On May 31, the church celebrates one of its most famous family reunions: the feast of the Visitation.
We all know the story: Mary learns of her elder relative’s pregnancy and drops everything to travel to her side. Elizabeth is overjoyed to see Mary and, filled with the Holy Spirit, gains the blessed insight that Mary is the Mother of God. John, in her womb, meets his new cousin, Jesus, for the first time and is likewise filled with the Spirit and leaps for joy. Also, according to pious tradition, this is when John, perceiving the presence of his Savior, is cleansed of the stain of original sin.
In the background of it all are the men: Joseph, who has yet to learn the news of Mary’s pregnancy, which will trigger a crisis of faith for him that is relieved by the words of an angel; and Zechariah, old and struck mute by doubt, who later accepts the word of God revealed to him by an angel, and affirms his son’s name and future ministry.
Overall, it is a totally life-affirming experience for everyone. As they say, “a good time was had by all.”
Not an ancient feast
While the Visitation is a crucial part of Luke’s Gospel, setting the stage for all the rest of the stories of Jesus coming into people’s lives and revealing the joy and power of the Kingdom of God, the feast itself is not ancient.
The Visitation feast dates only to the 13th century and the Franciscan order, under the leadership of St. Bonaventure. Under the Franciscans, the feast spread across Europe during the next century. However, it was celebrated on various days in various countries, ranging from April to July.
Originally on July 2
In 1389, Pope Urban VI made the Visitation a universal feast and set its celebration on July 2. This was the day after the octave (eight days) following the feast of the Birth of John the Baptist (June 24). This would also have coincided with the time when Mary would have left Elizabeth to return to her own home.
However, it was awkward to have the Visitation feast celebrated after John’s birth, since he was clearly still in his mother’s womb at the original Visitation. In part, this is why the feast was moved to May 31 in 1969, as part of the various liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council.
As we reflect upon the joyous family reunion of Mary and Elizabeth and the first meeting of their sons, we would do well to remember that, like Mary, we are all called to bring the presence of the Lord to others.
In the Eastern church, Mary is called “the Most Holy Theotokos,” or the God-bearer. She is almost always pictured with Christ in sacred icons. This stresses both the unique vocation of Mary — as the Mother of God — and her mission as the mother of the church, the leading exemplar of how to share Christ with the world.
As soon as she became the “Mother of my Lord,” Mary set out to bring the Lord to others. The Visitation, falling during the Easter season, serves to remind us that we, like Mary, are called to share the Good News with others. And together, with the Holy Spirit, we can make new family memories in Christ. The Good News is meant to be a good time had by all.
Sources: Ark of the New Covenant; fisheaters.com; catholicdoors.com; americancatholic.org; and The Catholic Encyclopedia.