The Visitation—The Incarnation Announced To Saint Joseph — The Birth Of Jesus (25 December, 6 (?) B.C.). Part 1.

"T'OWARDS Mary, as towards the cause of a new order of things, and towards the great " event of all the ages," the inhabitants of heaven and hell, the generations who had preceded her, and those who were to follow now turned. 1 By consenting to the Incarnation, she had responded to the hope of all people, and became the central point which divided into two parts the history of the world.

This same point marked the centre of her life. From thence came all her greatness; and all the guidance of Providence on her account had reference to this. Up to this time she was preparing to be, and from this time forward she was, the mother of God. From this time, in virtue of her own free fiat, which had given her an active part in the whole work of redemption, she is united to her Son in all His mysteries, and by the side of the necessary and all-sufficing Saviour, she is, in a lesser degree, the co-partner with Christ in the work of salvation.

And the moment when she joined her will to the redeeming will of God, was the chief moment of her co-operation. It was also the starting point of everything else, and it was the hour in which her personal action was the most important. The whole work was accomplished from Nazareth to Calvary, and the two persons who commenced it, found themselves together at that sad moment when it was completed. Mary was to have a great part in the consummation, but she had a still greater part in the beginning. At the end, Mary would be at the foot of the Cross, united with Jesus, and giving spiritual birth to the elect ; but it is Jesus above all, the only Saviour, that one sees in the act of reconciling the world to God. At the beginning, on the contrary, though He must always be the principal actor, Jesus hides Himself in Mary and allows her to appear alone; and at first she is really alone, for Jesus only entered into the world when her cooperation both physical and moral introduced Him there. Thus it is that her own work is truly the beginning of salvation, as that of Eve had been the beginning of all ruin.

In the soul of Mary the moment of the conception of the Word operated as a transformation—in the meaning in which the most holy souls can be " changed from glory to glory," 2 and draw nearer without ceasing towards the boundless ideal. This was, say theologians, the moment of the second sanctification. Grace had been obtained by the exceptionally meritorious act of the Ecce ancilla ; grace, probably superadded to merit, as a last and final preparation for the divine motherhood; grace of confirmation in spotless sanctity, as a new claim to that motherhood, now real and effective by contact with the Holy of Holies; and by this contact and personal presence of the Word, a new over-flowing of life into the soul of the mother.

With this second sanctification appears, one may well believe, a special feature of the spiritual gifts made to Mary. Theology calls grace " abounding," that which is given to the righteous in view not only of his own sanctification but for the sanctification of others through him. In Jesus and in Mary, who, each in their degree, have an influence upon the spiritual world, there is grace " super-abounding," that is to say, given in view of the sanctification of all. And, now that Mary has become mother, this character of fruitfulness in grace begins to be manifest in her.

She remained only a short time to adore, alone and silently, the invisible guest of Nazareth. " And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda," 3 to visit Elisabeth. Her humble and attentive love suggested that she should go to her cousin, to gladden her by her presence and help her with her services. And, above all, Jesus, who lived in her, wished to give Himself through her to His Forerunner. That would be the first fruits of His sanctifying mission; and in that first work, the type of those which followed, He showed that His mother is the intermediary and distributer of His blessings.

It was at the end of March, at the time of the feast of the Passover. Companies of pilgrims set out each day for Galilee. Probably enough, Joseph and Mary travelled together as far as Jerusalem. From thence Mary had only about four-and-a-half-miles to journey towards the south-west, where she expected to find her relative. Joseph appears not to have accompanied her as far as Karem, the Ain-Karim of to-day. 4

The journey was quickly made. Her footsteps were hastened by loving eagerness, and by virgin modesty which did not permit her to linger in public and in the crowd, and above all was she hastened by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, which admitted of no delay. 5 The valleys and the hills clothed with their flowers, scented with perfumes, and bearing their native fruits made, as it were, a mystic decoration for that first awakening of grace. In nature, and in the depths of the heart of the Virgin, there was a melody, that of the bridegroom inviting his well-beloved to come to rest, and to pour out something of the wealth of her heart :—

My beloved spake, and said unto me,
Rise up, my love,
My fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone ;
The flowers appear on the earth ;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land ;
The fig-tree putteth forth her green figs,
And the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.

Arise, my love,
My fair one, and come away,
Oh my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock,
In the secret places of the stairs,
Let me see thy countenance,
Let me hear thy voice;
For sweet is thy voice,
And thy countenance is comely. 6

The voice of Mary came to gladden the dwelling where Elisabeth and Zacharias lived in retreat. Local tradition says that at that time they were inhabiting a house in the country, a short distance from Karem. Mary " entered into the house of Zacharias," and, in all likelihood, as her cousin came forward to meet her, she, always humble and ready to anticipate another's wishes, first " saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb." The grace of Jesus, borne upon the words of His mother, had touched the child destined to a ministry so high and of such perfect holiness ; the intelligence of the Forerunner, awakened momentarily at least, already turned towards Him to whom later he would bear witness; at the moment when the Lamb of God washed away from his soul the sin of humanity, and poured into him His Holy Spirit, he saluted Him by a joyful leaping. 7

The grace, which had first touched him, was now poured out upon his mother. " Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost; and she spake 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, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord."

God, by His angel, had revealed to Mary the mercy vouchsafed to Elisabeth, and now, by the direct inspiration of His Spirit, He manifested to Elisabeth the mercy vouchsafed to Mary. The wife of Zacharias bowed before her young relative; and just as, later, John declared himself unworthy to unloose the latchet of His shoe, she now proclaimed that she did not deserve the honour of receiving the mother of her Lord under her roof; and anticipating, in that moment of divine inspiration, the worship of all the ages, she praised Mary for her faith in the mystery of God, for the blessing which she had received above all women, and for the benediction which she would give to the world by the fruit of her womb.

In taking Elisabeth into His divine confidence, God commanded Mary to break her silence. She poured out the rich treasure, which, since the visit of the angel, meditation had accumulated in her heart. It was ineffable gratitude for the mercy she had received. She had a clear insight of that mercy, and, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, she even prophesied its most glorious consequences to herself. But she saw it all, even as the blessed see their glory, in a light which renders the least pride impossible, and which turns the soul entirely towards Him, from whom all good descends. The thought of the mercifulness of God, eternally faithful to those who believe Him, stirred her to the contemplation of the divine judgments; she comprehended them in their universality, such as they had already been shown in the ancient Law, such as they had been revealed in herself, such as the grace of the New Testament was about to manifest them ; and that which God revealed of them to her at that moment, threw her into an ecstasy like that which Jesus experienced when He thanked the Father that He had hidden Himself from the prudent and revealed Himself unto babes. Finally, returning to the mercy of the Incarnation, that source of all others, she glorified God for having accomplished His design, and having, according to His promise, given Himself to the world through Israel. Mary said:—

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden :
For, behold, from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.

For He that is mighty hath done to me great things ; 
And holy is His name.

And His mercy is on them that fear Him From generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with His arm ;

He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, And exalted them of low degree.

He hath filled the hungry with good things; And the rich He hath sent empty away.
He hath holpen His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy;

As He spake to our fathers,
To Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

Mary had nurtured her soul on the Holy Scriptures till they had become her thoughts, and she now recalled their phrases without effort. And at that moment she naturally employed the rhythmical language which was used by the poets and Hebrew prophets. Her words, which perhaps she herself arranged later in a regular poetic form, 8 were preserved in the holy family before becoming the inheritance of the Church. It is the Song of Mary. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, the victorious Deborah and Judith, and numerous other persons in the Old Testament have sung of the special mercies of God towards themselves and towards His people. In the New Testament, three canticles celebrate the Incarnation of the Saviour. The first and the most beautiful is that in which it pleased Jesus to be greeted by His mother. This song is singularly precious, for it contains the only lengthy utterance that we have from her. Her heart is there revealed to us, humble, filled with thoughts of God, and quickened already with the spirit of her Son. The inspiration in it is grand and serene. There are no violent emotions like those of the prophets, upon whom the divine Spirit descended at intervals; it is rather the tranquil influence of grace in a soul which is possessed in entire peace by the Holy Spirit.

The scene which took place upon the threshold of Zacharias's house gives us some idea of the intercourse between the two relatives during Mary's visit, and also of the graces showered by God upon that home. It was not only because of her affection for Elisabeth that Mary remained under her roof, but for the spiritual welfare of the Forerunner and of his mother. Grace flowed, like a mysterious unction, upon the future champion of Christ, for whom such valiant struggles were waiting. 9 Elisabeth and Mary were edified and increased in the love of God by confiding to each other the great mercies they had received. The righteous Zacharias also, by such intercourse upon the subject of those wonders of grace as his infirmity permitted, nourished the silent meditation to which he was temporarily condemned.

Mary abode with her cousin about three months, that is to say, almost up to the time of the expected birth. Did she depart before or after the happy event ? Did she remain till the birth of the child, and retire before the arrival of visitors ? These are questions much discussed and extremely uncertain. Some authorities favour the belief that Mary stayed till after the birth. It is thus quite possible that John, in the first hours of his life, had the happiness of lying in the arms of Our Lady, near to the Master whom he had recognised at once.

1 Saint Bernard ; in festo pentecostes sermo ii. PL. clxxxiii. 328).

2 2 Corinthians iii. 18.

3 St Luke i. 39-56 ; the passage commented 0n in the following pages.

4 The dwelling of Zacharias and Elisabeth is placed by some at Karem, to-day called 'Ain-Karim, by others at Hebron, and by others at Juttah (written also Youttah, Jota, Jeta), in the vicinity of Hebron. The opinion favourable to 'Ain-Karim cannot be regarded as trustworthy. It appears, however, to be the one most favoured by tradition ; and if I am not mistaken, it is that most commonly accepted by the explorers of to-day. It would seem, according to the facts, that Joseph was not present at the meeting of Elisabeth and Mary ; it is therefore most probable that he did not accompany the Holy Virgin to the end of her journey.

5 See St Ambrose upon this passage from St Luke (PL. xv. 1560).

6 Solomon's Song ii. 10-14; passage included in the Office of the Visitation, 2nd July.

7 The angel, in announcing the birth of John the Baptist, had said (St Luke i. 15) : " He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb." This text, and its traditional interpretation, admit no doubt that John had been always truly justified and sanctified. The most common opinion is that he had miraculously recognised the presence of the Saviour.

8 That Mary spoke at first in a free poetic rhythm, and afterwards arranged her words in the form of a canticle, is an hypothesis which has some appearance of truth, but it is evidently pure hypothesis. Unfortunately we do not possess the Aramaic text of the Magnificat, and we know it only through the Greek prose of St Luke.

St Ambrose upon this passage of St Luke (PL. xv. 1562).