Number 13

The Feast of the Visitation

July 2:

Taken From THE LITURGICAL YEAR by Dom Gueranger

OUR Lady's visit to her cousin Elizabeth already engaged our attention whilst we were preparing for the Christmas festival. But it is only fitting to return again to an event so important in our Lady's life; the mere commemoration of this mystery made on Ember-Friday in Advent would be insufficient to bring forward all it contains of deep teaching and holy joy. Since in the course of centuries the holy liturgy has been gaining more and more completeness, it is but natural that this precious mine should come to be further opened in honour of the Virgin Mother. The Order of St. Francis, it would seem, as well as certain particular churches, such as Rheims and Paris for example-----had already taken the initiative, when Urban VI, in 1389, instituted today's solemnity. The Pope counseled a fast on the vigil of the feast, and ordered that it should be followed by an octave; he granted for its celebration the same indulgences as Urban IV had, in the previous century, attached to the festival of Corpus Christi. The Bull of promulgation, stopped by the Pontiff's death, was again taken up and published by Boniface IX, his successor on the Chair of Peter.

   We learn from the lessons of the Office formerly composed for this feast, that the object of its institution was, as Urban conceived it, to obtain the cessation of the schism then desolating the Church. The Papacy, exiled from Rome for seventy years, had barely re-entered it, when Hell, infuriated at a return which crossed all its plans, had taken revenge by ranging under two leaders the flock of the one sheepfold. So deep was the obscurity wherewith miserable intrigues contrived to cover the authority of the legitimate shepherd, that numbers of churches, in all good faith, began to hesitate, and ended at last in preferring the deceptive staff of a hireling. Thicker yet was the darkness to grow, till night should be so dense, that for a moment the conflicting mandates of three Popes would simultaneously spread through the world; whilst the faithful, struck with stupor, would be at an utter loss to discern accurately which was the voice of Christ's true Vicar. Never had the bride of the Son of God been in a more piteous situation. But our Lady, to whom the true Pontiff had turned at the first rising of the storm, did not betray the Church's confidence. During all those years whilst the unfathomable justice of the Most High let the powers of Hell hold sway, she stood for the defense of holy Church, trampling the head of the old serpent so thoroughly under her victorious foot, that in spite of the terrific confusion he had stirred up, he was unable to sully the faith of the people. Their attachment was steadfast to the unity of the Roman See, whosoever might be, in this uncertainty, its veritable occupant. Thus the West, divided in fact, but in principle ever one and undivided, reunited herself spontaneously as soon as God's moment came for the return of light. The hour having arrived for the Queen of Saints to assume the offensive, she would not content herself with merely re-establishing at its former post the army of the elect; Satan now must expiate his audacity by being forced to yield back to holy Church those conquests which for centuries had seemed his for ever. The dragon still raged at Basle, when Florence already beheld the heads of Greek schism, the Armenians and the Ethiopians, the cavillers of Jerusalem, of Syria and of Mesopotamia, all compensating by their unhoped-for adhesion to the Roman Pontiff for the anguish just suffered in the West.

  It was now to be shown that such a return of nations, in the very midst even of the tempest, was indeed the work of her who had been called upon by the pilot, half a century before, to succor the Bark of Peter. Even they of the factious assembly of Basle gave proof of this, in a way which has unfortunately been too much overlooked by historians who undervalue the high importance that liturgical facts hold in the history of Christendom. When about to separate, these last abettors of the schism devoted the forty-third session of their pretended council to the promulgation of this feast of the Visitation, in the establishment of which Urban VI had, from the outset, placed all his hopes. Notwithstanding the resistance of some of the more obstinate, the schism may, from that hour, be said to have ended. The storm was subsiding; the name of Mary, invoked thus by both sides, shone resplendent as the sign of peace amidst the clouds, [Gen. ix. 12-17] even as the rainbow in its sweet radiance unites both extremities of the horizon. 'Look upon it,' says the Holy Ghost, 'and bless Him that made it: it is very beautiful in its brightness. It encompasseth the Heaven about with the circle of its glory: the hands of the Most High have displayed it.' [Ecclus. xliii. 12, 13]

   But, it may be asked, why was the feast of the Visitation specially chosen, more than any other, as the monument of restored peace? The answer seems to be suggested in the very nature of the mystery itself and in the manner of its accomplishment.

   Here, more particularly, does Mary appear as the Ark of the Covenant, bearing within her the Emmanuel, the living testimony of a more true reconciliation, of an alliance more sublime between earth and Heaven, than that limited compact of servitude entered into between Jehovah and the Jews, amidst the roar of thunder. By her means, far better than through Adam, all men are now brethren; for He Whom she hides within her is to be the first-born of the great family of the sons of God. Scarcely is He conceived than there begins for Him the mighty work of universal propitiation. Arise, .then, O Lord, Thou and the Ark which Thou hast sanctified, [Ps. cxxxi. 8] whence Thine Own sanctity will pour down upon the earth! During the whole of her rapid passage from Nazareth to the mountains of Judea, she shall be protected by wings of Cherubim jealously eager to contemplate her glory. Amidst his truest warriors, amidst Israel's choirs of singing men, David conducted the figurative Ark from the house of Aminadab to that of Obed-edom; [2 Kings 6] but better far is the escort deputed by the eternal Father for this sacred Ark of the new Covenant, troops of the noblest Princes of the Heavenly phalanx.
Favoured with benediction was that Levite's house, while for three months it sheltered the Most High hidden on the golden propitiatory: more favoured still the home of the priest Zachary, harbouring, for the same lapse of time, eternal Wisdom enshrined in the Virginal womb, wherein that union, so desired by his love, had just been accomplished. Yet beneath Zachary's roof, blessed as it was, the enemy of God and man was still holding one captive: the Angelic embassy that had announced John's miraculous conception and birth could not exempt him from the shameful tribute that every son of Adam must pay to the prince of death, on entering into this life. As formerly at Azotus, so now Dagon may not remain standing erect in face of the Ark. [1 Kings v] Mary appears, and Satan, at once overturned, is subjected to utter defeat in John's soul, a defeat that is not to be his last; for the Ark of the Covenant will not stay its victories till the reconciliation of the last of the elect be effected.

   Let us, then, hail this day with songs of gladness: for this mystery contains the germ of every victory gained by the Church and her sons: henceforth the sacred Ark is borne at the head of every combat waged by the new Israel. Division between man and his God is at an end, between the Christian and his brethren! The ancient Ark was powerless to prevent the division of the tribes; henceforth if schism and heresy do hold out for a few years against Mary, it shall be but to evince more fully her glorious triumph at last. In all ages, because of her, even as today under the eyes of the enemy now put to confusion, little ones shall rejoice, all shall be filled with benediction, and Pontiffs shall be perfected. [Ps.  cxxxi 8, 9, 14-18] Let us join the tribute of our songs to John's exulting gladness, to Elizabeth's sudden exclamations, to Zachary's canticle; therewith let earth re-echo! Thus in bygone days was the Ark hailed as it entered the Hebrew camp. Hearing their shout, the Philistines learned that help had come from the Lord; and, seized with terror, they groaned aloud saying: 'Woe to us; for there was no such great joy yesterday and the day before: woe to us!' [1 Kings iv 5-8] Verily this day the whole human race, together with John, leaps for joy and shouts with a great shout; verily this day has the old enemy good reason to lament the heel of the woman, [Gen. iii. 15] as she stamps him down, makes his haughty head to wince for the first time: and John, set free, is hereby the precursor of us all. More happy are we, the new Israel, than was the old, for our glory shall never be taken away; never shall be wrested from us that sacred Ark which has led us dry-shod across the river, [Josue iii. 4] and has leveled fortresses to the dust at its approach. [Ibid. vi]

   Justly then is this day, whereon an end is put to the series of defeats begun in Eden, the day of new canticles for a new people! Yet who may intone the hymn of triumph but she to whom the victory belongs? 'Arise, arise, O Debbora, arise; arise and utter a canticle. [Judg. v. 12] The valiant men ceased and rested in Israel, until Mary arose, the true Debbora, until a mother arose in Israel. [Ibid. 7] It is I, it is I,' saith she, 'that will sing to the Lord. I will sing to the Lord the God of Israel. [Ibid. 3] O magnify the Lord with me, as saith my grandsire David, and let us extol his Name together.' My heart hath rejoiced, like that of Anna, in God my Saviour. [1 Kings iii] For even as in His handmaid judith, by me He hath fulfilled His mercy, [Judith xiii. 18] so that my praise shall not depart out of the mouth of men who shall be mindful of the power of the Lord for ever. [Ibid. 25, 31; xv. 11] For mighty is He that hath done great things in me; [Exod. xv. 2, 3, 11] there is none holy as He. [1 Kings ii. 2] Even as by Esther, He hath throughout all generations saved those who feared Him; [Esth. ix. 28] in the power of His arm, [Judith ix. 11] He hath turned against the impious one the projects of His Own heart, driving proud Aman out of his seat and uplifting the humble; the bow of the mighty is overcome, and the weak are girt with strength; the abundance of them that were rich hath passed to the hungry, and they are filled; [1 Kings ii. 4, 5] He hath remembered His people, and hath had pity on His inheritance. [Esth. x. 12] Such, indeed, was the promise that Adam received and our fathers have handed down unto us: and He hath done to them even as He had promised.' [Ibid. xiii, 15; xiv. 5]

      Daughters of Sion and all ye who groan in the thralldom of Satan, the hymn of deliverance has sounded in our land! Following in her train, who beareth within her the pledge of alliance, let us form into choirs; better than Mary, Aaron's sister, and by yet juster title, she leads the concerts of Israel. [Exod. xv. 20, 21] So sings she on this day of triumph, and the burthen of her song gathers into one all the victorious chants which, in the ages of expectation, preluded this Divine canticle of hers. But the past victories of the elect people were but figures of that which is gained by our glorious Queen on this day of her manifestation; for she, beyond Debbora, Judith or Esther, has truly brought about the deliverance of her people; in her mouth the accents of her illustrious predecessors pass from the burning aspiration of the prophetic age to the calm ecstasy which denotes that she is already in possession of the long-expected God. A new era is fitly inaugurated by sacred chants: Divine praise receives from Mary that character which henceforth it is never to lose, even in eternity.

The preceding considerations have been suggested by the special motive which led the Church to institute this feast in the fourteenth century. Again, in our own day, has Mary shown that this date is indeed for her a day of victory. On the second of July, in the year 1849, Rome was restored to the exiled Pontiff Pius IX. But we should far exceed the limits of our present scope, were we to strive to exhaust the teachings of this vast mystery of the Visitation. Besides, some have been already given in our Advent volume; and others more recently on the feast and octave-day of St. John's Nativity. 

Sequel of the holy Gospel according to Luke.

Ch. i.

  At that time, Mary rising up went into a hill country with haste, into a city of Juda. And she entered into the house of Zachary, and saluted Elizabeth. And it came to pass that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost; and she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord. And Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord; and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

Mary, having learned from the Archangel that Elizabeth was about to become a mother, is preoccupied with the thought of the services that will soon be needed for her cousin and the infant; she, therefore, starts at once on her journey across the mountains, amidst which stands the house of Zachary. Thus does the charity of Christ act, thus does it press, [2 Cor. v. 14] when it is genuine. There is no state of soul in which, under pretext of more exalted perfection, the Christian may be allowed to forget his brethren. Mary had just contracted the highest union with God; and our imagination might perhaps be inclined to picture her, as it were, in a state of powerlessness, lost in ecstasy during these days in which the Word, taking Flesh of her flesh, is inundating her in return with the floods of his Divinity. The Gospel, however, is explicit on this subject: it particularly says that it was in those days [Luke i. 39] that the humble Virgin, hitherto quietly hidden in the secret of the Lord's face, [Ps. xxx. 21] rose up to devote herself to all the bodily as well as the spiritual needs of a neighbour in such condition. This does not mean to say that works are superior to prayer, and that contemplation is not the better part; for, indeed, never did our Lady so directly and so fully adhere to God with her whole being as at this time. But when the creature has attained the summits of the unitive life, he is all the more apt and fitted for exterior works, inasmuch as no lending of himself thereto can distract him from the immovable centre wherein he is fixed.

This is a signal privilege, resulting from that division of the spirit and the soul, [Heb. iv. 12] to which all do not attain, and which marks one of the most decisive steps in the spiritual life; for it supposes a purification of man's entire being so perfect, that in very truth he is no other than one spirit with the Lord; [1 Cor. vi. 17] it entails so absolute a submission of the powers that, without clashing one with the other, they yield, each in its particular sphere, obedience simultaneously to Divine inspiration.
So long as the Christian has not yet crossed this last defile, defended with such obstinacy by nature to the end, so long as he has not yet won that holy liberty of the children of God, [Rom. viii. 21; 2 Cor. iii. 17] he cannot possibly turn to man, without in some way quitting God. Not that he ought, on that account, to neglect his duties towards his neighbour, in whom God wishes us to see no other than Himself; nevertheless, blessed is he who, like Mary, loses naught of the better part, while he attends to his obligations towards others! Yet how few are such privileged souls, and what a delusion it is to persuade ourselves to the contrary!

   We shall return to these thoughts on the day of our Lady's triumphant Assumption; but the Gospel to which we have just been listening makes it a duty for us to draw the attention of the reader to this point. Our Lady has especially on this feast a claim to be invoked as the model of those who devote themselves to works of mercy; and although it is not given to all equally to keep their spirits immersed in God, yet ought they constantly to strive to approach, by the practice of recollection and Divine praise, to those luminous heights whereon their Queen shows herself this day in all the plenitude of her ineffable perfections.



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