeth was in the Christmas story, and to further prepare us
for the role of her son, John the Baptist .