On the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year, the Church listens to the account of the Visitation in Saint Luke’s Gospel. The evangelist has Mary travelling to the hill country in haste. (cf. Lk 1:39) There, she finds Elizabeth, once thought unable to conceive a child (cf. Lk 1:7), now with a child in utero. The wonder at such a miraculous conception is not evident at all, as all the attention is now being given to the woman who just arrived at the house of Zechariah. (cf. Lk 1:40) It is Mary and her pregnancy which command Elizabeth’s undivided attention, and ours just a few days before Christmas.
Elizabeth praises her younger kinswoman but not as we customarily think of praise today. Praise today more likely comes to us for what we have done independently of God, rather than on what God has done through and with us in salvation history. The Bible obviously does not countenance the modern take on praise, and rightly establishes that Mary did not set herself apart from all women; God did. Her own words weren’t what Mary puts faith in; it was God’s word. Both in being singled out and in believing, the Virgin Mother is blessed. Her blessing comes not with her own initiative but with her cooperation.
The Visitation is actually an affirmation of the pattern already discernible in the Annunciation. For the selection of the Blessed Virgin Mary originates with that mystery, and Elizabeth’s role in today’s Gospel is to give a human voice to the truth of divine motherhood. But God’s choice of Mary could not be imposed upon her. It had to be accepted freely, and that is what happened. “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)
Our Lady clearly assents to motherhood. This topic of motherhood happens to be a leading theme in Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), the 1988 Apostolic Letter of Pope Saint John Paul II. Midway through that document, the pontiff says that motherhood gives women a new attitude that profoundly marks their personalities. Here he is not just referring to the mother vis-à-vis the child she is carrying; the bond between the two of them is undeniable. The reference is also to how a mother relates to people more generally. There is an increased sensitivity, the pope posits, that a mother has toward those around her once she has conceived and is with child. (cf. MD, 18) At the end of the letter, the pope calls this increased sensitivity “a manifestation of the ‘genius’ which belongs to women.” (MD, 30)
Understanding charity as Saint Paul does, that is, as rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep (cf. Rom 12:15), we can say of the Visitation that the Blessed Mother is showing charity to Elizabeth. But we can also say that Mary is demonstrating increased sensitivity at the very same time. Charity is a virtue infused into the soul while increased sensitivity is what it looks like humanly speaking, but that does not take into account its effect in the order of grace.
Increased sensitivity is laudable insofar as it contributes to the goal of unity and solidarity within the human family. Nevertheless, motherhood is always understood firstly on a personal level. Conceiving a child and being a mother to that child is the path for a woman and her child to begin a cooperation with Divine Providence, and whereby the image and likeness of God (cf. Gn 1:27) are beheld – both literally and figuratively.
The Madonna and Child is not just a suitable image for a Christmas card. On a deeper level, it is a prescient sign that the Lord will not abandon us. It recalls for us the apt image of the prophet Isaiah in the 49th Chapter of his Old Testament book. He writes there, “Can a mother forget her infant. . . .Even should she forget, I will not abandon you.” (v. 15)
The Blessed Mother never forgot her Infant, and, therefore, we cannot fail to recall the fidelity of the Lord to His covenant with us. Returning to Mulieris Dignitatem one more time: Pope Saint John Paul II states there that every motherhood in human history is related to the covenant God established with the human race through the maternity of Mary. (cf. MD, 19) The Blessed Mother’s conception of Jesus by the power of the Most High (cf. Lk 1:35) and her ensuing care for the Son of the Most High (cf. Lk 1:32), to the point of tears on Calvary, is a mighty witness to the power of one woman’s influence on history, and how every mother’s fulfillment of her vocation also helps to shape the history of the world.
In these waning days of Advent, we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child. Our preparation cannot sidestep Mary’s maternity for it is the utterly indispensable way for us to be saved from sin and death. The flesh and blood of the woman from Nazareth was the first resting place for Our Savior – before the manger in Bethlehem.
Before we arrive at the Lord’s birth, let us honor the Ark of the Covenant for teaching us how to love the children we have – those of flesh and blood and those who are our children spiritually. A mother’s love brings us comfort and peace. May these gifts be ours abundantly unto the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity at the end of this week.
*Image: The Visitation by José Sánchez, c. 1685 [Louvre, Paris]
You may also enjoy:
Matthew Hanley’s San Juan Capistrano and the Incarnation
Elizabeth A. Mitchell’s The “Magnificat” of the Gospel of John