CHAPTER VII. THE VISITATION
AFTER passing some days in serene joyfulness, Mary called to mind the words which the angel had uttered regarding her cousin Elizabeth. Taking with her the old servant and a young girl, she entrusted her dwelling to the care of a poor widow in the neighborhood, and set out on her journey to the mountains of Judea, where lived, not far from Jericho, the priest Zachary and his wife—those dear friends and relatives who had been so kind to Mary when she served the Lord of hosts in the Temple.
She wished to congratulate her beloved cousin on the wonder which had been wrought in her—for no one knew better than Mary how deeply Elizabeth had suffered over this most poignant grief. And perhaps she longed, with all the love and ardor of her pure young heart, to acquaint Elizabeth with the marvel of the angel's tidings, which filled every moment of her day with heavenly peace.
The journey was a long one, but it was made in the midst of the splendor of nature. It was springtime in a land that knows but a brief winter, and wherever Mary passed, the flowers seemed to raise their fragrant heads to salute her; the acacia showered down its sweetest-smelling blossoms; the balsam shed abroad its perfume; the willow waved its bright green branches; the almond-tree cast leaves of white and red upon her; the birds sang more melodiously, and fluttered above her on graceful wings; the beasts of the forest forsook their retreats and ventured forth to see her pass. The River Jordan, along whose flowery banks lay part of her journey, threw a silvery stream of sparkling crystal over its pebbly shores, and murmured musically among the reeds. One might imagine that this historic stream already desired to know Him who was to render its waters forever sacred. The whole earth seemed moved to salute the King of glory, who had come to deliver it. And men felt His presence according to the purity of their souls. Some prostrated themselves almost involuntarily before Mary. A great many looked at the little party with indifference, while others experienced a sensation that was kin to fear. For while the King of glory, concealed and hidden, was coming for the salvation of many, He was also set for the destruction of others in Israel.
At length Mary, having passed Daberath, the fertile valley of Jezreel, Archelais, and the torrent of Phasaelis with its limpid waters, perceived, after seven days' travel, the hospitable roofs of Hebron, and the termination of her journey. Alighting from Eleabthona, the gentle and docile ass which had carried her so faithfully, she went to the spring to lave her feet, hands, and face, dispatching her old servant meanwhile that he might inform Elizabeth of her approach. Following him almost at once, she arrived before her cousin had had time to come to meet her. Entering, Mary saluted her with the customary expression:
"May the peace of the Lord descend upon thee and upon thy dwelling!"
At the sound of these words, uttered in a voice trembling with emotion, Elizabeth was almost overcome, and her unborn infant leaped as if in ecstasy. Inspired by the Holy Ghost, the mother of the Forerunner of our blessed Lord, exclaimed:
"Mary, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!" Humbly prostrating herself, she added, in quivering tones: "Oh, whence is this to me that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" (St. Luke i, 43.)
Mary wished to reply, but the raptures of joy and gratitude which she had kept confined within her heart until now found an outlet; she stood in the presence of one prepared to understand, to share her sublime enthusiasm.
And Mary said:
"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 unto generation, 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 his seed forever." (St. Luke i, 46-55.)
"Glory be to God, now and forever!" repeated, in low tones, the servants of Elizabeth and Zachary —for all had knelt in silent prayer while the Virgin's sweet voice sang the holy canticle.
Thus was homage paid to the Son of God.
Zachary had joined them also, and knelt with the others, in spite of his priestly dignity. He, too, felt the presence of the hidden Saviour. But his lips gave forth no sound, for his tongue was silenced, and was to continue so until the birth of the child promised to his old age. He saluted Mary, and then made a sign to Elizabeth to explain to her the cause of his dumbness. Elizabeth did so, adding:
"Ah, Mary, you are happy in believing what has been revealed to you by God. For the Lord is inviolable in His promises, and His servants must not transgress or doubt without being prepared for punishment."
She put her arm about her young cousin affectionately, and drew her aside. Seating themselves, one listened eagerly to the other, for God's favors had filled them with gratitude, and no words could express the purity of their emotion. Elizabeth had much to ask about Mary's absent husband, of his disposition, of his confidence in his chaste spouse, for she was older than Mary in years and experience.
Mary, holy and innocent, with perfect faith in Him who was preparing such great things within her, was neither disturbed nor uneasy. Her soul soared above all earthly considerations. The world could not trouble her, and even Elizabeth, knowing from past experience her attitude toward life, seemed to realize that Mary's vision was not confined to earthly objects, but that the veil that hangs between them and Eternity had been torn aside for her. She appeared to possess superhuman enlightenment. If so, it was never revealed—yet how could it be supposed, indeed, that she, in whom such miracles were wrought, should be endowed only with these faculties which are the common lot?
One evening, when she was praying on the housetop where it was her custom to repair at the same hour every day, Elizabeth approached her, and seated herself without speaking. The Virgin seemed lost in contemplation.
The dwelling of Zachary, situated at the foot of the hills, overlooked the then rich and shady valley of the Jordan. It was an Eastern night, so beautiful, so clear, so transparent, that one might imagine himself surrounded by a world of crystal. The nightingale, hidden under a rose of Jericho, was singing; scores of other songsters repeated their long, brilliant, harmonious cadences, which echo endlessly multiplied. The willows, bordering a rippling rivulet flowing across the meadow, were agitated by gentle breezes, while the waters of the river, swollen by a recent storm, extended through the plain, and reflected the starry sky like an immense and brilliant mirror. In the distance Mount Gilead was covered with white vapors, pierced by the splendors of the moon, so that they resembled floating clouds. Mary was accustomed to all this beauty—or, rather, she appeared to see a more wondrous spectacle, to hear far more glorious sounds.
Elizabeth watched her in silence for some time. Then she placed her hand over that of her young cousin.
"Mary," she murmured, gently. The Virgin turned her eyes toward her and a little smile hovered about her lips. She did not speak. "I am uneasy about Zachary," said Elizabeth, in a low tone. "The Feast of Tabernacles is approaching and he is in torment, fearing that he will not be able to discharge his priestly duties."
Her voice trembled with anxiety. Mary pressed her hand gently, and the smile did not leave her lips.
"Dear cousin," she said, "let us put our confidence in God. He has decided all—He is the Master of our destiny."
The words fell on Elizabeth's heart like soothing balsam on a wound. And, on the morrow, at the dawning, the Virgin and all who were within hastened to Elizabeth's side. They found her with her son and her husband, Zachary, and both wife and husband were gazing rapturously at the tiny face of their new-born babe.
"And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had showed great mercy toward her and they congratulated with her." (St. Luke 1,58.)
Eight days later, when the child was to be given his name, they would have bestowed upon him that of Zachary, making signs to his father how he would have him called. Demanding a writing-table, he wrote, saying:
"John is his name." (Ibid., 63.)
At which, his tongue being loosened, he gave vent to his song of thanksgiving.
"Thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.
"To give knowledge of salvation to His people: unto the remission of their sins.
"To enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace." (St. Luke i, 76, 77, 79)
Full of joy Zachary fell upon his knees, and took his child in his arms, marveling at the miracle that had been wrought. Still kneeling, he held him forth to Mary and to the infant God—that God whose Precursor he was to be. Mary clasped the child to her bosom and kissed him, and held him close against her loving heart. She blessed him with happiness, for she knew how his life was to be bound to that of her divine Son; she blessed him with sorrow, for she knew the pain and cruelty that would mark his earthly existence.
At last, having passed seven days in partaking of the holy rapture of her relatives, she returned once more to Nazareth, and the flowery roads seemed to gain in fragrance and beauty beneath her feet.