4th Sunday of Advent

BY: Mr. Mark Connolly, OP

The reading for this coming Sunday is from Luke and is commonly referred to as “The Visitation.” It is in the Visitation that we find the second Joyful Mystery of the Holy Rosary and also part of the prayer known simply as the “Hail Mary.” What can we find in this mystery? Reflection will provide much food for thought. Mary has just been told by Gabriel that her kinswoman, Elizabeth who was called barren, was in her sixth month, “For with God nothing will be impossible” (Lk 1:37). Straightaway Mary hastens to her. And something amazing happens.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. (Lk 1:39-44)

There is a lot happening here. When Elizabeth heard the greeting, so did her son, John the Baptist. Consider that John, at around 24 week’s gestation, leapt at the sound of the voice of the mother of God. How could he possibly know that voice, given that this would be the first time he had heard Mary’s voice? Consider that part of the Annunciation story is that Mary left straightaway to visit her kinswoman. She could only have been a week or so into her pregnancy. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit asks, “And why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” What tipped her off? Mary would not have been visibly pregnant.

What tipped Elizabeth off was John leaping for joy in her womb. John recognized Jesus, even though Jesus Incarnate was less than a handful of cells.

Pause and let that burrow into your mind and heart.

Suffice it to say that this was not one “blob of tissue” responding to another “blob of tissue.” This was a creature recognizing his Creator and responding in joy! Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and shouts what she cannot otherwise have known, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

How fitting this is the second line in the Hail Mary. We first have the announcement of the Incarnation by the angel Gabriel. Then we have the first recognition by Creation (Elizabeth and John) that their Creator has entered into His Creation. Next, Mary responds with a song of praise. We will look at the first two verses. Depending on the translation that is read, you will hear different versions, and, because words matter, they will have different flavors. In the King James Version we have:

And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. (Lk 1:46-47)

Other translations will use “proclaims the greatness” instead of “doth magnify” or “magnifies.” Since Latin is the root of most English multi-syllable words, it is sometimes useful to look at the Latin for some clues to depth of meaning. In Latin it goes like this:

Magnificat anima mea Dominum,
et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo,

We can see where magnify comes from. Dominum is a form of Deo which is God. We can see where spirit comes from. One can see the idea of salvation in salvatore and perhaps pick up the idea of “God my Saviour.”[1] But where does “rejoice” come from? Perhaps you can see the idea of exultation in exsultavit? What about “soul”? The Latin word is anima[2].

Coupled with anima, the interesting words are magnificat and exsultavit. Mary says her soul magnifies the Lord. If God is so great, how can any puny human magnify God?

Think about what happens when you use a magnifying glass. You see details you could not see before. Remember the hiddenness of reality? The magnifying glass is the iconic tool of Sherlock Holmes, used to bring the hidden into the open. Mary’s soul is just such a lens, and what does her soul do? Participates in making God visible. Jesus is coming into the world as living flesh and blood.

All through the Old Testament we hear that no one can look on the face of God and live; that no one has seen God. Later, we have this exchange in the Gospel of John:

If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father? (Jn 14:7-9)

If we see Jesus, we see the Father. “My soul doth magnify” indeed.

That translation seems much more appropriate than “My soul proclaims the greatness…” Why do I say this? Because “proclaiming greatness” does not require or even suggest active participation. Proclaiming greatness is simply acknowledging a truth. But Mary’s soul magnifying the Lord is a visceral earthy participation and how else can you describe giving birth? To make God visible, to make God present to the world, requires active participation in God’s plan. Let’s face it, how many saying “God is great” are viscerally making Jesus present to the world? There is a difference between a cheerleader on the sidelines and a player on the field.

Mary also says her spirit rejoices. The Latin word is exsultavit. It is the source of the word “exult”, which is to show or feel elation or jubilation. The Latin means to leap up, and the context is one of excitement. Mary’s soul leaps for joy as does John the Baptist’s. What for?

“…for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.” (Lk 1:48-55)

That’s what for. This song of praise, Lk 1:46-55 and known as the Magnificat, is both prophecy and fulfillment of prophecy. There is cause for great joy. A leaping exultation at centuries of prophecy coming, literally, to fruition. And, as with all new life, the hope for the future.

What else can we learn from thinking about Mary visiting Elizabeth? How about solidarity, how about selflessness? Mary had just been told, in practically the same breath, that she was to carry the Lord even though she knew not man, and that her kinswoman, thought to be barren, was with child. Of all the things a young woman might do in such a situation, she immediately went to Elizabeth? Why?

Perhaps she sensed that Elizabeth would be the only one that could understand her unique situation? Perhaps she knew that Elizabeth, an old pregnant woman, would need help? Perhaps because they both knew this news would be jarring to the public at large? Perhaps the simple need for loving companionship? Perhaps because they both had something to celebrate?

Perhaps the simple instinct for family.

[1] Please note, Mary also required salvation.

[2] Permit a very brief and inadequate excursion into Greek and Latin and overlapping concepts along with some related philosophy. All of this can be found googling the words, and usual warnings about reliability of the internet apply. But, just consider the interrelated ideas. The Latin word anima and the Greek words pneuma and psyche, all translatable in English as soul all also have the concept of wind or breath in common. What separates the living from non-living, oversimplified, is an exchange of air. Even plants do this exchange despite the fact they have no lungs. In this way you can perhaps see how the Latin anima becomes the basis for words like animated, animal, etc. It is the animating principle. For the Ancient Greeks, there were three kinds of animating principles: vegetative, sensitive, and rational. By this they distinguished between plant, animal and human life. This animating principle, this life force, is what we call the soul and it is God breathed (Gen 2:7).

Life from life.