And when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby stirred in her womb. Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried aloud, 'God's blessing is on you above all women, and his blessing is on the fruit of your womb. Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? I tell you, when your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy. How happy is she who has had faith that the Lord's promise would be fulfilled!'
From the Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 1:41-45 (NEB)
The truth is that our being is incomplete without God. To seek God is, therefore, a fundamental tendency of our nature. “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We cannot attain human fulfillment except in relationship with God. There is a space in us that can be filled by only God. There is a certain spiritual potentiality that never comes alive if we are locked in a world of self-sufficiency. “Look to God that you may become radiant” (Psalm 34:5).
From “Living in the Truth,” p. 19, by Michael Casey
The Feast of the Visitation, part of the Incarnation Cycle in the Church calendar, is very much a celebration of presence: the (sometimes hidden) presence of God in the world, the presence of God in our inner lives, the presence of God in those the world counts as marginal or “lost,” and the presence of life, new possibilities, and hope where these things are thought absent.
When St. Elizabeth and the Blessed Virgin Mary meet, we see two women—one older, one younger—share in the mystery of God transforming human life. While the immediate focus in the text is on child-bearing, the meaning and application goes far beyond this. These two women physically manifest the work of the Gospel to fill all things with divine presence and power.
St. Elizabeth—considered beyond child-bearing years and something of sad figure in the culture of her time and place—testifies to God’s presence and capacity to bring about new beginnings in our seemingly routine, played-out existence.
St. Mary—caught in a scandalous and potentially dangerous situation of being with child before her marriage, thus being sent into the countryside where she would attract less attention—testifies to God’s presence in the unexpected, the un-asked for, and our human capacity to be partners with God in order to bear the Divine presence in the world.
Beyond this, the two unborn children—hidden, unseen, but very much present—testify to the centrality of what is not acknowledged or clearly understood in life. Their presence, in fact, determines all that happens and follows in this beautiful, intimate story—revealing once more that the small and ordinary things of life (such as a familial greeting in a rural village) may be pregnant with meaning on a scale beyond imagining.
The world around us is currently attempting to live without reference to God, to “go it alone.” The results are clear, however. Living in what Michael Casey calls a “world of self-sufficiency,” the fullness of humanity is being diminished and made more brittle. Our attempt to turn our selves into machines, consumer products, assemblages of genetic data, or autonomous, isolated observers is gradually creating anxiety, despair, and confusion on a previously unimagined scale. Disconnected from the whole of Creation, cut off from completion through communion with God, we lack that radiance the Psalmist speaks of. What we want most—wholeness and love—remains elusive while we refuse to cooperate with our true identity, our essential relationships. This Feast provides an image of what a return to our true purpose and mission looks like.
The Collect for the Visitation recalls the truth that the virgin mother of God’s incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but then goes on to emphasize that she was still more blessed in keeping God’s word. So, while we marvel at the event recounted in Scripture about people and happenings long ago in Sacred History, we do not experience this as a kind of “theatre of sacred absence” from our own lives: indeed, each of us are made aware in this prayer that we, too, are gifted with a call and grace to “keep God’s word” in a unique way, to be “God-bearers” in our life and world. In that way, we join in with these Holy Women in proclaiming God’s presence through relationship, receptivity, and the courage to persevere.
It is by keeping God’s word in our several ways that we will shine with the presence of God—a presence satisfying to the inner life as well as providing guidance and hope for others. By consciously bearing Christ’s presence into the world through our prayers, humility, service, and witness, God’s calling to others who have lost the language of the Divine in their lives may become activated, and like St. John the Baptist in St. Elizabeth’s womb, “stir within them” to a new life of holiness and peace.
So, when you think upon the Visitation, remember to place yourself in this sacred picture, prayerfully asking God how you yourself may live out the promise of presence found in this country greeting between two women so long ago.
Collect for the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Father in heaven, by your grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.