The Feast of the Visitation occurs on May 31. It is a joyful event where cousins, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth exchange greetings in the home of Elizabeth and husband, Zechariah. Both Mary and Elizabeth are pregnant with their first-born sons: Jesus and St. John the Baptist. Luke’s Gospel (Lk 1:39-56) describing the events starts with “During those days, Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah” (Lk 1: 39). Scriptural scholars speculate that the location of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home was in Hebron, around 115 miles from Nazareth by road. The narrated scene results in words of joy that are part of two of the greatest, and most used, prayers of Roman Catholicism: The Hail Mary (Ave Maria) and The Magnificat.
Elizabeth greeted Mary when she reached the home, “Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42-43) – thus providing the words for the second part of the first stanza of the Hail Mary. Elizabeth continued with “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Lk 1:43-45). Mary’s joyful response to Elizabeth’s greeting is known as “The Canticle (or Song) of Mary” – it is called the “Magnificat” because the of the opening word of the Latin Vulgate text, "Magnificat anima mea, Dominum", etc. (My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”, etc.) (Lk 1:46)
It is expected that both women in the early stages of pregnancy were filled with happiness – a human happiness emanating from being a mother for the first time, especially after a long period of trial, in the case of Elizabeth; accompanied by a spiritual sense of happiness knowing that Mary is the bearer of the Christ-Child which was shown when the unborn John the Baptist “leaped for joy” in his mother’s womb (Lk 1:44).
The importance of the grace-filled Magnificat is demonstrated by its inclusion the Roman Breviary (a.k.a. the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours) to be recited daily at Vespers. The exegesis of the prayer is beyond the scope of this article, but it is enlightening to read the Canticle of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-11) and see Hannah’s joy, and other similarities to Mary’s Magnificat. The Magnificat is one of numerous passages in the New Testament illustrating the fulfillment of the prophesies of the Old Testament. The following is the text of The Magnificat – divided into three sections with headings to summarize the meanings of the segments.
The Canticle of Mary (The Magnificat) – Luke 1:46-55
Section 1: Mary expresses Joy and Gratitude for what God has given her
And Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Section 2: God’s Mercy is given according to His Law, and is not based on human social hierarchies
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
Section 3: Mary reiterates God’s Fulfillment of Old Testament promises
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The Magnificat and Music
The joy of Mary’s expression has inspired many composers to set the Magnificat to music. In fact, it is reported to be the most composed (put into song) section of the Bible. It is thought that the earliest rendition of the Magnificat was in Gregorian chant in the Middle Ages. The joy of the Song of Mary was made available, over time, to more of the populace as nearly every “important” Western European composer from the Medieval period, through the Renaissance, the Baroque, Classical, Romantic periods, and up to the present composed a piece called or based on “The Magnificat”.
Some of the most acclaimed renditions of The Magnificat are:
- Claudio Monteverdi's Magnificat from Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, 1610 (Vespro della Beata Vergine, 1610)
- Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat in D major, BWV 243 (1733)
- Enjoyable earlier settings of the Magnificat were composed by John Taverner and Thomas Tallis in the 16th century
See a beautiful rendition of the Visitation scene in bronze at https://churchwonders.com/cathedral-of-st-mary-of-the-assumption-san-francisco-ca/
See a lovely stained glass window of the Visitation at https://churchwonders.com/devotions/the-magnificat/