(Luke 1:39-56) The month of May, in which we honour Our Blessed Mother, Mary, is drawing to a close. It has been a time to renew our devotion to Our Lady, to meditate on her many virtues and graces, and to draw closer to her Immaculate Heart. I was blessed to spend part of this month in Holland and Italy, where it seemed like everywhere I looked – on the walls of homes and businesses, or even in narrow nooks and crannies at the side of steep hiking trails – I saw images and statues of Mary. Simple, roadside chapels and tiny grottoes appeared at every turn – places where passers-by could pause for a quiet moment of prayer and reflection. Wherever I went, I was reminded of Mary’s presence. For just as she once visited her cousin, Elizabeth, she continues to be present to each one of us today – to enter the hearts and homes of all who love and welcome her.
We celebrate the Visitation of Mary on May 31st. The story is well known. The angel, Gabriel, appeared to Mary in her hometown of Nazareth. He told her that she’d been chosen to be the mother of the Son of God. He also told her that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, was six months pregnant with a baby boy. This sign confirmed Mary’s faith and assured her that nothing is impossible with God. It also inspired her to respond with an act of mercy. Knowing that Elizabeth would be in need of help, Mary “arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Lk 1:39-40).
Mary did not have to make this visit. God did not make it a condition of her being the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth had not asked for her help. Mary was pregnant herself, and it would have only been natural and reasonable to expect that she would stay at home to care for herself and her unborn Child. After all, there were many other women who could have helped Elizabeth, and the journey from Nazareth to Ein Karem was long and arduous.2 But none of those things mattered to Mary. What was significant to her was the love that impelled her to go. Her visit teaches us some important lessons.
First, we see that total self-surrender to God doesn’t in any way conflict with our loving service to others, especially to the poor. If anything, it is exactly the opposite. The love and presence of Jesus that filled Mary’s entire being impelled her to set aside her own considerations and concerns – to set out immediately so that she could help Elizabeth.1 We, too, are called to such generous and loving service.
Second, Mary must have helped Elizabeth in many practical ways, yet there was an even greater significance to her visit. In coming to Elizabeth, “[Mary] brings her at the same time something infinitely more precious: God’s real, physical and hidden presence. She really gives her God, without saying a word about the mystery which is her life.”3 At the sound of Mary’s greeting, the baby – the unborn John the Baptist – leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. The Holy Spirit sanctified him at that very moment, and Elizabeth was also filled with the Holy Spirit. Our practical acts of service are indispensable, for we are the hands and feet of Christ. But the greatest gift we can bring to those we serve is Jesus, whose presence transforms us and acts in and through us so that we can bring supernatural comfort and consolation to everyone we meet.
How can we be certain that it is Christ who we bring and not just ourselves? Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe describes six qualities that are characteristic of Christian acts of mercy. “Mercy must be divinely spontaneous and be exercised generously and quickly (the poor do not have time to wait); it must be persevering (“Mary remained with her about three months”); it must be exercised with fidelity (it is not the capricious gesture of an amateur but a gesture of a totally different kind of gratuitousness); it must be exercised with humility so that it may be gentle and discreet, otherwise we can hurt the poor by making them too acutely aware of their destitution. The poor are fragile and vulnerable; they need to be treated with extreme gentleness.”4
As I reflected on these qualities, I couldn’t help but think of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. At a recent Wednesday audience in Rome, I was inspired by his example of love and total self-giving. He arrived early in order to spend half an hour greeting the crowds, and he later spent several minutes individually greeting each handicapped person who attended that day. It took a lot of time, and I can only imagine the anxiety his security team must have felt as he waded into the crowds. He exuded such love and warmth, such welcoming and gracious hospitality. Everyone in that crowd of thousands – myself included – felt like an honoured guest of Papa Francesco that day. Does he have to ‘visit’ with us in this way? No. He’s a busy and important man with a punishing schedule and many pressing concerns. But he, like Mary, is so filled with the loving presence of the Holy Spirit that he is impelled to go out, to serve, and to bless us with the presence of the Lord.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Cf. Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P., The Mysteries of Mary, trans. André Faure-Beaulieu, rev. by Marcia Potempa and the Brothers and Sisters of Saint John(Charlotte, North Carolina: Saint Benedict Press, 2011), 111-112.
2 Cf. Ibid., 113.
3 Ibid., 133-114.
4 Ibid., 115. Italics added.