May 31st is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On this day, the Gospel of Luke tells us that “Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste, to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.”
We know that Mary went quickly to help her older cousin in the last months of her pregnancy with John the Baptist, and it is often surmised that St. Joseph accompanied her. According to tradition, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived in a small town called Ain Karim, nearly 100 miles away in the hills of Judea. It is unlikely that Mary, as a young girl, would have set off by herself, unprotected and vulnerable. She certainly would have had company of some sort. So it is actually several people who arrive with Mary to visit Elizabeth: Mary herself, probably St. Joseph, as well as the three persons of the Trinity. Since Mary is carrying Jesus, we know that God the Father and the Holy Spirit were also present.
Although the Angel Gabriel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant at the time of the Annunciation, when Mary herself agreed to become the Mother of God, she did not go out to visit Elizabeth just to verify Angel Gabriel’s claim. She went to help Elizabeth in her time of need. She responded to her cousin in charity and concern for her wellbeing. She brought her own presence, and more importantly, she brought the presence of her divine son into the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah.
The Visitation Brings Change
When Mary brings God into the home, many things happen all at once. First of all, John the Baptist moves within his mother’s womb. This is traditionally interpreted as a type of in-utero Baptism, in which John is cleansed from original sin. It is commonly held that Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist were born without original sin. Even before their births, all three people were prepared to do the will of the Father.
Secondly, 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. 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."
When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, she receives the Holy Spirit. She understands that Mary is carrying the Lord, the Messiah. She receives knowledge and understanding. Mary, already at one with God, replies with the famous Magnificat, praising God for the great works that he has done for her and for his people. Like Elizabeth, Mary reveals wisdom that has been given to her from on high.
Finally, just about every artistic interpretation of the Visitation portrays Mary and Elizabeth embracing each other. Even if Scripture doesn’t specifically describe it, we can certainly imagine they did hug each other. That’s a normal and natural thing to do when you see someone you care about, whom you haven’t seen for a long time. Their hug symbolizes more than just emotion, however. It portrays their unity of purpose. Both women were already aware that following the will of God would involve hardship and sacrifice. Yet, in their conversation of praise and glory, they support each other in their decision to do just that.
The Visitation Invites Us
The Visitation invites us to think about our own response to people in need. Do we notice the needs of others and go “in haste” to assist them, especially when it is inconvenient? Do we give the gift of God’s presence? Like Mary, when we walk into a room, do we bring God with us?