THE Providence of God showed itself wonderfully and beautifully in the manner in which the footsteps of our Blessed Lady were guided, after the accomplishment of the great mystery of the Incarnation. It seems almost impossible to imagine that she could have remained long in the same home with the blessed Joseph without either imparting to him the great secret of her Maternity, or feeling much embarrassment in keeping it from him. She had received no commission, as far as we are told, to do this, and God has His own designs as to the manner and the time in which He makes such revelations to us. In this case the knowledge of the Incarnation was to be made the occasion of a great process of grace in the heart of St. Joseph, and this was to be the appointed means by which he was to be fitted more and more for the work which he was to dis charge in this Divine economy. Whenever St. Joseph became aware of what had passed, it was the will of God that Mary should, immediately on the Incarnation, be occupied in assisting and tending her cousin Elisabeth, and that her presence, and much more the presence of our Blessed Lord in her womb, was to be the source and occasion of very great graces to the Blessed Baptist as well as to his holy parents. Thus her first months of maternity were to be spent in exercises of humility and charity.
St. Joseph most probably accompanied our Lady at the Visitation, which must have taken place about the time of his annual visit to Jerusalem for the feast of the Pasch. He must also probably have heard the words of St. Elisabeth on receiving the salutation of our Lady, and he may in other ways have become aware, even though not directly from her, of the great dignity to which she had been raised and of the presence of our Lord in her womb. But he had not received from her, or from any one else, a word of guidance as to his own position with reference to her as the Mother of God and to her Child when He should be born. As to this, Mary could tell him nothing. As God designed to make this matter the subject and the occasion of a great advance in the perfection of this blessed soul, it was well that he should be for a time separated from our Lady, as we suppose him to have been during the interval between the beginning of the Visitation and the return of Mary to her own home. Thus while God was using the presence of His Son and of His Mother with the holy family of Zachary for the purposes of His Providence with regard to the sanctification of St. John and his parents, He used her absence from St. Joseph for the purpose of carrying on to perfection His own work in the soul of the blessed spouse of Mary.
The history of the Visitation and the succeeding mysteries is so much wrapped up in the course of the Life of our Lord, that it seems needless to dwell on them at any great length, though they are in truth mysteries of the life of Mary in particular. It will be enough to refer to the incidents, and to suppose that it is understood that our Lord was all the time most actively engaged in His Mother's womb, both in glorifying the Father by His most perfect adoration, and in sanctifying His Mother as well as the other saints whose names occur in the narrative. It will be enough to point out the features in the history which bear especially on our chief subject, that of the gradual advance and elevation of our Blessed Lady. The mention by the Angel of the state in which St. Elisabeth was must be considered as having suggested to our Lady the journey into the hill country of Judaea. It was not a distinct command, but it might easily have occurred to our Lady that the fact would not have been conveyed to her in that way, unless it had been meant that she should act on the knowledge. As our Lady had already been for some weeks the bride of St. Joseph, it would not have been natural that she should have taken such a journey without his leave, and probably without his company, and as has been already said, he would have to go about the same time at least as far as Jerusalem, that is, nine-tenths or more of the distance.
Up to the time of her arrival at the house of Zachary, we are not told of anything said to our Lady which implied a knowledge of the great event of the Incarnation. It may have been reserved as the reward and crown of her perfect credulity to the words of the Angel, that she should hear herself acknowledged as the Mother of God by the blessed cousin for whose consolation and benefit she had made this long journey. The salutation of Elisabeth could not add anything to her faith, but it could add greatly to her joy, and give her fresh occasion for thankfulness. It might unlock her lips in the praises of God, Who had done for her things so great. The Magnificat is the revelation of the feelings and thoughts which had been within her ever since the moment of the Incarnation. It must be considered not simply as the hymn of thanksgiving of our Blessed Lady only, but as the outpouring, through her perfectly illuminated heart, of the gratitude of all creation, and of the race of mankind in particular, for the universal benefit which followed on the gift of His Son to us by God.
We are thus able to sum up in a comparatively few words the chief virtues practised by our Blessed Lady in this mystery. Her visit was, in the first place, an act of obedience. She understood from the words of the Angel that it would be well for her to go and rejoice by her presence, and assist in everyway, her happy cousin Elisabeth. Such an intimation was to her a command, and as she was so much in love with obedience, this may have been the most direct and immediate motive present to her mind. But in other respects she could not but be eager to make the journey, for it was an act of charity to which she was invited. God had been very good to St. Elisabeth, and the knowledge of this filled Mary with a desire to rejoice with her and help her, and show her own intense gratitude to God for the far higher favour which she had herself received. Persons who have received such gifts and graces are not anxious to disclose them to others, but they are anxious that others should share the mercies of God, Who has been so merciful to them. Our Lady could not but know that the Child in her womb was the blessing of the world, and that wherever He was, especially among the servants of His Father, He must be willing and desirous of spreading and scattering His graces. Then, again, the humble services which she hoped to render to St. Elisabeth had an attraction to her humility. She had just received the greatest boon that it was possible for one like her to receive, and she felt desirous to unburthen herself of her debt of gratitude to God by occupying herself in the ministrations to His servant which were now possible for her. She knew nothing of the revelation of her own secret to her cousin, and so could not expect to be met by Elisabeth with the honour and reverence which she was to receive. She hoped to spend her time, as long as it might be pleasing to God, in waiting on her cousin, in the humblest way, serving her as the representative of God, Who had done for her things so wonderful. And the knowledge that she had of the blessings which the presence of our Lord might bring upon that holy household made her Visitation a work of mercy as well as of charity, and she began even now to act as the Mother and Queen of Mercy, and as having a tender care for all the redeemed of our Lord, among whom she could not doubt that the child of Elisabeth would hold a high place, from the simple fact of his having been so marvellously conceived by an aged mother.
We know that it is the way of God to exalt the humble, and thus it might have been expected by those who study His methods of action, that Mary would meet with some high honour on her arrival at the house of Zachary. We do not know what may have passed between her and St. Joseph, if he was already conscious of the elevation of his spouse. But it may be that the first human homage paid to the Mother of God, as such, was this which was now paid to her by the blessed Elisabeth. She cried out with a loud voice, " Blessed thou among women, and blessed the fruit of thy womb ! and whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me? "The whole principle of the honour paid to Mary in Heaven and on earth, by the angels and saints and the children of the Church, is contained in these simple words. And as has been said, it is most probable that they fell on the ears of Mary with quite as much of suddenness and unexpectedness as the words of the Annunciation itself. But this time there was no hesitation, or silence, or prudent reserve, about the Blessed Mother. She does not decline the honour contained in the words of her cousin. On the contrary she accepts it, and extends it, for it must be with reference to the salutation of St. Elisabeth that she says almost immediately that all generations shall call her blessed, that is, that the words of her cousin shall be repeated in the Church throughout all generations.
Our Lady takes the honour to turn it at once to
God, to whom it belongs, saying that her soul
magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God
And then she pours herself out in the strain which sums up so perfectly the whole praise and gratitude which is due to God for His infinite condescension in taking on Him the nature of man. She praises Him for His great display of power, of holiness, of mercy, she sings of Him as conquering His enemies and the enemies of the human race in the Incarnation, as taking them in their own devices and scattering them in the imaginations of their own hearts. By the side of the humiliation of the proud, she sees His other wonderful work in the exaltation of the humble, and together with the sending away empty of the rich she sings of the filling the hungry with good things. Lastly she commemorates His faithfulness to His promises, and thus strikes the note of thanksgiving for the promises themselves from the beginning, as well as for their fulfilment, and for all the many graces which have come through faith in these promises.
The words of St. Elisabeth recognize the true position of the Blessed Mother of God, and we cannot doubt that during the three months of her stay Mary not only exercised herself in the humble services for which she had made the journey, but also far more in labouring in prayer and in ail other ways open to her, for the greater and greater sanctification of the holy child and his parents. We cannot understand the Visitation aright unless we see in it the beginning in Mary of this office of Mother of all the Redeemed, which is one of the titles given to her by the saints. For in nothing that our Lady did from the moment of the Incarnation onwards, to which she had to give her joyful and deliberate assent, must she be considered as an unconscious and involuntary instrument only of the sanctifications which were wrought through her. If this could have been the case we might have expected to be told that St. Elisabeth had passed over the Mother in order to hail the Child in her womb, and that the simple presence of our Lord, and not the words of Mary, had been the direct instrument in the sanctification of St. John. So it could and might have been, and no one doubts that the whole process of the blessing now imparted, whether to the mother or to the son, came from our Lord. But the actual circumstances of the case were as they were. The words of Mary wrought the marvel. And we may gather from this, as has been said, that our Lady was now for the first time exercising the office which belonged to her as the Mother of God, of God made Man, not simply to be one of us, but that He might redeem us and sanctify us and glorify us.
The last thing to be noted about this work of the Visitation, is that our Lady did not leave it until it was completed in the decrees of God. She did not leave the house, as it seems most probable, until after the naming of the child and the Canticle of St. Zachary, spoken after his restoration from the dumbness which had been inflicted on him as a penance for his want of perfect credulity to the words of the Angel. At that time the period of her temporary absence from the side of St. Joseph, as may be supposed, was accomplished. It is most reasonable to think that he came to fetch her home, and that this is the "taking to himself" of his wife, which is spoken of in the first chapter of St. Matthews Gospel. They returned together, full of joy and thankfulness, to Nazareth, there to remain until the moment came for both of them to leave their city for the journey which was to end at Bethlehem on the eve of the Nativity.
It is not our purpose here to go over the whole question of the hesitation of St. Joseph, which was happily terminated, as it would seem, about the time of the naming of St. John Baptist. This question has been discussed elsewhere, 1 and we assume here that the real trial of St. Joseph consisted in the fact that he had no Divine commission or instruction how to act under the altered circumstances of his position, after the Incarnation had taken place in the womb of his Blessed Spouse. He could neither leave Mary without pain, nor remain acting as her husband, and consequently as the head of the Holy Family, without some guidance as to the will of God. He had come to the half-formed conclusion that as he had no order from Heaven to assume the office of the father of the Divine Child, it would be better for him to act the humble part of one who felt himself unworthy of so high a position, which implied not only the care and protection of the Mother and her Child, but also the responsibility of their guidance and government, and thus he came to think of withdrawing himself from her company, or rather, of not fetching her home again after her visit to the blessed household of Zachary. To do this would be an act of some authority, and would imply the assumption of similar authority for the future.
We know how this question was settled, when the appointed time came, by the vision of the Angel in which St. Joseph was directed to take on himself the office of which he thought himself unworthy. We cannot doubt that not even St. John or St. Elisabeth were more constantly in the thoughts or the prayers of Mary, during this interval of their separation, than he. St. Joseph may perhaps have spent it in his former home at Bethlehem, as he must have known from our Lady the time at which the birth of the child of Elisabeth might be looked for. Considering her wonderful exaltation, and the power and intensity of her prayers, we may well think that her intercession kept up and raised to still higher sanctity the spouse whom she loved with such entire and devoted a love. We may well think that as the devotion of her spouse to the beautiful virtue of continence had been in this way her work, so also he was guided and helped all through the weeks of his trial by the fervent prayers of Mary. It cannot be doubted that her desires to see him associated with herself in the work of carrying out the mystery of the Incarnation were most intense, such as could only be satisfied if the decision of Heaven had been for their separation, by the consideration of the decree of God to which everything else must bow. It must have been the greatest possible joy to Mary when the time came to learn that he was to remain always by her side, and to share with her the wonderful task of the bringing up of our Lord. The exigencies of the narrative of St. Matthew have made him speak only of the hesitation of St. Joseph. But it must be certain that the trial of his faithfulness and humility was also a trial of the heart of Mary, to whom it would indeed have been a pain to have to walk on her path of life without his companionship and guidance. And great indeed must have been the joy of both when all doubts were at an end, and they came together again after their separation with so much new matter in their hearts for gratitude to God and for increased devotion one to another.
When they returned to their new home at Nazareth there were still between five and six months to pass before the date of the Nativity. It is a time of which we have no record at all to guide our thoughts, but we are sure that it was spent by that blessed pair in the most fervent prayers to God, in continual homage and adoration to the unseen Child, Whose presence made the womb of His Mother like Heaven itself, and in preparation, as far as preparation was possible, for the moment so intensely desired when the Christ should be born. Their mutual intercourse and conversation must have been most tender and devout, while to our Blessed Lady it was not merely a time during which she could continually lean on St. Joseph for help and support, but also when she could practice her beloved virtue of humility in letting herself be ruled and governed by him with perfect submission and a heavenly purity of intention. We commonly think of our Blessed Lady as showing wonderful humility in submitting herself to the provisions of the Mosaic Law when she became a mother, in such matters as her Purification. But it must be remembered that her practice of humility and submission began long before that, especially from the date of her marriage with St. Joseph. For a moment it had seemed as if she were to be entirely freed from any such dependence and subjection by the elevation which had raised her above all creatures as the Mother of God. But it was not so to be. On the contrary, as the Mother of God she was to have the privilege of practicing obedience and subjection in a loftier degree than before, which made every act of these virtues more precious in the sight of Heaven than they might have been before her exaltation, while the same fact gave a new character to the exercise on the part of St. Joseph of the authority which his position as her husband conferred upon him. These six months made a period in their lives which was never to return in some of its features. It was a time of the utmost calm and peace, of hushed ex pectation, and earnest hope and prayer. Their secret was known to none about them, as we may suppose, and it imposed on them the duty of worshipping and honouring the God Who was so close to them with a homage that might be rendered to Him in the name of the whole world. Yet in the eyes of all around them they were like any other pair, living entirely in and for one another, and expecting with all the ordinary joy and hope the time which would knit them together by a new and most tender tie, by the birth into the world of the Child Whom they were expecting.