Feast Day: May 31
Set aside by the Roman Church as an important feast, the Visitation celebrates Mary’s sojourn with her cousin, Elizabeth, pregnant with Saint John the Baptist, shortly after the Annunciation of Jesus.
This feast originated in the Roman liturgy in the sixth century. It was introduced into the archdiocese of Prague in 1386, and in 1389 Pope Urban VI extended it to the whole Latin Church. It was established widely throughout the Church to pray for unity and in an attempt to end the Great Schism. The Franciscans had already been celebrating this feast in the thirteenth century. In the Eastern Church the feast is celebrated by the Melkites, the Maronites and the Malabarese of India.
The new prayers for the Mass celebrate the salvific event in which the Virgin Mary was inspired by God to visit Elizabeth and assist her in her need. The “fiat” of the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation (Luke 1:38) was a manifestation of her docility. Her journey to visit Elizabeth is reminiscent of David’s journey when he carried the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Old and the New Covenant are thus united in Mary, who is hailed as “Ark of the Covenant.”
It is helpful to recall that we do not have a journalist’s account of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. Rather, Luke, speaking for the Church, gives a prayerful poet’s rendition of the scene. Elizabeth’s praise of Mary as “the mother of my Lord” can be viewed as the earliest Church’s devotion to Mary. As with all authentic devotion to Mary, Elizabeth’s (the Church’s) words first praise God for what God has done to Mary. Only secondly does she praise Mary for trusting God’s words. Then comes the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Here Mary herself (like the Church) traces all her greatness to God.
In celebrating the feast of the Visitation, it is not necessary to wax sentimental, as if we were dealing only with a family of relatives, thus ignoring the salvific meaning of the feast. At times, devotion to Mary may have occasioned some divisiveness, but we can hope that authentic devotion will lead all to Christ and therefore to one another. Overall, each one of us can venerate Mary as the Christ-bearer who had found favor with God (Luke 1:30), and worship Jesus Christ, sent by the Father for the salvation of the world.
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Heritage, Andrew, ed. “The Book of Saints: A Day-By-Day Illustrated Encyclopedia.”
San Francisco: Weldonowen, 2012.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar.” New York: Alba House, 1992.