The Song of the Woman: the Visitation
Fulton J. Sheen
TAKEN FROM THE WORLD'S FIRST LOVE
One of the most beautiful moments in history was that when pregnancy
met pregnancy --— when child bearers became the first heralds of the
King of Kings. All pagan religions begin with the teachings of adults,
but Christianity begins with the birth of a Child. From that day to
this, Christians have ever been the defenders of the family and the
love of generation. If we ever sat down to write out what we would
expect the Infinite God to do, certainly the last thing we would expect
would be to see Him imprisoned in a carnal ciborium for nine months;
and the next to last thing we would expect is that the "greatest man
ever born of woman," while yet in his mother's womb, would salute the
yet imprisoned God-Man. But this is precisely what took place in the
At the Annunciation the Archangel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth
was about to become the mother of John the Baptist. Mary was then a
young girl, but her cousin was "advanced in years," that is, quite
beyond the normal age of conceiving. "See, moreover, how it fares with
thy cousin Elizabeth; she is old, yet she too has conceived a son; she
who was reproached with barrenness is now in her sixth month, to prove
that nothing is impossible with God. And Mary said, 'Behold the
handmaid of the Lord, let it be done unto me according to thy word.'
And with that the Angel left her" (Lk. 1:36-38).
The birth of Christ is without regard to man; the birth of John the
Baptist is without regard to age! "Nothing is impossible with God." The
Scripture continues the story:
"In the days that followed, Mary rose up and went with all haste to
a city of Juda, in the hill country where Zachary dwelt; and entering
in she gave Elizabeth greeting. No sooner had Elizabeth heard Mary's
greeting, than the child leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth herself was
filled with the Holy Spirit; so that she cried out with a loud voice,
"Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. How
have I deserved to be thus visited by the mother of my Lord? Why, as
soon as ever the voice of thy greeting sounded in my ears, the child in
my womb leaped for joy. Blessed art thou for thy believing; the message
that was brought to thee from the Lord shall have fulfillment" (Lk.
Mary "went with all haste"; she is always in a hurry to do good. With
deliberate speed she becomes the first nurse of Christian civilization.
The woman hastens to meet a woman. They serve best their neighbor who
bear the Christ within their hearts and souls. Bearing in herself the
Secret of Salvation, Mary journeys five days from Nazareth to the city
of Hebron, where, according to tradition, rested the ashes of the
founders of the people of God: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The terraced fields of Juda
pregnant with seed
called out to her
as she passed,
praising the Child
she was yet to bear;
invoking His Blessing
on their expectancy. (1)
"She gave Elizabeth greeting"; springtime served the autumn. She, who
is to bear Him Who will say: "I came not to be ministered unto but to
minister," now ministers unto her cousin, who bears only His trumpet
and His voice in the wilderness. Nothing so provokes the service of the
needy as the consciousness of one's own unworthiness when visited by
the grace of God. The handmaid of the Lord becomes the handmaid of
On hearing the woman's greeting, the child whom Elizabeth bore within
her "leaped in her womb." The Old Testament is here meeting the New
Testament; the shadows dissolve with joy before the substance. All the
longings and expectations of thousands of years as to Him Who would be
the Savior are now fulfilled in this one ecstatic moment when John the
Baptist greets Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Mary is present at three births: at the birth of John the Baptist, at
the birth of her own Divine Son, and at the "birth" of John the
Evangelist, at the foot of the Cross, as the Master saluted him:
"Behold thy mother!" Mary, the Woman, presided at the three great
moments of life: at a birth on the occasion of the Visitation, at a
marriage at the Marriage Feast of Cana, and at a Death, or surrender of
Life, at the Crucifixion of her Divine Son. [Bishop
Sheen and St. Alphonsus interpret the second chapter of Luke
differently in which it reads that Mary remained for about three
months with her cousin then departed for her own house; then St. Luke
records that Elizabeth bore her son. St. Alphonsus is taking it
literally in time sequence and Fulton Sheen reads it not sequentially
but poetically or stylistically. --- The Web Master.]
"The child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth herself was filled with
the Holy Spirit." A Pentecost came before Pentecost. The physical body
of Christ within Mary now fills John the Baptist with the Spirit of
Christ; thirty-three years later the Mystical Body of Christ, His
Church, will be filled with the Holy Spirit, as Mary, too, will be, in
the midst of the Apostles abiding in prayer. John is sanctified by
Jesus. So Jesus is not as John --— not man alone, but God as well.
The second part of the second most beautiful prayer in the world, the
Hail Mary, is now about to be written; the first part was spoken by an
Angel: "Hail (Mary) full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art
thou among women" (Lk. 1:28).
Now Elizabeth adds the second part in a "loud voice"; "Blessed art thou
among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb (Jesus)." Old age is
here not jealous of youth or privilege, for Elizabeth makes the first
public proclamation --— that Mary is the Mother of God: "How have I
deserved to be thus visited by the mother of my Lord?" She learned it
less from Mary's lips than from the Spirit of God nestling over her
womb. Mary received the Spirit of God through an Angel; Elizabeth was
the first to receive it through Mary.
Cousin-nurse at birth, Mother-nurse at death. There is nothing Mary has
that is for herself alone --— not even her Son. Before He is born, her
Son belongs to others. No sooner does she have the Divine Host within
herself than she rises from the Communion rail of Nazareth to visit the
aged and to make her young. Elizabeth would never live to see her son
lose his head to the dancing stepdaughter of Herod, but Mary would live
and die at once in seeing her Son taste death, that death might be no
... Elizabeth, describing how the God-Man hidden within Mary worked on
her soul and the new life within her old body, exclaimed: "Why, as soon
as ever the voice of thy greeting sounded in my ears, the child in my
womb leaped for joy. Blessed art thou for thy believing; the message
that was brought to thee from the Lord shall have fulfillment" (Lk.
1:44, 45). Eve had believed the serpent; Elizabeth now praises Mary for
blotting out the ruin of Eve by believing in God.
But no sooner did an unborn child leap with joy in a prison house of
flesh than a song leaped with joy to Mary's lips. To sing a song is to
possess one's soul. Maria, the sister of Moses, sang after the
miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. Deborah sang after the defeat of
the Canaanites. Wherever liberty is, there the free sing. Elizabeth's
husband sang the Benedictus to usher in the New Order, for Our Lord
came "not to destroy the law but to fulfill it." Yet only as a Mirror,
in whom Elizabeth sees reflected the unborn Emmanuel, does Mary glow
with the song of those future days when He alone shall be the Light of
the World. Mary smiles through tears of joy, and she makes rainbow of a
song. At least until the Birth, the Woman shall have mirth. After those
nine months He, Who is sheathed within her flesh, would say: "I come
not to bring peace, but the sword" (Mt. 10:34).
The Magnificat is the hymn of a mother with a Child Who is at once the
"Ancient of Days." Like a great artist, who has finished a painting in
a few months, Mary could say: "In how short a time, and yet it is my
life," so the song sprang from Mary's lips like a jet in a few seconds
—-- and yet she was a lifetime in composing it.
She gathered up the soul melodies of her people --— a song of David, a
song above all which Hannah sang centuries before at the door of the
tabernacle of Shiloh, when she brought her infant son Samuel, "to lend
him to the Lord as long as He liveth" (1 Sam. 1:28). But Mary makes
their words and her own refer not to the past but to the future, when
the Law of Fear will give way to the Law of Love, and when another
life, another kingdom, will arise in a towering flight of sanctity and
"My soul magnifies the Lord: My spirit has found joy in God, Who is my
Savior." The faces of women had been veiled for centuries, and the
faces of men were veiled, too, in the sense that men hid themselves
from God. But now that the veil of sin is lifted, the Woman stands
upright and looks at the face of God to praise Him. When the Divine
enters into the human, then the soul thinks less of asking than of
loving Him. The lover seeks no favors from the beloved; Mary has no
petitions but only praise. As the soul becomes detached from things and
is conscious of itself and of its destiny, it knows itself only in God.
The egotist magnifies himself, but Mary magnifies the Lord. The carnal
think first of body, and the mediocre think of God as an afterthought.
In Mary nothing takes precedence over Him Who is God the Creator, the
Lord of history, and the Savior of mankind.
When our friends praise us for our deeds, we thank them for their
kindness. When Elizabeth extols Mary, Mary glorifies her God. Mary
receives praise as a mirror receives light: she stores it not, nor even
acknowledges it, but makes it pass from her to God to Whom is due all
praise, all honor and thanksgiving. The shortened form of this song is:
"Thank God." Her whole personality is to be at the service of her God.
Too often do men praise God with our tongues, while our hearts are far
from Him. "Words go up, but thoughts remain below." But it was the soul
and spirit of Mary, and not her lips, that overflowed in words, because
the secret of Love within had already burst its bonds.
Why magnify God, Who cannot become less by subtraction through our
atheism or greater by the addition of our praise? It is true --— not in
Himself does God change stature through our recognition, any more than,
because a simpleton mocks the beauty of a Raphael, the painting loses
its beauty. But, in us, God is capable of increase and decrease as we
are lovers or sinners. As our ego inflates, the need of God seems to be
less; as our ego deflates, the need of God appears in its true hunger.
The love of God is reflected in the soul of the just, as the light of
the sun is magnified by a mirror. So Mary's Son is the Sun, for she is
the moon. She is the nest —-- He the Fledgling Who will fly to a higher
Tree and will then call her home. She calls Him her Lord or Savior,
even though she is preserved free from the stain of Original Sin, for
it is due entirely to the merits of the Passion and Death of her Divine
Son. In herself she is nothing, and she has nothing. He is everything!
Because He has looked graciously upon the lowliness of His handmaid —--
because He Who is Mighty, He whose name is Holy, has wrought these
wonders for me.
The proud end in despair, and the last act of despair is suicide or the
taking of one's life, which is no longer bearable. The humble are
necessarily the joyful, for where there is no pride, there can be no
self-centeredness, which makes joy impossible.
Mary's song has this double note; her spirit rejoices because God has
looked down on her lowliness. A box that is filled with sand cannot be
filled with gold; a soul that is bursting with its own ego can never be
filled with God. There is no limit on God's part to His possession of a
soul; it is the soul alone that can limit His welcome, as a window
curtain limits the light. The more empty the soul is of self, the
greater the room in it for God. The larger the emptiness of a nest, the
bigger the bird that can be housed therein. There is an intrinsic
relation between the humility of Mary and the Incarnation of the Son of
God within. She whom the heavens could not contain now tabernacles the
King of the Heavens Himself. The Most High looks on the lowliness of
Mary's self-emptying, alone, would not have been enough, had not He Who
is her God, her Lord and Savior, "humbled Himself." Though the cup be
empty, it cannot hold the ocean. People are like sponges. As each
sponge can hold only so much water and then reaches a point of
saturation, so every person can hold only so much of honor. After the
saturation point is reached, instead of the man's wearing the purple,
the purple wears the man. It is always after the honor is accepted that
the recipient moans in false humility: "Lord, I am not worthy."
But here, after the honor is received, Mary, instead of standing on her
privilege, becomes a servant-nurse of her aged cousin and, in the midst
of that service, sings a song in which she calls herself the Lord's
handmaid --— or better still the bondwoman of God, a slave who is
simply His property and one who has no personal will except His own.
Selflessness is shown as the true self. "There was no room in the inn"
because the inn was filled. There was room in the stable because there
were no egos there —-- only an ox and an ass.
God looked over the world for an empty heart —-- but not a lonely heart
—-- a heart that was empty like a flute on which He might pipe a tune
--— not lonely like an empty abyss, which is filled by death. And the
emptiest heart He could find was the heart of a Lady. Since there was
no self there, He filled it with His very Self.
"Behold, from this day forward, all generations will count me blessed."
These are miraculous words. How can we explain them, except by the
Divinity of her Son? How could this country girl, coming from the
despised village of Nazareth and wrapped in anonymity by Judean
mountains, foresee in future generations how painters like Michelangelo
and Raphael, poets like Sedulius, Cynewulf, Jacopone da Todi, Chaucer,
Thompson, and Wordsworth, theologians like Ephrem, Bonaventure, and
Aquinas, the obscure of little villages, and the learned and the great
would pour out their praise of her in an unending stream, as the
world's first love, and say of their impoverished rhymes:
And men looked up at the woman made
for the morning
When the stars were young,
For whom, more rude than a beggar's rhyme in the gutter,
These songs are sung.
Her Son will later give the law explaining her immortal remembrance:
"He that humbleth himself, shall be exalted." Humility before God is
compensated for by glory before men. Mary had taken the vow of
virginity and, seemingly, thus prevented her beauty from passing on to
other generations. And yet now —-- through the power of God —-- she
sees herself as the mother of countless generations without ever
ceasing to be a virgin. All generations who lost the favor of God by
eating the forbidden fruit will now exalt her, because through her they
enter once again into the possession of the Tree of Life. Within three
months Mary has had her eight Beatitudes:
1. "Blessed art thou
because full of grace," said the Archangel Gabriel.
2. "Blessed art thou for thou shalt conceive in thy womb the Son of the
Most High, God."
3. "Blessed art thou, Virgin Mother, for 'the Holy Spirit will come
upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.'"
4. "Blessed art thou for doing God's will: 'Be it done unto me
according to Thy Word.'"
5. "Blessed art thou for believing," said Elizabeth.
6. "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb (Jesus)," added Elizabeth.
7. "Blessed art thou among women."
8. "Blessed art thou, for the message that was brought to thee from the
Lord shall have fulfillment."
Lowliness and exaltation are one in her: lowliness because, judging
herself to be unworthy of being the Mother of Our Lord, she took the
vow of virginity; exalted because God, looking upon what Mary believed
was her nothingness, once more created a world out of "nothing."
Blessedness is happiness. Mary had everything that could make a person
truly happy. For to be happy, three things are required: to have
everything one wants, to have it united in one person who is loved with
all the ardor of one's soul, and to know that this is possessed without
sin. Mary had all three.
If her Divine Son had not intended that His Mother should be honored
where He is adored, He would never have permitted these prophetic words
of hers to have had fulfillment. He would have nudged the hands of the
artists at their canvas, would have stopped the lips of the poets, and
would have frozen our fingers as we told our beads.
How quickly the great men and women are forgotten, and how few of their
names are remembered at all! A guidebook is necessary for us to
identify the dead in Westminster Abbey; few are the citizens who know
their world war heroes, after whom the streets were named. But here in
Mary is a young girl, obscure and unknown, in an outpost of the Roman
Empire; she who affirms that the law of forgetfulness will be suspended
in her favor, and she prophesies it before a single Gospel has been
written, before the Son of God has seen the light of day in the flesh.
He has mercy upon those who fear Him, from
generation to generation; He has done valiantly with the strength of
His arm driving the proud astray in the conceit of their hearts; He has
put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the lowly; He has
filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty
handed; He has protected His servant Israel, keeping His merciful
design in remembrance, according to the promise which He made to our
forefathers, Abraham and his posterity for ever more.
This part of the Magnificat is the most revolutionary document ever
written, a thousand times more revolutionary than anything Karl Marx
wrote. In relation to the preceding verses, it is suggestive to compare
Mary's Revolution with the Revolution of Marx and Communism.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF REVOLUTION
Mary begins with the soul and God. "My soul magnifies the Lord; my
spirit has found joy in God Who is my Savior." The whole universe
revolves around these two realities: the soul aspiring to an infinity
of happiness, which God alone can supply.
Marx ended the first of his books with the words: "I hate all the
gods." For Communism there is only matter endowed with its own inner
contradiction, which begets movement. Since there is only matter, there
is no soul. The belief that each man has value "is founded," said Marx,
"on the Christian illusion that every man has a soul."
There is no God, because a belief in God alienates man from himself and
makes him subject to someone outside self. There is not God, but man.
"Religion is the Opium of the people."
THE FUTURE OF REVOLUTION
"All generations will count me blessed." She will be an exception to
the law of forgetfulness, because the Lord of History has willed that
she be venerated through the centuries. History is providentially
determined. The progress and fall of civilizations depend on the moral
ordering of human life. Peace is the tranquility of order, and order
implies justice to God and neighbor. Peace fails when each man seeks
his own and forgets the love of God and neighbor.
History is dialectically determined. It is not God or the way men live
that decides the progress and decay of civilization but a law of class
conflict that continues until Communism takes over and classes no
longer exist. The future is determined by matter. The present
generation and all the past can look to a remote future where they will
dance on the graves of their ancestors. Certain classes are destined to
be the funeral pyre to light future generations, lifting clenched fists
over the corpse of Lenin .
FEAR AND REVOLUTION
"He has mercy on those who fear Him, from generation to generation."
Fear is here understood as filial, that is, a shrinking from hurting
one who is loved. Such is the fear a son has for a devoted father and
the fear a Christian has of Christ. Fear is here related to love.
Communism is founded not on filial but on servile fear, the kind of
fear a slave has for a tyrant, a worker has for a dictator. The fear
begotten by the revolution is a compulsion neurosis, born not of love
but of power. A revolution that destroys filial fear of God always ends
in the creation of servile fear of man.
TECHNIQUE OF REVOLUTION
Both Mary and Marx advocate the exaltation of the poor, the dethroning
of the proud, the emptying of the rich in favor of the socially
disinherited, but they differ in their technique.
Violence is necessary. "The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence." But
the violence must be against self, against its selfishness, greed,
lust, and pride.
The sword that strikes must be thrust inward to rid oneself of all that
would make one despise neighbor.
The transfer of wealth, which makes for the prosperity of the poor, is
inspired by an inner charity that loves God and neighbor.
Man has nothing to lose but the chains of sin, which darkens his
intellect and weakens his will. By throwing off sin through the merits
of Christ, man becomes a child of God, an heir of Heaven, enjoying
inner peace in this life and even amid its trials, and an ultimate and
final ecstasy of love in Heaven.
Violence is necessary. But the violence must be against neighbor,
against those who own, who believe in God and in democracy. Egotism
must be disguised as social justice.
The sword that strikes must be thrust outward to rid society of all
that would despise a revolution based on hate.
The transfer of wealth takes place through "violent confiscation" and
the shifting of booty and loot from one man's pocket to another.
Man has nothing to lose but the chains that bind him to God and to
property. Thanks, then, to atheism and socialism, man will be restored
to himself as the true god.
It is remarkable how Mary begins her Magnificat with her personal
experiences and soon passes on to identify herself with the whole human
race. She looks ahead and sees what the effect of the birth of her Son
will be to the world, how it will improve the whole condition of human
life, how it will free the oppressed, feed the hungry, and assist the
helpless. And when she said these words, her Son was not yet born --—
although one would think, from the joy of the song, that He was already
in her arms. She is singing here a song of pure faith about something
certain to happen because God will make it come true, not predicting
the mere revolution of blind material forces.
There is an intrinsic antagonism between her revolution and any other,
because hers is based on the true psychology of human nature. Hers is
based on the existence of an immense want, so serious and so imperative
that every honest heart must crave for its satisfaction. Happy are they
who experience, within themselves, the expelling of pride and egotism,
and in whom spiritual hunger is fed --— who discover, before it is too
late, that they are poor, and naked, and blind, and who seek to clothe
themselves with the raiment of grace that her Son brings.
(1) Calvin Le Compte, I
Sing of a Maiden
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