This Sunday, Mary Visits Elizabeth, as Mary Visits Us

SCRIPTURES & ART: As she did with St. Elizabeth, Our Lady comes spiritually to visit and sustain us on our journey to her Son.

Mariotto Albertinelli, “The Visitation,” 1503
Mariotto Albertinelli, “The Visitation,” 1503 (photo: Mariotto Albertinelli, “The Visitation,” 1503)

Each year the Church chooses a different Synoptic Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke) for its Sunday readings. This year (Year C) we read Luke. But, every year during the four Sundays of Advent, the Church focuses on certain, recurrent themes: the end of the world (First Sunday), John the Baptist (Second and Third Sundays) and, finally, on the Fourth and last Sunday before Christmas, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This year, the Church recounts Mary’s visitation of Elizabeth. 

Today’s Gospel tells us that Mary “set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town in Judah” (1:39). Nazareth to Ein Karem, Elizabeth’s “town” now within metropolitan Jerusalem, is about a hundred miles. Mary is young but pregnant. Her own Annunciation immediately precedes today’s reading in Luke’s Gospel, so Mary learned of Elizabeth’s own “blessed state” in that context. As Gabriel had told her, “Your kinswoman, Elizabeth, is with child, she who was thought to be sterile. For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37). 

Elizabeth was older, as both the Evangelist (“Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old” — v. 7) and Zechariah, her husband (“I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” — v. 18) both said.

As I noted two weeks ago, Luke treats the conceptions and births of Jesus and John the Baptist in parallel. John’s conception is miraculous in that Elizabeth and Zechariah were thought sterile and beyond the usual childbearing years. Jesus’ conception is even more miraculous as the work of the Holy Spirit. 

Of course, in the shadow of both is an allusion to the origins of Israel. Abraham, too, had long given up human hope of paternity and Sara was regarded as too old: when the three mysterious guests visit Abraham’s tent and foretell that, when they return next year Sara would be a mother, she laughed. Indeed, Genesis also reports they were both “very old, and Sara was past the age of childbearing.” And Gabriel repeats almost verbatim to Mary what the Guest tells Abraham: “nothing is impossible with God” (Genesis 18:14. For the whole episode, see 18:1-15).

Luke’s Gospel reckons with the heartache of childlessness. No doubt Elizabeth and Zechariah both wanted a child. But a child is a gift of God, not a “parental project.” A child is “begotten, not made,” the fruit of marital love and not a test tube. God, not man, is “the Lord and Giver of Life” (most fully to Mary). And, in his Time and Plan, “nothing is impossible with God.”

Luke’s Gospel is also clear about life. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leapt in her womb” (v. 41), a fact Elizabeth reports to Mary (v. 44). Generations of Christians read this passage to recognize the bond between John the Baptist and Jesus already before birth; ours needs to read it to learn basic facts about human life.

Between Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary (v. 28) and Elizabeth’s inspired response to Mary’s greeting (v. 42) we have practically the first half of the “Hail Mary,” a Scripturally-grounded prayer. (The second half, asking for Mary’s intercession in the only two moments of our lives guaranteed to us — “now and at the hour of our death” — are our response, the reference to the hour of death being added, as I understand it, during a medieval pandemic.)

This Sunday’s Gospel of the Visitation is somewhat abbreviated, omitting Mary’s response (the Magnificat) and the fact that her stay lasted “about three months.” The Church celebrates the Nativity of John on June 24, six months ahead of the Nativity of the Lord on Christmas. As Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth was in her second trimester (sixth month), there is a basis for the Christian tradition that Mary was with Elizabeth through her giving birth. The account of John’s birth, his circumcision, naming, and the great Canticle of Zechariah conclude Luke 1.

Today’s artwork comes from Florentine Renaissance painter Mariotto Albertinelli. Albertinelli lived in the last quarter of the 15th and first years of the 16th centuries. The work was originally an altarpiece for a Florentine church and is now in that city’s Uffizi Gallery.

The painting itself is simple, depicting the two main characters. Mary (right) and Elizabeth (left) embrace. Elizabeth is slightly bent, signifying both her age and her humility (“who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” — v. 43). Mary is attired in tradition Marian blue. 

Elizabeth’s humility should be our own. Mary is, after all, now our Mother (John 19:27) and, as with Elizabeth, she comes spiritually to visit and sustain us on our journey to her Son. Let us appreciate that, especially in light of the decline in Marian devotion over past decades in this country.

The painting’s setting is clearly Renaissance. The two figures are framed by a classical arch with classical decoration (and I’m told, the date of the painting, 1503). While the time setting is anachronistic, I chose this painting because of the sparsity of its figures. Some Christian art depicts almost a procession accompanying Mary and another retinue with Elizabeth. While Elizabeth was married to a Temple priest and so perhaps somewhat better situated, I’d bet Elizabeth and Zechariah were not affluent. We know Mary and Joseph were not. This simple (but noble) encounter reflects that.

As in Luke’s Gospel itself (after the Nativity of John), next stop: Christmas.