What Is the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth?
Reflecting on The Seventh Sunday of Easter: Two Days after Sunday (Year C)
Old Testament: 1 Samuel 2:1-10
Psalter: Psalm 113
Epistle: Romans 12:9-16b
Gospel: Luke 1:39-57
Blessed God, who danced in our hearts, filling us with the knowledge of your presence: let your proclamation sing forth from us as it sang from the lips of Hannah and Elizabeth, announcing the coming of your promise and the fulfillment of your desire. Amen.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:39-45).
By Scott P. Richert
The feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrates the visit of Mary, the Mother of God, with the child Jesus in her womb, to her cousin Elizabeth. The visit took place when Elizabeth was herself six months’ pregnant with the forerunner of Christ, Saint John the Baptist.
At the Annunciation of the Lord, the angel Gabriel, in response to Mary’s question “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” (Luke 1:34), had told her that “thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-27). The evidence of her cousin’s own near-miraculous conception had called forth Mary’s fiat: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” It is thus appropriate that the very next action of the Blessed Virgin that Saint Luke the Evangelist records is Mary’s “making haste” to visit her cousin.
Arriving at the house of Zachary (or Zacharias) and Elizabeth, Mary greets her cousin, and something wonderful happens: John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:41). As the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 puts it in its entry on the Visitation, the Virgin Mary's “presence and much more the presence of the Divine Child in her womb, according to the will of God, was to be the source of very great graces to the Blessed John, Christ’s Forerunner.
The Visitation is mentioned only in Luke’s Gospel, and Luke tells us that Mary stayed with her cousin about three months, returning home just before Elizabeth gave birth. The angel Gabriel, as we have seen, told Mary at the Annunciation that Elizabeth was six months pregnant, and Luke seems to indicate that the Blessed Virgin departed for her cousin's home very soon after the Annunciation. Thus, we celebrate the Annunciation on March 25 and the Birth of Saint John the Baptist on June 24, about three months apart. Yet we celebrate the Visitation on May 31—a date that doesn't make sense according to the biblical narrative. Why is the Visitation celebrated on May 31?
While many Marian feasts are among the first feasts to have been celebrated universally by the Church, East and West, the celebration of the Visitation, even though it is found in Luke’s Gospel, is a relatively late development. It was championed by Saint Bonaventure and adopted by the Franciscans in 1263. When it was extended to the universal Church by Pope Urban VI in 1389, the date of the feast was set as July 2, the day after the octave (eighth) day of the feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. The idea was to tie the celebration of the Visitation, at which Saint John had been cleansed of Original Sin, to the celebration of his birth, even though the placement of the feast in the liturgical calendar was out of sync with the account given by Luke. In other words, symbolism, rather than chronology, was the deciding factor in choosing when to commemorate this important event.
For close to six centuries, the Visitation was celebrated on July 2, but with his revision of the Roman calendar in 1969 (at the time of the promulgation of the Novus Ordo), Pope Paul VI moved the celebration of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the last day of the Marian month of May so that it would fall between the feasts of the Annunciation and the Birth of Saint John the Baptist—a time when Luke tells us that Mary would certainly have been with Elizabeth, taking care of her cousin in her time of need.
The complete article can be read here.