The Visitation. Part 2.
In these excursions in the country, she sometimes rested by the side of a gushing fountain, the foam and noise of which she loved : this spring, called Nephtoa in the time of Josue, bears to this day the name of "Mary." 1
At the back of the elegant villa of the Hebrew priest extended one of those gardens called a paradise by the Persians, the mode of laying out which had been borrowed by the captives of Israel from the nations of Cyrus and Semiramis: there were seen the finest trees of Palestine; and the groups of flowers scattered irregularly about the open spaces, the sweet perfume of the orange-trees, the streams of water which ran beneath the low bending branches of the willows, made its shades very charming. There the sweet converse of Mary made Elizabeth forget her fears for an event, the hope of which overpowered her with joy, but which her advanced age might render fatal. How religious must have been the conversation of these two women! The one young, artless, and ignorant of evil as Eve when she came forth from the hands of the Lord; the other full of days, and rich in long experience of the things of life; both deeply pious, and objects of the complacency of Jehovah; the one bearing in her womb, so long barren, a son who was to be "a prophet, and more than a prophet;" the other, the blessed germ of the Most High, the chief and liberator of Israel.
In the fine summer evenings, when the white light of the moon shone on the foliage, there was brought out beneath a large fig-tree, or under the green leafy branches of a thick vine, 2 the repast of the opulent family: the lamb fed in the deep valleys in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem, the kid of the aromatic mountains of Bethar, clean birds netted by the Israelite fowler, shell-fish caught by the fishermen of Sidon, milk, butter, and cheese, honeycombs; and then, in baskets of palm-leaves, pomegranates, figs, grapes from Galilee, with dates from Jericho, 3 which even figured on the table of Caesar; there were also seen apricots from Armenia, plums from Damascus, pistachio nuts from Aleppo, water-melons from the banks of the Nile, and that sweet cane from the marshes of Egypt, which Herodotus speaks of as an exquisite eatable; lastly, the golden wine of Libanus, and the perfumed wine of Cyprus, which the steward kept in stone jars, 4 circulated in rich cups. Mary, temperate as ever in the midst of this abundance, was content with a little fruit and a cup of pure water. Frugality with her was no forced virtue, or an abstinence merely of circumstance; it was a virtue by choice. 5
Some writers, to extol the humility of the Blessed Virgin, that she rendered to Elizabeth the offices of a servant, and almost of a slave.
This is an evident inconsistency : Elizabeth would never have allowed a woman whom she herself had proclaimed the Mother of her Lord, and whom she had highly extolled above all the daughters of Sion, to lower herself in such manner before her. The holy spouse of Zachary 6 could not have wanted servants or slaves. By the consent of Christians and Jews, this family was distinguished, and the illustrious birth of St. John Baptist even cast something like discredit upon that of Jesus Christ, born of parents much less distinguished, and leading in poverty the common life of the people.
The attentions, therefore, which the amiable and gentle Virgin profusely paid to Elizabeth had nothing in them painful or servile ; they were those delicate and forecasting attentions with which she would have waited upon her own mother, if heaven had spared her to her ; and no doubt she often imagined that she beheld again the authors of her days in that affectionate, devout, and venerable pair, who loved her with parental affection, and who showed towards her from first interview, when her greatness was so marvellously revealed, a sentiment of admiration mingled with respect, which Mary humbly endeavoured to prevent, but which she did not succeed in destroying.
It is easy to understand, say the fathers, how many blessings were drawn down by the visit of Mary upon the priestly family who had given her so affectionate a reception. If the Lord blessed Obededom, and all that belonged to him, even so far as to make the holy king David jealous, for having had the ark of the covenant in his house for three months, what graces must have been drawn down upon Zachary and all belonging to him by the three months' abode of Her of whom the ark of the covenant was but the figure, though so holy and awful! " The purity in which St. John always lived," says St. Ambrose," was an effect of that unction and that grace infused into his soul by the presence of the Virgin."
We know not precisely whether the Mother of God assisted at the lying-in of Elizabeth. Origen, St Ambrose, and other grave authors, ancient as well as modern, declare for the affirmative, and this opinion is very probable; for it would have been at least very extraordinary, after having spent so long a time with her relation, if Mary had abruptly left her in the hour of danger, and without any reasonable motive for so unseasonable and precipitate a departure. Custom required that all the matrons of the family should assemble round the new mother to rejoice with her in her happiness ; the gospel informs us that they were not wanting to Elizabeth on this solemn occasion, and that the birth of St. John Baptist drew a large concourse of kinsfolk and friends to the house of his father. It is alleged that virgins were not generally found at these sort of gatherings, and this we can conceive ; but Mary was married, which required of her those duties which became her, and which-she could not omit without violating usages received from the time of the patriarchs. Some argue with as little reason, from the retired habits of the Virgin, to the conclusion that even the noise of the festivities which celebrated the birth of the precursor of Jesus Christ put her to flight like a young dove suddenly alarmed. Mary was quite able to reconcile her small inclination for the world with that exquisite sense of propriety attributed to her by the fathers, and her tender solicitude for her mother's niece; she must have remained beneath the roof of the priest until Elizabeth was out of danger: and then, escaping from that admiration which she never failed to excite, she left the mountains of Judea, after embracing and blessing the new Elias. 7
A religious author observes that the blessed daughter of Joachim had hastened with all diligence to visit her cousin, but that she departed slowly, and as if with regret, from those cool valleys, the oaks of which had afforded shelter to angels; 8 perchance, like the sea-bird, she had a presentiment of storms.
1 This fountain has so great an abundance of water that it irrigates the whole valley and renders it productive. Tradition relates that Mary sometimes came thither; it bore the name of Nephtoa in the time of Josue; it now bear that of the Fountain of the Virgin.
2 The Hebrews were fond of taking their meals in gardens, under trees, and in arbours; for it is natural, in hot countries, to seek air and coolness.—(Fleury, Moeurs des Israel., § xvii.)
3 The dates of Syria and Judea are yellow and black, round, like apples, and very sweet. Pliny reckons forty-nine kinds of dates.
4 The Jews established in the Yemen still make use of these jars.— (See Niebuhr, Voyage en Arabie.)
5 Her abstinence did not appear to be a fast: it was rather a custom, as it were, not to make use of food.—(F. Valverde, Vie de J. Christ, t i. p. 6.)
6 Zachary was descended from Abia, father of the eighth priestly family. These ancient families were rare, several of them having settled in Persia after the captivity. Elizabeth was descended from Aaron and from David. The Jews reckoned John the Baptist far above Jesus, because he had passed his life in the desert, and was the son of a chief priest. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, born of a poor woman, appeared to them as one of the common people.—(S. Joan. Chrysost. in Matt., Serm. 12.) The Mussulmans have retained a high idea of St. John Baptist, whom they call Jahia ben Zacharia (John, the son of Zachary). Saadi, in his Gulistan, makes mention of the sepulchre of St. John Baptist, venerated in the mosque of Damascus; he said some prayers there, and records those of a king of the Arabs, who came thither on a pilgrimage. "The Caliph Abdalmalek wanted to purchase this church out of the hands of the Christians," says D'Herbelot, " and it was only after their refusal of four thousand dinars, or gold pistoles, which he had offered them, that he took possession of it by force."—(Bibliotheque Orientale, t. ii.)
7 Those theologians who have embraced the contrary opinion to that of Origen and St. Ambrose, dwell upon that passage of St. Luke which does not speak of the accouchement of Elizabeth till after having brought the Blessed Virgin back into Galilee. It seemed to us that this deserved consideration: we therefore attentively examined the gospel of this evangelist; this minute examination convinced us that this reason is not conclusive; for it is the custom of St. Luke to make transpositions of this kind, and we can quote two others of the same nature. For example, after having followed up the preaching of St. John Baptist, and announced his imprisonment, St. Luke speaks, in the following verse, of the baptism of Jesus Christ, of the priority of which to the prison of the precursor, and his tragical death, there can be no doubt. When relating the adoration of the shepherds, St. Luke expatiates on the marvellous accounts which they gave of their journey to the cave of Bethlehem, and of the astonishment which these recitals caused; after which, taking us back without any transition to the interrupted scene of the adoration, he speaks of their departure from the stable. This is what makes us adopt the doctrine of St. Ambrose the probability of which strikes us at first sight. F. Valverde, who studied the holy fathers deeply, is equally of opinion that the Blessed Virgin did not leave her relations till she had embraced and blessed the precursor of the Messias.
8 In the vale of Mambre, which is only six furlongs from Hebron, there was still shown in the time of St. Jerom, a tree of enormous growth, beneath which it was said that Abraham had received the visit of the three angels who announced to him the birth of Isaac.