What the Visitation Tells Us About ‘Devout Christians’ Who Support Abortion
SAINTS & ART: If you want to say the unborn are not persons, then either the Gospels are not inspired (so Luke is a liar) or they are inspired but you know better (which means the Holy Spirit is a liar).
Today is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, detailed in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:39-56). Mary who, in expressing her consent through the Archangel Gabriel to become the Mother of God, also learned that her older “kinswoman” (v. 36) was now expecting. Mary made her way to Ein Karem, “a town in the hill country of Judea” about 90 miles south of Nazareth. The Gospel relates the encounter of the two pregnant women and their unborn babies and culminates in Mary’s great song of praise, the Magnificat.
Then, laconically, Luke simply reports “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months, then returned home” (v. 56).
Why should Christians over 2,000 years after this event remember two pregnant Jewish women spending time with each other? Two reasons:
The pregnancies. Luke’s Gospel focuses not just on Mary and Elizabeth but on unborn Jesus and John the Baptist. Elizabeth says that when she heard Mary’s greeting, “the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (v. 44).
Elizabeth recognizes what is her and what is not her. It’s her “womb” but “the baby.” And it’s a “baby.” And it’s a being with his own agency: Elizabeth attributes a motive — “joy” — to her child’s movement. Elizabeth does not say, “As soon as I heard your greeting, the clump of cells in my womb moved.”
She also recognizes Mary’s distinct status. Both Mary and “the fruit of your womb” are “blessed” (v. 42). Mary is not the bearer of a mass of tissue but “the mother of my Lord” (v. 43) — the mother of a distinct Person — who have come to visit her. Elizabeth already anticipates what the Council of Ephesus would formally define in AD 431: Mary is “Theotokos.” Mary is “the Mother of God,” but Theotokos literally refers to her motherhood even before Christmas Day: She is God-bearer.
Elizabeth speaks of the baby “leaping” in her womb. In Anglo-American law (about which you are likely to hear a lot in the coming weeks), “quickening” — the moment a mother feels her baby move — was often an important legal point in terms of enhancing the gravity of abortion. Why? Because in a pre-ultrasound world, where the mysterious world of the unborn was largely hidden and inaccessible, quickening indisputably confirmed an advanced pregnancy. (So how is it, in our contemporary world which pays lip service to “following the science,” we turn a blind eye to what ultrasonography is showing us in the womb?) Again, John’s movement is spoken of by Elizabeth as an intentional reaction (“filled with the Holy Spirit”?), not some involuntary movement. So much — at least theologically — for the argument of those who deny humanity to the unborn out of claims they lack “agency.”
I make these points explicitly because on the eve of — God grant! — the final overturning of Roe v. Wade, there will be plenty of Christians, even nominal Catholics, pretending that abortion is not “really” directly relevant to Christian faith and practice but just a discipline (probably stemming from Christian “patriarchy”). Indeed, plenty of non-Catholic Christians will even pretend that being Christian and being pro-abortion (“pro-choice”) are compatible.
Today’s feast makes clear it’s not just the Pope or Archbishop Cordileone or St. Thomas Aquinas-following-Aristotelian-thinking that regard the unborn as human. It’s one of the four canonical Gospels, speaking of and about the core message of Christianity: that the Son of God became man. If you want to say the unborn are not persons, then either the Gospels are not inspired (so Luke is a liar) or they are inspired but you know better (which means the Holy Spirit is a liar).
Both pregnancies are, in some sense, problematic. Elizabeth is older and had been considered sterile. Unlike modernity, which claims motherhood impedes “women’s progress,” Antiquity did not prize childlessness: they did not say “blessed are the barren.” Then again, Antiquity also didn’t suffer from a demographic winter. Elizabeth rejoices that having a baby is a sign of “the Lord’s favor” to her (v. 25). Mary is young and unmarried. We know from Matthew (1:18-24) that Joseph had doubts about his pregnant fiancée, doubts resolved by Divine intervention. Could it be said that Mary also visited Elizabeth to take counsel with a trusted relative about, on the one hand, her favor from the Lord and, on the other, her perhaps seemingly rocky engagement?
In other words, just as today, while pregnancy is a blessing of God’s favor, some of God’s blessings can be hard.
I make these observations because, oftentimes, the Visitation is often commented on in terms of hospitality: Mary extends herself to give a helping hand to an older relative in perhaps even a tougher situation. That’s not untrue, but I don’t want that explanation to turn into some kind of biblical “seamless garment,” emphasizing Mary’s help in the final days of Elizabeth’s pregnancy versus what the Gospel of Luke tells us about pregnancy itself. Those two perspectives are complementary, not antithetical. Let’s keep them in that perspective.
It’s Not About Me. Elizabeth praises Mary. Though Mary came to help Elizabeth, Elizabeth recognizes the greatness of her who has come to her.
Mary’s response, however, is not about herself. Mary’s focus is not “I am the first (and only) woman to be the Mother of God!” “I am the first Jewish woman to be the Mother of God!”
Mary’s focus is on God: she is a mirror, whose “soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” A Lord who has looked “on his servant in her lowliness.” Her status is not her “achievement” but “the Mighty [who] has done great things for me.” The closest Mary gets to social justice categories is recognizing that “He has cast down the mighty and raised up the lowly//He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Their demotions and exaltations are not, however, the result of their wealth but their attitude — their self-sufficiency that centers on the achievements of “I” rather than their recognition that all good things everyone has are God-given. And she recognizes that she stands in a chain of Divine promises, starting with “Abraham and his descendants.”
In a world where so many people are intent on showcasing themselves as the “first female person-of-color carotene-allergic bingo caller of Middlesex County,” Mary’s “it’s-not-about-me” is a salutary reminder for our times.
Today’s depiction of the feast in art comes from Jacques Daret, a 15th-century Netherlandish painter who lived in what is today’s Belgium and painted this “Visitation” around 1434-35 as part of an altarpiece for an abbey in Arras, France.
What I like about this work (which also says what I don’t like about some depictions of the Visitation) is that it focuses on the two main characters: Mary and Elizabeth. Some representations, especially from the Middle Ages, depict Mary and Elizabeth encountering each other with their retinues around them. Those depictions wanted to honor Our Blessed Mother, who would one day be crowned Queen of the Universe, a noble and laudatory goal. But the little girl who showed up in the “hill country of Jerusalem” and sang the Magnificat does not sound like she had a retinue in waiting.
Mary is quite obviously pregnant: Elizabeth touches her belly and Mary’s face is full. Elizabeth’s age is obviously accentuated. The painting puts the focus on the two holy women (“filled with the Holy Spirit” — see their halos) and their children.
As a late Gothic work, the sponsor of the painting — presumably the Abbot of Arras (with crozier and miter) is inserted in the picture, doing what we, too, should be doing: prayerfully reflecting on what he sees. Presumably the Arras Abbey is in the background. By combining two times — the biblical and the time of the painting — Gothic art also teaches us that these are not just historical events to think about, but events of salvation history whose lessons we should apply to our own lives and times.