On this day: The Visitation

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day we celebrate the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her kinswoman, Elizabeth.

"Here is a rare glimpse of female reproductive power as both physically nurturing and politically revolutionary. 'The two pregnant women beat the drum of God's world revolution,' starting with the option for debased women and then including all the starving, powerless, and oppressed. . . . Clearly this is a picture of Mary that is the complete opposite of the passive, humble handmaid of the patriarchal imagination. . . . it portrays women looking to each other for validation of their authority rather than to men."

--Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, by Elizabeth A. Johnson, Continuum, 2003, page 260.

Elizabeth blesses Mary. "Her words echo the praise addressed to other women famous in Israelite history who have helped to deliver God's people from peril. When Jael dispatches an enemy of the people, the prophet Deborah utters, 'Most blessed be Jael among women' (Judg. 5:24). After Judith's spectacular defeat of the enemy general, Uzziah praises her, 'O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on the earth' (Jdt. 13:18)." Page 262.

Then Mary sings her song. Sr. Johnson, in her powerful exegesis of the Visitation, reminds us that "classical mariology rarely dealt with this prayer", and that "such theology managed to suppress the portrait of Mary as a prophet and to forestall the upheaval that would ensue from oppressed peoples, including women taking a similar stance". Page 258.

The Magnificat is "the longest passage put on the lips of any female speaker in the New Testament," "the most any woman gets to say. Other women have life-changing visions of angels, most significantly at the empty tomb on Easter morning, but while we are told that they proclaim the good news, we unfortunately do not get to her their own words. The cadences of this canticle stand in righteous criticism against such scriptural silencing of 'the lowly.' While Luke may silence the voice of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and others, our interpretation today reads against his intent, to find in Mary's song a protest against the suppression of women's voices and a spark for their prophetic speech. Following the logic of her praise, who can dare tell women they cannot speak?" Page 263.

For another beautiful examination of the Visitation, see Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, by Marina Warner, Knopf, 1976.

"During the Annunciation to Mary, Luke works a second vein of association, that of Mary with the Ark of the Covenant. The verb he uses to describe the action of 'the power of the Highest' on Mary is very particular--'overshadow'--a verb that explicitly picks up the mysterious image that closes the Book of Exodus, when the shekinah, the cloud that is the spirit of God, covers the Ark of the Covenant 'and the glory of God filled the tabernacle' (Exodus 40:34). . . . Again, at the Visitation, Luke recalls the Ark. David goes up to a city of Juda and is anointed king (2 Samuel 2:1): Mary goes up to a city of Juda, and is proclaimed by Elisabeth the mother of her Lord, the new heavenly king. Her exclamation, 'And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?' echoes David's cry as he conducts the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem: 'How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?' (2 Samuel 6:9). Mary stays three months with Elisabeth, just as the Ark 'continued in the house of Obededom the Gittite for three months' before it was brought to "the city of David" (2 Samuel 6:11). Luke's paramount concern with the typology rather than the story gives commentators anguish, for on a psychological and narriative plane, Mary should have stayed with Elisabeth to help with the birth, yet Luke leaves this completely ambiguous." Pages 11-12.

"The bellicose and triumphalist character of the Magnificat echoes both Hannah's hymn and the paean of Miriam, the sister of Moses, who struck her timbrel and danced for joy with the women of Israel when Pharaoh and his army were swallowed up by the Red Sea. Thus Mary's thanksgiving is not a psychological poem on the mystery of the conception of Christ, or even on the miracle of the virgin birth--which she does not mention at all--but a rousing cry that the Jewish Messiah promised by God has arrived to vanquish his enemies and to rehabilitate the true remnant of Israel who have remained faithful to the law." Page 13.

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