I had always pictured the Visitation as an intimate affair, and paintings display it in that way also: two holy women, perhaps embracing, sharing in confidence the great things that God was accomplishing in them, through the children they bore in their wombs. What is more intimate than pregnancy?
So maybe you were brought up short, as was I, by Luke’s language of “cried out in a loud voice” in last Sunday’s gospel:
Luke 1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, 42 cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord[n] should come to me? 44 For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed are you who believed[o] that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (emphasis added)
If anything, the phrase is under translated. The verb (anaphōneō) means strictly to shout aloud, even, to make a great noise, as in this verse where it is used in the Greek Septuagint: “So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the horn, with trumpets, with the loud-sounding of cymbals, with harps, and lyres.” (1 Chronicles 15:28, emphasis added)
Imagine now Elizabeth’s first banging a cymbal to get attention and then shouting out commensurately. That in effect is what Luke is depicting.
The language “in a loud voice” is just as striking. Again, this language is an under translation. The Greek noun means strictly a shout, or even a piercing wail. Jesus uses the word for the proclamation of the bridegroom’s arrival: “At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’” (Mt 25:6, emphasis added) John uses the word to mean a clamor of distress. (Rev 21:4)
This kind of shouting of Elizabeth, as if making a public proclamation to a crowd, is said to be the effect of the Holy Spirit filling her and also, apparently, of the leaping of the infant in her womb. That infant of course was the Baptist, the one whose voice, also in the Spirit, would later be shouting in the wilderness (Mk 1:3). John leaps when Elizabeth hears the voice of Mary, and Elizabeth shouts when John leaps. She seems to be both the ears and the voice of her son.
The commentators are generally silent on this “crying out in a loud voice” or say foolish things (“an unrestrained utterance under the influence of irrepressible feeling, thoroughly true to feminine nature” says one). But St. Ambrose gets it: Magna voce clamavit, ubi domini sensit adventum. (“She shouted out loudly when she realized the Lord had come.”)
After I realized what was going on in this verse, I thought of the prayer, the Hail Mary. Apparently, that prayer did not take the form we use today until around 1500. In that form, it has traditionally been described as having four parts: the first part was contributed by an angel (Luke 1:28); the second, by Elizabeth (v. 42 above); the third, the holy name of Jesus, by the popes; the fourth, the closing petition, by the piety of the faithful.
Surely the second part, “Blessed art thou among women” etc. – words inspired by the Holy Spirit, given apparently through a prophet (the Baptist), and even shouted aloud by Elizabeth in the presence of the Lord (v. 43) – surely words delivered in this way, in this context, are not just mere curiosities for Christians henceforth, but something like a canon of prayer. How could the Protestant Reformers for instance (some of them) have scrupled at this prayer?
Looking at the verses anew, I was also called up short by the parallelism:
blessed are you among women
blessed is the fruit of your womb
The same word is used for “blessed” in each case. Read the clauses in the less familiar, opposite order, and it’s striking that Mary is called blessed in exactly the same way as the Holy One, the Lord, is called blessed. To be sure, her blessedness comes from the blessedness of the Lord. We must assert this. Of course, she is a creature, not a fit object of adoration or latria. Nonetheless, as at least as far as Elizabeth’s shouted words are concerned, the honors, the standing, the reverence due, the cause for joy, is the same. (The tradition marks out this attitude as hyperdulia).
In his Harmony of the Gospels, even John Calvin, after being worried by the language – “She seems to put Mary and Christ on an equal footing, which would have been highly improper” – admits: “at this day the blessedness brought us by Christ cannot be the subject of our praise, without reminding us, at the same time, of the distinguished honor which God was pleased to bestow upon Mary.”
But Calvin also said some foolish things about the Hail Mary. The first part, he said, involved taking the angel’s words for our own, which (to him) was impertinent. And it used a greeting to address an absent person, which was foolish. “With extraordinary ignorance have the Papists, by an enchanter’s trick, changed this salutation into a prayer.”
I’ll close this article by letting Major Julian Cook refute Calvin. Crossing the river Waal during Operation Market Garden on September 17, 1944, Cook rallied the men to row evenly using only a fragment of the angel’s greeting, as Cornelius Ryan reported in A Bridge Too Far: “’The Lord is with thee’ was too long,” Cook says, “so I kept repeating, ‘Hail Mary,’ (one stroke), ‘Full of grace’ (second stroke).”
Major Cook too cried out in a loud voice. And no one doubted he was saying a prayer.
*Image: Magnificat by James Patrick Reid, 1988 [Saint Patrick’s Church, Chatham, NJ]
You may also enjoy:
Professor Pakaluk’s “Mother of Fair Love”
Robert Royal’s “The New Pro-life Movement”