The Visitation. Part 1.
Meanwhile Mary, informed by the angel of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, resolved to go and offer her affectionate congratulations to her venerable relative. It was not, as heretics have dared to say, that the Virgin wanted ocular demonstration of the reality of this event, which was out of the ordinary laws of nature ; she knew that nothing is impossible to God, and, moreover, could not suppose that a messenger of heaven would bring her from the Most High words of deception and falsehood. She west, not to be made sure, but because she was sure ; she went with haste, because charity, says St. Ambrose, admits neither delays nor hindrances; and besides, good and kind as she was during her whole life, she longed to carry to relations whose protection had surrounded her childhood, and who had long looked upon her as their daughter, some little of that sanctification and those heavenly graces which flowed in her soul as inexhaustible springs of living water, from the time that she bore in her chaste womb the Creator of the world.
With the consent of St. Joseph, whose simple but elevated soul was in unison with her own, and who had but one heart and will with her, Mary left Nazareth in the season of roses, and went towards the mountains of Judea, where Zachary dwelt. The Scripture, which neglects details, and takes up the leading points of events, does not say whether the Virgin had any companions in this journey ; some authors have thence inferred that she performed it alone, which is not at all likely. In fact, the distance from Nazareth to the town of Aim 1 is five days' march; part of Galilee, the hostile Samaria, and almost all the territory of Juda had to be passed through. Now the country is rugged with mountains, intersected by torrents, and interspersed with deserts. 2 The roads, which the Romans repaired at a later period, full of holes made by the heavy footsteps of camels, and covered with loose stones, threatened the traveller at every step with a fatal fall. When the evening came on, one must sleep in some caravansary, where nothing was to be found but a small place without provisions, and furnished with a plain rush mat 3 for the primitive hospitality had marked by its gradual decrease the different phases of advanced civilisation among the Hebrews. In such a state of things is it to be presumed that a man full of days and experience, like Joseph, would willingly have exposed a young wife—beautiful, delicate, brought up retired from the world, and confiding as innocence itself—to dangers of all sorts, to every kind of inconvenience which a solitary journey presented ? Such an assertion contradicts the history of the people of God, and the manners of Asia; 4 —a Jewish woman would never have trusted herself, without a respectable escort, such a distance from her house.
If St. Joseph, as F. Croiset thinks, could not accompany Mary, it is probable that the Mother of God joined some of her relations who were led by their piety to the holy city, with their husbands, or their servants, and that thence she pursued her journey under some safe protection. We always find her travelling thus in the midst of her own relatives, whether she goes to Jerusalem for the great solemnities, or follows the preachings of Jesus with the holy women at a much more advanced period of her life. " Though she could have had no better guardian than herself, 11 says St. Ambrose, " she never appeared abroad without being faithfully escorted." 5
When she arrived at the priestly city where the Levite and his happy wife dwelt, Mary was directed to their well-known house without allowing herself any time to rest. Elizabeth, informed by one of her slaves of the unexpected visit of her cousin, came to meet her with great signs of joy.
Seeing her approach, the young Virgin bowed, and laying her hand on her heart, said, " Peace be with thee," hastening to be the first to offer a salutation. 6 Elizabeth stepped back a little: the animated and friendly expression of her countenance had given place to profound respect; her features gradually brightened; it was evident that something unusual and prodigious was passing within her. The simple formulary of politeness which the Virgin had pronounced in her low and mild voice had overpowered her relation. All at once, the spirit of prophecy descended upon Elizabeth, and she cried out, " Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me," she added, " that the Mother of my Lord should come to me ? For behold, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord."
The answer of Mary was the sublime, unpremeditated effusion of the Magnificat, the first canticle of the New Testament, and the finest in the sacred Scriptures :—
"My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
"Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid: for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
"For he that is mighty hath done great things to me, and holy is his name.
"And his mercy is from generation to generations to them that fear him.
"He hath showed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
"He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.
"He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
"He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy.
"As he spoke to. our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever."
Thus did the Virgin discern at once, by a supernatural light, those ancient prophecies and their perfect accomplishment, herself being a thousand times more enlightened and more privileged than all the prophets put together. " In this celebrated interview, and in this admirable conversation," says St. Ambrose, " Mary and Elizabeth both prophesied by the Holy Ghost, with whom they were filled, and by the merits of their infants."
The virgin sojourned three months in the country of the heathens, and spent this long visit at a short distance from the city of Ain, in the hollow of a shady and fertile valley, where Zachary had his country house. 7 It was then that the daughter of David, herself also a prophetess, and endowed with genius equal to that of the illustrious head of her race, could contemplate at leisure the starry heavens, the sonorous forests, and the vast sea, which, at the horizon rolled its waves, whether loud or peaceful, on the blue resounding shores of Syria. The Blessed Virgin did not look with indifference upon these magnificent scenes of creation. All the works of nature spoke to her of their great Author, and came gently to warm her soul after charming her eyes. The plain which vanished from her sight beyond the mountains of Arabia, the bine vaulted sky which is spread like a tent above the habitations of men, gave her some idea of the immensity of God the Creator; the golden harvests, the savoury fruits, the cool mountain spring, proclaimed to her his providence; the voice of the tempests, his power; the regular order of the heavens, his wisdom; and the care which He takes of the birds of heaven and the insects of the earth, his goodness.
1 Zachary lived at A in, or Aen, two leagues to the south of Jerusalem. St. Helen had a church built on the site of his house.
2 Although Judea was much more populous then than now, there still remained districts so barren as to be incapable of cultivation. The gospel makes mention of deserts but a short distance from towns where Jesus Christ went to pray.
3 "There is no inn in any part of Syria and Palestine," says M. de Volney, "but the towns and most of the villages have a large building called Kervanserai, which serves as a shelter for all travellers. These receptacles, always placed outside the walls of towns, are composed of four arcades, which enclose a square court which serves as a place for the beasts: there are in these places neither provisions nor furniture.''
4 No one travels alone in Syria; the people only go in troops and caravans; they have to wait till several travellers want to proceed to the same place. These precautions are necessary in countries exposed to the Arabs, like Syria and Palestine.—(Volney, Voyage en Syrie.)
5 St. Amb., de Virginibus, liv. ii.
6 This salutation, which Jesus Christ often used, is still that of all the East. When the Orientals meet, after the ordinary salutation, " Peace he with you (salem alaicom)" they lay their hand on their heart. This salutation was in use in the time of Abraham.—(Savary, Noto sur le c. ii. du Koran.)
7 This country house was at a short distance from Ain, in a pleasant and fertile valley, which serves now as a garden to the village of Saint John. There had been built in this place, in honour of the Visitation, a. church, which, in our days, is no more than a heap of ruins.