What Does the Visitation Have to Do With Mary’s Assumption?

SCRIPTURES & ART: Elizabeth confesses Mary’s uniqueness: she is “the Mother of my God.” It is not fitting that the body which bore the Body of Christ should suffer corruption.

Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni, “The Visitation,” 1416. Oratio of St. John the Baptist, Urbino, Italy.
Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni, “The Visitation,” 1416. Oratio of St. John the Baptist, Urbino, Italy. (photo: Public Domain)

The Solemnity of the Assumption preempts the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time (as well as its Gospel, which presents Jesus’ Teaching on the Bread of Life as the sine qua non to eternal life — John 6:51-58). Depending on when Catholics attend Mass, they will hear different Gospels for the Assumption: a brief Lukan text (11:27-28) for the Vigil on Saturday evening, in which Jesus proclaims as blessed those who hear and obey God’s Word, and the traditional text of the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-56) for the Sunday Gospel. I will focus on the latter. 

Note that the Gospel itself does not speak to the Assumption. That dogma, long accepted in East and West, was formally proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950. The theology of the Assumption, which I have called the “second fruits” (considering Jesus’ Resurrection as the “first fruits” — 1 Corinthians 15:20) that gives us hope of our own conquest of sin and death in Christ. For my thoughts on that subject, see here and here and For my favorite depiction of Mary’s Dormition, recently restored at Kraków’s Kościół Mariacki on the Main Square, see here. For our purposes today, we focus on the Gospel of the Mass during the Day.

In the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), Mary learned not only that she would be the Mother of God but that her older relative, Elizabeth, was also pregnant. Elizabeth, who was considered barren, was entering her third trimester. Mary’s reaction, not paying heed to herself, was to travel the approximately 80 to 90 miles to Ein-El-Karem to help her relative. 

Today’s Gospel relates her arrival. Laconically, Luke tells us Mary “hurried” to Judea, entered Zechariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. The primary thrust of the Gospel are two inspired prophecies: Elizabeth to Mary and Mary’s own song. 

The Gospel speaks of Elizabeth “being filled with the Holy Spirit.” Her unborn child also responds by leaping in the womb (at a stage in pregnancy development for which many U.S. legislators are now trying to “codify” a right to abortion from the sixth month until birth). Elizabeth had to be filled with the Holy Spirit for, as the Polish writer Roman Brandstaetter observes, her greeting is not typical: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42).

We perhaps are accustomed to hearing what has become part of the “Hail Mary” that Catholics pray every day, but that first Hail Mary was unusual. Elizabeth was an older woman, the wife of a Jewish priest. She had some status, a higher one than this young woman from Nazareth. In her world, youth deferred to age. But Elizabeth reverences Mary and her child in a most exalted way: not just a greeting, but a statement of Mary’s and her child’s uniqueness and election. Elizabeth consciously deprecates her own status: “Why should the mother of my Lord come to me?” (v. 43). Elizabeth also interprets her child’s reaction as sharing her own profession of faith: “The moment your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb [not “my clump of tissue”] leapt in my womb for joy” (v. 44). 

How did she know this except by divine inspiration? Presumably Mary had not dropped a letter in the Roman Post with details of what was going on in her life.

Mary’s response, the core of today’s Gospel, does not directly address Elizabeth, her situation, or her child whose fate will be intimately bound up with her own Son’s Life and Mission. Mary’s response, instead, praises God.

She acknowledges Elizabeth’s greeting — “all generations will call me blessed” (v. 48) — not out of any merit on her part but because “the Almighty has done great things for me” (v. 49) despite [because of] of “lowliness” (v. 48). 

This is the way of God: he “has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly” (v. 52), he “has filled the hungry with good things and he has sent the rich away empty,” (v. 53), he “has scattered the proud in their conceit” (v. 51). This is the way of “mercy,” mercy to his servant Israel, to faithful Israel. And what he is doing is part of a bigger plan, a plan grounded in God’s unchanging faithfulness, “the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever” (v. 55).

In contrast to praising God’s Designs, Luke’s interest in the purely biographical is secondary: “Mary remained with her about three months, then returned to her home” (v. 56). Tradition has it she remained through the birth of John the Baptist.

Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni were brothers who lived in the last quarter of the 14th and first quarter of the 15th centuries near the eastern coast of today’s north central Italy. Among the major works of these artists, working on the threshold between the Middle Ages and Renaissance, was a cycle of frescoes on the Life of St. John the Baptist. “The Visitation” is one of 14 frescoes in this work, found in Urbino, Italy.

As befits a Marian piece of art, blue and bluish/greenish hues dominant the work, the most intense blue being Mary’s own clothes. Two chronologically separate events appear in the work: Mary greets Elizabeth on the left, then Mary accompanied by Elizabeth greet Zechariah. 

Despite her Evangelical lowliness, the Salimbeni’s present Mary is a quasi-regal state: her clothes are embroidered in gold and she apparently has a retinue of three women accompanying her. One can wonder whether Mary came alone in less affluent garb. Regardless of her outward show, however, the Salimbeni’s do externalize the royal nobility and richness of the soul of the maiden that “magnifies the Lord” and in which God found such delight. Zechariah’s home displays (quasi-Renaissance) affluence, but the general flatness of the entire work suggests medieval art forms still prevail. 

Why does the Church read the Gospel of the Visitation on this feast? One reason is that Mary’s Dormition and Assumption is not described in the Gospels. Moderns might be tempted to say because it exhibits Mary’s readiness to help others in need. While that might be true, I am not convinced it is the reason for its nexus to this feast. 

Elizabeth confesses Mary’s uniqueness: she is “blessed among women,” she is “the Mother of my God.” Those facts also privilege the lowly maiden of Nazareth: she is “second fruits” because it is not fit that the body which bore the Body of Christ should suffer corruption, the woman immaculately conceived and free from the stain of sin should not suffer the consequences of sin, i.e., death and decay. That is why the dogma of the Assumption carefully speaks of Mary being taken to heaven “at the end of her earthly life,” not “after she died.” Whatever transition Mary experienced between this life and heaven was not death as we know it, because we know death as a punishment for sin, to which a just God would not subject the sinless Virgin Mary. Elizabeth already acknowledges Mary’s blessedness as her “public life” enters the Gospels.