December 18, 2012 Comments Off on Third Emmmanuel Station: The Visitation
More years ago than I care to admit, I celebrated the end of my PhD comprehensive examinations by spending a summer in Italy with a fellow graduate student who had just completed his M.A. thesis. Officially, we were there to study Italian, and we did go to classes, but that left us a lot of free time to see the nearby Umbrian towns and travel further afield every weekend. I soon learned that my friend, brought up in no religious tradition, and agnostic at best, had a fascination with representations of the Visitation, whether they be internationally famous paintings or the work of some unknown local artist. I saw more “Visis,” as he called them, that summer than I knew existed in the world. The one above, by Mariotto Albertinelli, painted in 1509, hangs in the Uffizi in Florence, and was one of the last “Visis” we saw, since we ended our trip in Florence. That summer was a kind of out-of-season advent; neither of us had a job to which to return, and we were anticipating new professional and academic adventures upon return to New York. Looking back, it’s amazing that we spent so much of the time looking at paintings that portrayed another kind of anticipation. Ever since that long-ago summer, the Visitation has been a powerful Advent symbol for me, and I have focused on what Mary and Elizabeth may have been expecting.
Elizabeth and Mary, cousins miraculously pregnant at the same time, doing what cousins would naturally do if both were sharing an experience—visiting each other to compare notes. Each knowing that the baby within her would be special, but not knowing in full what lay ahead, may have been filled with a somewhat scary anticipation of the future. I like to imagine that Mary and Elizabeth, willing instruments of God’s will in the world, must have had quite a conversation at that visitation. Did they talk about the future of their unborn sons? Did Elizabeth, further along in her pregnancy, give Mary advice? Luke doesn’t go into the mundane details that would have further humanized these remarkable women. That’s not his purpose. Luke tells us only that “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:41-42). Mary’s response is what we have come to know as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56).
It is the Magnificat that endures when most of us think of the Visitation, or at least for those who remember that the Magnificat occurs at that moment in Luke, rather than at the Annunciation. I would like to suggest that what is really important in the Visitation is the sense of cautious yet joyous anticipation that Mary and Elizabeth must have felt. My wish for all of you is that you let yourselves feel that joy this Advent, as we await once again the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.