The Feast of the Visitation: Then and Now

The Feast of the Visitation: Then and Now

On Tuesday, May 31st, we celebrated the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this Feast we commemorate the Virgin Mary’s famous visit to her cousin, Elizabeth, which is beautifully recorded in Luke’s gospel (1:39–56).

The account centers on that famous meeting of these two women, Elizabeth and Mary, the old and the new generation. Theirs was certainly a joyful and unique event. Both women share the same journey: they found themselves pregnant in extremely strange circumstances. For instance, ­Elizabeth in her old age suffered from infertility whereas Mary was to become a mother thanks to the workings of the Holy Spirit.  

This feast is a rather late coming within the liturgical history of the Church. Studies show that it reverts back to the 13th or 14th century. We know that it was established universally throughout the Church so as to pray for unity. The present date of celebration was set in 1969, for the precise reason to follow the Annunciation of the Lord and anticipate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist.

Following the trail of the majority of Marian feasts, the Visitation Feast is intrinsically intertwined with Jesus coupled with his saving work. Certainly Mary and Elizabeth stand out in the picture. Nevertheless, Jesus and John the Baptist silently become the protagonists of the event. The Lukan narrative mentions the fact that Jesus’ presence makes John leap with joy, in other words, the joy of messianic salvation. Consecutively, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and says to Mary words of praise. These words are still present with us today, echoing throughout all these centuries that went by.

We need to stress that we do not have a journalist account regarding this meeting. On the contrary, the third evangelist is addressing the Church and is giving a prayerful poet’s interpretation of the scene. Elizabeth’s praise of Mary, as “the mother of the Lord”, can be considered as the most primitive devotion to Mary, Our Mother. In the name of the Church, Elizabeth rightly praises God for the wonders He has done with Mary. In Elizabeth’s praise, Mary’s full trust in the Lord’s words is secondary. The ending of this most marvelous and moving scene is, surely, the Magnificat, which we find in Luke 1:46-55. In this instance, Mary herself, as the Church, attributes to God the greatness He lovingly and mercifully bestowed on her.

And now let us pause for a moment and let St Bede the Venerable commenting on Mary’s proclamation of the Lord by working in her.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour. With these words Mary first acknowledges the special gifts she has been given. Then she recalls God’s universal favours, bestowed unceasingly on the human race.

When a man devotes all his thoughts to the praise and service of the Lord, he proclaims God’s greatness. His observance of God’s commands, moreover, shows that he has God’s power and greatness always at heart. His spirit rejoices in God his saviour and delights in the mere recollection of his creator who gives him hope for eternal salvation.

These words are often for all God’s creations, but especially for the Mother of God. She alone was chosen, and she burned with spiritual love for the son she so joyously conceived. Above all other saints, she alone could truly rejoice in Jesus, her saviour, for she knew that he who was the source of eternal salvation would be born in time in her body, in one person both her own son and her Lord.

For the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Mary attributes nothing to her own merits. She refers all her greatness to the gift of the one whose essence is power and whose nature is greatness, for he fills with greatness and strength the small and the weak who believe in him.

She did well to add: and holy is his name, to warn those who heard, and indeed all who would receive his words, that they must believe and call upon his name. For they too could share in everlasting holiness and true salvation according to the words of the prophet: and it will come to pass, that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. This is the name she spoke of earlier: and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.

Therefore it is an excellent and fruitful custom of holy Church that we should sing Mary’s hymn at the time of evening prayer. By meditating upon the incarnation, our devotion is kindled, and by remembering the example of God’s Mother, we are encouraged to lead a life of virtue. Such virtues are best achieved in the evening. We are weary after the day’s work and worn out by our distractions. The time for rest is near, and our minds are ready for contemplation.

This great homily by St Bede powerfully reminds us of one of the invocations in Mary’s litany, namely “Ark of the Covenant.” Precisely as the Ark of the Covenant of old, Mary lovingly and generously offers God’s presence into other people’s lives. And as David danced before the Ark, likewise John the Baptist leaps for joy. As the Ark aided to group the 12 tribes of Israel by being put in David’s capital, likewise, to Mary has been entrusted with the mission by God to unite all Christians in her son. Even if every so often, devotion to Mary may have brought about some divisiveness, but we can hope that authentic devotion will lead all to Christ and thus, to one another as brothers and sisters.

Moreover, the Feast of the Visitation tells us of the preciousness of human life with the womb and how much we are responsible to protect it at all costs, including of course the eugenic legislation. Presently, the Maltese government’s proposal to introduce embryo selection in the IVF procedure is nothing short of eugenics, as such methods do not deliver a “healthy baby” but provide a tool to enable the selection of which baby will live and which baby will be frozen in perpetuity. This concern has been voiced by Life Network Foundation Malta which highly stressed that the new IVF amendments do not secure healthy babies. This of Signatories which supported this position included Malta Unborn Child Platform, Id‑Dar tal‑Providenza, Fondazzjoni Arka, Catholic Voices Malta, Moviment ta’ Kana, Caritas Malta, Peace and Good Foundation, Paulo Freire Foundation, St Jeanne Antide Foundation, Dar Merħba Bik Foundation, Dar Hosea, Society of St Vincent de Paule and The Church Homes for the Elderly.

Every embryo created through an IVF cycle is a distinct human being. Under the proposed procedure every embryo will be tested for possible monogenic disorders.  After the diagnosis, only an embryo that does not test positive for the disorder is transferred into his or her mother’s womb. The embryos that carry the unwanted mutation are frozen indefinitely. Government seeks to mask this reality by implying that discarded embryos still have the chance to be adopted. In the last two years, the stockpile of frozen embryos has risen from 180 to over 300 this year, with no mention of any having been adopted. 

One wonders how embryos discarded by their own parents would be considered for adoption by others. In fact, there are serious consequences when we breach the fundamental human principle that no person should determine who is to live and who is to die. Such selection is a breach at the heart of this principle and introduces eugenics where the value of a person is dependent on his or her health rather than the intrinsic value of every human being, irrespective of the stage of that human’s development, age, race, orientation, health or abilities.

Equality cannot be selective simply because equality is universal. The new IVF amendments are fundamentally discriminatory as they imply that the lives of people presently living with such genetic conditions are valueless. Human embryos with the same genetic conditions do not deserve to be intentionally frozen. It accentuates a mentality that discriminates against people living with disabilities. Today there are people living with genetic conditions! The declaration said that one cannot celebrate the Special Olympics in one month and proposed laws that prevent children with genetic conditions from being born in the next month. Therefore, the declaration urges the Maltese Government to consider the ethical and moral implications that this eugenic legislation will be introducing and to open this process to appropriate consultation.

What a great connection between the Feast of Visitation and what is occurring nowadays within the field of eugenics.

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap