Feast of the Visitation of Mary
Today the church celebrates the Feast of the Visitation of Mary, recalling the event where the mother of Jesus travels to the home of her aging cousin, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Parallels abound for these two women: both are pregnant, their pregnancies are essentially impossible, and their sons will play key roles in Kingdom of God: one announces it, the other embodies it.
Yet, this feast brings us to focus on these two mothers. Elizabeth’s name means God is fullness. Technically, it could even be considered the fatness of God. Mary’s name is Hebrew for beloved (of God). Thus, Elizabeth, who is more advanced in her pregnancy and probably carrying a fuller stomach, illustrates the essence and excess of God that embraces Mary, who is frightened, young, unsure, anxious, and striving to be faithful, knowing that she is the beloved of God.
As disciples, we are regularly more like Mary than Elizabeth. We work hard—like traveling “to the hill country in haste” (Luke 1:39)—to remember and experience that we are the beloved of God, especially during moments of fear, worry, anxiety, turmoil, or struggle. When we finally arrive at a place where we feel God’s presence, we hope for some sort of embrace of grace that reveals an experience of the fullness—or fatness—of God. Whether the reassurance of love from someone close to our heart, affirmation from a colleague or friend, gentle touch of affection, or a gesture of support that tells us we are not alone, somehow God’s over-weighted love touches us, and we experience some peace, relief, or hope.
Undoubtedly, Mary and Elizabeth gave each other tremendous support during their visitation. Perhaps each recalled the other’s love and care during the loneliness and fear of childbirth. Maybe they longed to be with each other after giving birth to their sons, to share feelings of delight or symptoms of an unnamed post-partum depression, express hopes for their cooing and crying infant boys, exchange clothes and blankets, and articulate worries about their bodies, fatigue, and sleeplessness. Nevertheless, they learned the essential nature of the grace of God: the necessary experience of the presence of God in our lives that allows us to move forward, even when we think we can’t, because—as the angel Gabriel said to Mary—“nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).
In the Salesian tradition, the Visitation is a central feast, for St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal chose this event in the lives of Mary, Elizabeth, John, and Jesus to name the religious community of women begun by them in the 17th century. The Visitation of Holy Mary community of women continues to bless the church and world with its prayers, ministry, legacy, and witness. From these women, other communities would sprout, including the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales. Focusing on the desire of Francis and Jane that all disciples live Jesus, these religious women and men work in a variety of ministries throughout the world with the mission to advance the Gospel with gentleness and humility.
Despite this time in church history where the numbers of religious are growing smaller, it our Salesian hope that more people are coming to know and experience the fullness and fatness of God as grace that is shared and celebrated in authentic personal, communal, and global relationships because nothing is impossible for God.