Today’s Gospel follows immediately on the story of The Annunciation to Mary that she is to ‘conceive and bear a son, whom she is to name Jesus, and who will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.’ (Luke 1:31-32) It was preceded by a similar story of an Annunciation to Zechariah that his wife, the barren and aged Elizabeth, will bear him a son whom he is to name John. (Luke 1:13) In this story of The Visitation, these two parallel stories are brought together. At the end of the story foretelling of John’s birth, we are told: ‘After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden’; no one knew about this wonder that was unfolding! At the end of the story foretelling the birth of Jesus, Mary was told: ‘And see: your kinswoman Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who had been called barren.’ (Luke 1:36) Now, at the beginning of today’s Gospel, we are told: ‘Mary didn't waste a minute. She got up and travelled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah's house, and greeted Elizabeth.’ (Luke 1:39) Mary could not have known of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, yet on the strength of an angel’s message she sets out. In a sense, this action of setting out immediately to visit her cousin epitomises Mary’s faith, which Elizabeth goes on to eulogise: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:45)
In this, St Luke contrasts her faith with that of Zachariah — of him we are told that he did not believe the words of the angel, and which the angel goes on to tell him will come true regardless of his disbelief (Luke 1:20); our faith is not necessary to the unfolding of God’s plan; God does not need our belief. Yet in this, we can see that when we disbelieve, God merely turns to another, perhaps an unlikely other, who will believe. In these two, we can see that God has turned from ‘the Mighty,’ Zechariah was a priest and a member of the ruling caste, and ‘exalted the lowly,’ turning to an unknown girl from backwoods Galilee. (Luke 1:52) Because of her faith, Elizabeth calls Mary blessed, and to which Mary adds in acknowledgement: “From this day forward all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:48) Today, in celebrating this feast of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, we, some two thousand years later, are still acknowledging how blessed Mary is!
In the interweaving of these two Annunciation stories, we get the impression of an unfolding of God’s plan for our salvation, regardless of whether we believe in it. In the story of The Visitation, which brings some of its disparate threads together, the attitude is one of praise and elation (Luke 1:42, 44); such joy is the fruit of belief, belief in the face of seemingly impossible odds, a belief which holds that ‘with God nothing is impossible.’ (Luke 1:34, 37) We in our days, with their storm clouds of war and climate change and pandemic gathering to threaten all life on earth (Genesis 6:5ff), we are called to believe in a God who can save us. For this, we too, will find a joy and a hope that is not disempowered by the seeming inevitability of fate, and which would plunge us into the depths of hopeless depression. In the Letter to the Romans, St Paul speaks of our coming to this hope in terms of God’s bringing to birth his sons and daughters, in our being conformed to the image of his Son. (Romans 8:18-24, 29) This sees us doing as God does, sees us turning away from pandering to the rich and the powerful, and turning to the humble, the lowly and the poor with a helping hand that is not put off by the hopeless of their situation, but is empowered by a faith that is fully convinced that God can do as he has promised. (Romans 4:20)
The story of The Visitation culminates in Mary’s Magnificat, a hymn in which almost every verse is about God — not about who God is, but about what God does as the powerful deliverer of the needy and oppressed. Our God does not turn away from want and oppression, but turns towards both in compassion with a helping hand that saves. Mary’s song comes out of Israel’s tradition and is in line with it (c.f.: Samuel 2:1-10); it does not make known some new God, but reaffirms the God whom Israel has always known. (c.f.: Exodus 3:7-10) Mary’s Magnificat is her response to the God who has ‘done such great things’ for her. (Luke 1:49) It calls us to make it our own, when we, too, experience God’s saving help, and especially when, in the face of all that besets us, we come to realise how truly helpless, how truly lowly, we really are. (Luke 1:47) When we find, having hit rock bottom, that it is not the end of our story, it calls us to acknowledge God’s saving help and to give thanks with praise and gratitude, as Mary did.
In the revelation of our own poverty, in coming to know that there is none else to help, in the revelation that though the ‘rich’ and ‘mighty’ might come to our aid, the reality is that they don’t, there we come to know our God as a God who saves … a God who saves me! In this place we can understand Mary’s Magnificat and so go on to make it our own, letting its joy seep into the whole of our being: “My soul is ecstatic, overflowing with praises to God! My spirit bursts with joy over my life-giving God! For he set his tender gaze upon me, his lowly servant.” (Luke 1:46) This experience, then, enables us to walk on further in faith, enabling us to say with the Psalmist: ‘Lord, even when your path takes me through the valley of deepest darkness, fear does not conquer me, for you already have! You remain close to me and lead me all the way through it. Your strong, guiding presence is my strength and my peace.’ (Psalm 23:4) For such faith, we will hear it said of us: “Blessed are you who have such faith, who have believed in God’s promise to save.” (C.f.: Luke 1:45) In going on in such faith, we, too, can expect to be numbered among the saints who, along with Mary, are honoured for all time.