Visitation of Mary

views updated


The Gospel account of Mary's journey and visit to St. elizabeth. It forms part of the Lucan infancy gospel and so should be interpreted against the broader background of the theology of Luke ch. 12. The incident follows immediately upon the annunciation, on which occasion Mary learned that her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a child (Lk 1.36).

Gospel Account. Mary went in haste, (or possibly, as C. Stuhlmueller suggests, "in deep thought") to the hill country of Judea to the house of Zachary (1.39). There is no certainty as to the exact location of the town, but since the 6th century, tradition has located it about six miles west of Jerusalem (see C. Kopp, 9096).

The incident is related very simply. Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth. As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting the infant in her womb leapt for joy, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (1.4041). Joy and the outpouring of the Spirit were two signs of the advent of the messianic era. Elizabeth cried out: "Blessed art thou among women [i.e., beyond any other woman; cf. Jdt 13.23] and blessed is the fruit of thy womb! How have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For the moment that the sound of thy greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy" (Lk1.4244). Then Elizabeth praised Mary's faith, which is here set in relief (Lk 1.45). Mary was not called blessed because of the future accomplishment of that which was proposed for her faith, but because of her faith itself (M.J. Lagrange). Elizabeth exalts Mary as later her son, john the baptist, will exalt the Son of Mary. The praise of Mary's faith recalls a very important messianic theme of the Old Testament that was underlined by Isaiah, who received his call to faith immediately before his oracle concerning emmanuel (Is 7.14).

Mary answered Elizabeth with her magnificat. She remained with her cousin for three months. Although at first glance the text seems to indicate that Mary left the house of Zachary before the birth of John (Lk 1.56), this would have been unlikely, since she had gone to assist her cousin. Luke had a stylistic habit of finishing one incident before beginning the narrative of another.

Theology. The allusive use of Old Testament texts to communicate a deeper theological meaning is evident here. Mary, the Virgin Daughter of zion, the dwelling place of Yahweh, and the perfect eschatological personification of Israel, is presented in the Visitation account as the new ark of the covenant. There is a marked literary dependence on 2 Sm 6.915, which tells the story of the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem by David. As David and his people rejoiced in the presence of the ark (2 Sm6.1215), so did Elizabeth and her unborn child in the presence of Mary. As David leapt for joy before the ark (2 Sm 6.14), so did John in his mother's womb (Lk 1.44). The cry of David, "How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?" (2 Sm 6.9), is echoed by that of Elizabeth, "How have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Lk 1.43), which is probably a paraphrase of David's words. As the ark remained for three months in the house of Obededom (2 Sm 6.11), so did Mary remain for three months in the house of Zachary (Lk 1.56).

The person of Mary is put into prominent relief throughout the whole account. It is Mary who greets Elizabeth, and it is after hearing the greeting of Mary that Elizabeth hails her as the Mother of her Lord. Honor comes to Elizabeth because it is the visit of the Mother of the Lord.

In Liturgy and Art. The Feast of the Visitation, of medieval origin, had been kept by the Franciscan Order before it was extended to the universal Church by Urban VI in 1389. The date of celebration was fixed on July 2 by the Council of Basel in 1441. The present liturgical texts date from the reform of Clement VIII (15921605). In thanksgiving for his safe return to the Papal States in 1850, Pius IX elevated the feast to a higher rank.

There is no trace of the representation of the Visitation in the Catacombs. The first representations date from the 5th and 6th centuries. The Visitation has been a popular subject in art from the late Middle Ages to modern times, but particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries. While secondary scenes in the story, such as Mary traveling over the mountains, assisting at the birth of John, or back at Nazareth after her journey, are occasionally portrayed, most frequent are representations of the meeting of the two women. In some 16th-century paintings the two infants are actually portrayed in visible form in their mother's wombs.

Bibliography: r. laurentin, Structure et théologie de Luc III ÉtBibl (Paris 1957). m. j. lagrange, Évangile selon Saint Luc (Paris 1927). c. stuhlmueller, The Gospel of St. Luke (Collegeville, MN 1960). Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 105961. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 195559) 2.2:195210. c. kopp, The Holy Places of the Gospels, tr. r. walls (New York 1963) 9096.

[m. e. mc iver]