If you are wondering why I said they both sang, even though the Gospel of Luke clearly says: "And Mary said: 'My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord...'" it is because I have always believed that there is no way that Elizabeth simply stood there and listened. I have always envisioned her chiming in and joining the song. And it was indeed a song; it was surely one she knew, given that Mary was quoting the song of Hannah from the book of Samuel, though she was making it her own by adding to it. Besides, with all the joy these two women were experiencing, it defies the imagination that one woman would just stand there staring at the other who sang a solo song of praise.
To step back a bit, the "backstory" is that Mary's first response to being overshadowed by the Spirit, and becoming pregnant with the Savior of the world, Jesus, was to go to her kinswoman, whom the angel had informed her was in her sixth month of pregnancy. Without any thought of herself, Mary rushed into the hill country of Judah, which was some distance away, to serve her older cousin who was well past the age of bearing a child. It was the Love with which she was impregnated that coursed through Mary's entire being which compelled her to go. Don't get me wrong here: it was a free choice to go. But Mary was already filled with love, given that she was "full of grace" (as announced by the angel) and it was that love that enabled her to be chosen in the first place. She was already a disciple of God, the Father of this Child, and so when she heard of her cousin's situation, she wanted to go share some of that love by serving Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was a woman of prayer who was already, no doubt, praising God for letting her have a son when she was well past child bearing age. She already believed what the angel told her husband about this child she was to bear. He would be a very important prophet, paving the way for the long-awaited Messiah. Mary had not yet told anyone she was pregnant, maybe not even Joseph. But even if Joseph knew by then, he would have been the only one. Elizabeth simply could not have known Mary was pregnant. And thus, she could not have known that Mary’s child was the Messiah her son would announce.
Therefore, when Mary showed up and Elizabeth immediately cried out that Mary was most blessed among women and that she wondered how the mother of her Lord should come to her, there is no way she could have known except through the Holy Spirit which bound them together through love. That they both knew of each other's pregnancies is miracle enough, actually. But the joy of the Spirit and the love that is the cause of that joy was so great that it spilled over everywhere, as Jesus would later say about spiritual gifts: "… good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing will be poured into your lap." (Luke 6:38) They both already seemed to know this deep in their hearts. God was already giving them this overflowing, which is indeed what love does.
The two women most likely did not know each other very well prior to this meeting. But that Mary knew to go serve her, and did so very willingly and freely, says a lot about who Mary already was as a disciple of the Son in her womb. The love within her was like a song, which needed to be sung in order to express the greatness of this event, not the greatness of Mary. She did not lord it over her cousin - (pun definitely intended!) - when she arrived. She did gloat that her baby was the greater, though He really was. She hardly said anything except to praise God and then to serve. She focused all her attention outward to God and to Elizabeth. Mary focused on Love, and Love alone! That is what service is about if it is truly humble.
The other thing that strikes me about the Visitation is that it is goes beyond masculine and feminine. It is a feminine mystery in that two pregnant women meet and rejoice as only women can understand what is happening within their bodies. And it is feminine in that the Spirit gave them the "women's intuition" to know who each other was carrying. It is masculine because they are both carrying strong males who will change the face of salvation history. And outside of the gender roles of the day, both sons were dedicated to God alone and never married. Therefore more than anything this story is about the action of God. It is God who is coming into the world, and these two brave women are willing to help facilitate that.
Mary and Elizabeth teach a tremendous amount. They teach us that serving God is natural and ought to be something rooted within us. They teach us that when we love God deeply we think little of our own convenience or comfort; we put others before ourselves. They teach that when we do this, we are filled with much joy. When we serve we are literally touching God because of the love which is our motivation. How can we not have joy when touching God? Keep in mind that this is not sentimentality of which I speak. This is not about something wonderful we did. Rather, it is a joy that has its origin in God alone. We cannot conjure it up; it is a gift from God. It is the joy that is the result of love.
This joy can even be present in the midst of a dire situation because one knows that God is there in the form of one's own presence to the one who is suffering. Since one who serves looks outward to others, that joy is often the comfort of knowing that God is present, even when things do not outwardly appear to be so. It is important to remember, that when we are serving anyone even in the simplest of ways, we are bringing God's love to them, regardless of whether anyone can articulate it. Love and joy are more than feelings: they are gifts from God. It is the sense that we are not alone. Our presence brings His presence because of the love we bear.
Let us continue singing the song of love and joy such as the greeting that passed between Mary and Elizabeth. Let us allow that song carry us outward, planting that song into the hearts of others without turning attention to ourselves. If we keep singing the song of love, we will have hearts filled with gratitude such that we will be able to echo with Mary, and Elizabeth, too: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.... Holy is His name!"
May we be filled with the Spirit of Love! May we be imitators of Mary and Elizabeth, sharing joy and love with friends and family! May we be moved to visit those in our families whom we have not seen in a long while, especially those older than ourselves! May we bring Christ to others, as Mary brought Him to Elizabeth. And may we never stop singing! Let us continue to meet in the heart of the Lord, who sings His song of Love always! Peace!
The first painting is unknown in origin. Someone sent it to me years ago.
The second illustration is a drawing by Rev. William Hart McNichols. It is Mary and Elizabeth from Pontormo (Jacopi Carucci) (1494, Pontormo - 1557, Florence), "The Visitation (1513), Porch of the Church of the Annunciation, Florence. It appears in the book The Fifteen Mysteries in Image and Word by M. Basil Penninton, illustrated by Fr. McNichols.