Mary and a Divine 'Contradiction'

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May 31, the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Visitation marks the Second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, when Mary, having learned of her cousin Elizabeth's pregnancy, rushes to her side to minister to her in her hour of need. The outpouring of concern, memorialized in the Elizabeth's "Hail Mary" and Our Lady's "Magnificat" response, establishes the fruit of the mystery: the need to love others.

The Visitation is a mystery of mercy, therefore, that not only establishes our obligation to love one another as God loves us but also illustrates the great power of our heavenly Father in accomplishing what lies beyond human ability and limitation. Elizabeth, we learn in the Gospels, has conceived a child in her old age, a boy destined to be John the Baptist, the one who comes before Jesus. Inside of her, Mary bears the Incarnate Word. At Mary's salutation to her cousin, Elizabeth's baby received sanctification in his mother's womb. Both of these pregnancies fall into the miraculous.

Two Startling Announcements
Not much is written about Mary's journey, but working out the biblical references and the geography, it probably covered 80 miles and took four of five days. Think of the arduous nature of such a journey made 2,000 years ago, without cars, roads, comfort stations, and mile after mile of hostile terrain, desert wilderness, wild animals, and road criminals.

In the first chapter of Luke's Gospel, verses 26-56, we read the angel Gabriel's two startling announcements to Mary: First, she will bear a Son who "will be called holy, the Son of God," and second, that the elderly, previously barren Elizabeth is six months pregnant, "for with God, nothing will be impossible."

The Gospel writer goes out of his way to tell us that "Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah." She doesn't dawdle or overthink the situation. She reacts to Gabriel's news immediately, focused outward on her cousin's needs instead of inward in self-absorption. In doing this, Our Lady presents a model for holy action.

The Beauty of the 'Magnificat'
When Mary greets Elizabeth, the babe in her womb literally jumps for joy. The Holy Spirit then enters Elizabeth, who says in a loud voice the words familiar to us in the Hail Mary: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."

Elizabeth asks how it is that "the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."

Mary answers with the "Magnificat," one of the most beautiful prayers ever composed. Also known as the "Song of Mary" or "Canticle of Mary," the "Magnificat" sings its words to heaven. They are words of service, mercy, and holy insight:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for He has looked with favor on His lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name.

He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of His arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Humility and Holiness: A Divine 'Contradiction'
The word "magnify," from the "Magnificat's" first line, calls to mind an observation from Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who once referred to Mary as "a magnifying glass that intensifies our love for her Son." Archbishop Sheen and others also have commented on the link between holiness and humility in the "Magnificat."

Luke's account of Mary's song presents us with this link in the form of a seeming contradiction, "the low estate of His handmaiden" who turns around and predicts that "henceforth all generations shall call me blessed." Mary does not boast here. She reveals the secret to saintliness.

The text of the prayer itself supplies the resolution of the apparent contradiction. It is God Himself who humbles the proud and the mighty and raises up the meek and the downtrodden. It is the familiar biblical wisdom of finding strength in weakness.

In Mary, we see realized God's model for holiness, how the last shall be first, echoing the words of Jesus in the Gospels (see Mt 23:12, Lk 14:11, and Lk 18:14). In the Old Testament, too, we read in Sirach 3:19: "Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God." If we have an appetite, let it not be for material goods of the riches of this world. Let it be a driving hunger for the goodness and light that only comes from God. If we have desire, let it be only to lease God and do His will.

Luke's account of the Visitation ends this way: "And Mary remained with [Elizabeth] about three months and returned home." Our Lady did not make a perfunctory visit. She did not simply pop her face in the door and then leave, her conscience eased, to tend to her own situation. She put in an extended stay, tending to her cousin's needs.

This Second Joyful Mystery gives us much to contemplate. Our obligation to others; the importance of humility; the nature of what pleases God; and our need, always, to seek holiness by doing His will.

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