Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
The Theotokos Visits Elisabeth
Today the Theotokos visits her cousin Elisabeth. She is an example of humility and piety to us. She is humble because she is ready to serve her elders. Elisabeth is passed the age of childbearing. She is also pious in that she is the greater going to serve the lesser and Christ in her is going to John.
The Theotokos’ purpose in going to Elisabeth was to serve her, but Jesus’ purpose was to sanctify St. John the Forerunner. For this reason, the conception of Elisabeth was kept hidden from her for six months. John needed to be developed enough to be able to leap for joy within the womb, before Christ came to him.
It was not until Christ came near that John was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Fathers are very particular about the order that things occur today. Christ in the womb of the Theotokos fills her with the Holy Spirit. Then when she draws near to Elisabeth, John is filled with the Holy Spirit and leaps. Finally, Elisabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies.
The Ministry of St. John the Forerunner
Maximus of Turin compares this early ministry of St. John the Forerunner to His closing ministry,
Not yet born, already John prophesies and, while still in the enclosure of his mother’s womb, confesses the coming of Christ with movements of joy—since he could not do so with his voice. As Elizabeth says to holy Mary, “As soon as you greeted me, the child in my womb exulted for joy.” John exults, then, before he is born. Before his eyes can see what the world looks like, he can recognize the Lord of the world with his spirit. In this regard, I think that the prophetic phrase is appropriate: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came forth from the womb I sanctified you.” Thus we ought not to marvel that after Herod put him in prison, he continued to announce Christ to his disciples from his confinement, when even confined in the womb he preached the same Lord by his movements.1
He begins and ends his ministry in a place of confinement. Elisabeth is the one to hear the greeting, but John receives the grace first. She was able to hear the Theotokos physically, but he leaped because of the mystery. The womb’s covering is no obstacle to the mystical sight. She saw Mary coming and he saw the Lord coming. She who had before had only realised that she carried a son, glorifies now that she will bear a prophet and was immediately touched with the spirit of prophecy as St. Gregory the Dialogist tells us,
She was touched with the spirit of prophecy at once, both as to the past, present, and future. She knew that Mary had believed the promises of the Angel; she perceived when she gave her the name of mother, that Mary was carrying in her womb the Redeemer of mankind; and when she foretold that all things would be accomplished, she saw also what was as to follow in the future.2
The Theotokos Venerated by Men and Angels
In her prophecy and blessing she uses the same words as Gabriel, “Blessed are you among women…”. To show that she is to be venerated by both men and angels. This blessing is repeated daily by both Orthodox and Catholic believers.
Her first phrase points us toward venerating the Theotokos. Her second phrase points us toward what venerating the Theotokos does and what her icon does. The veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary is to point us toward Christ.
“…and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Since it is through the Theotokos that we have both recovered the seed of the fruit of incorruption and also received the fruit of our heavenly inheritance that we lost in Adam.
As we see also in the resurrection, God sees to it that women have an integral part in the reconciliation of the world. As sin began in woman and then spread to man, so salvation comes through and is foretold through a woman and then Christ and His prophet are born.
Christ being the fruit of the Theotokos’ womb tells us at least two things about his nature. First, he proceeds not from man but from the Theotokos alone. Second, He took on the nature of Mary when He was conceived and born from her.
We see that the Holy Spirit that gave Elisabeth the ability to prophecy also gave her humility.
And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
Today we see the humility of both of these ladies. The Theotokos in coming to serve Elisabeth and Elisabeth in recognising that Mary is greater than her. As the Venerable Bede explains,
As soon as Elizabeth saw the one who had come to her, she recognized that she was the mother of the Lord. But she discovered in herself no such merit by which she might have become worthy to be visited by such a guest. “And why has this happened to me,” she asked, “that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Undoubtedly the very Spirit who conferred upon her the gift of prophecy at the same time endowed her with the favor of humility. Filled with the prophetic spirit, she understood that the mother of the Savior had drawn near to her. But being discreet in the spirit of humility, she understood that she herself was less than worthy of Mary’s coming.3
Bearing the Word of God
Finally, St. Elisabeth blesses the obedience of the Theotokos. As the Theotokos is blessed for hearing and believing so we can be as well. St. Ambrose of Milan encourages each of us to have the soul of Mary in us. For a soul that has believed has both conceived and bears the Word of God and declares his works. Let us magnify the Lord then and rejoice in God. She is the mother of Christ according to the flesh, yet He is the fruit of all according to faith.
Every soul receives the Word of God, provided that, undefiled and unstained by vices, it guards its purity with [unblemished] modesty.
The Response of the Theotokos
The Theotokos now verbalises her humility that she has already shown by her visit to Elisabeth. She praises her God who has looked with favour on her lowliness. However because of the heavenly grace, “she pronounces herself all at once lifted up and glorified to such a degree that rightly her preeminent blessedness would be marvelled at by the voices of all nations”4.
In Isaiah 31:9 the prophet states,
Blessed is he who has a seed in Zion, and kindred in Jerusalem.
St. Athanasius states that if this is the case, then how much more blessed is the Theotokos who although was made according to the flesh, has become the Mother of the Word. In humility she states that all shall call her blessed. The Venerable Bede tells us that it was fitting that as pride brought death into the world through our first parents, so through the lowliness and humility of Mary the entrance of life should be opened. For this wonder let us also call her blessed.
Mercy from Generation to Generation
She continues telling us that that the mercy of the Lord is from generation to generation. There are two ways that the fathers have understood this. The first, which is where my mind would naturally go, is that his mercy lasts forever i.e., to every generation.
The second is that it either refers to the two peoples i.e., the Jew and Gentiles or that it refers to all the countries throughout the world that she foresaw would believe in Christ. In this understanding, the Theotokos saw that we would one day believe. How wonderful is that!
However, we also see that his mercy is not given indiscriminately. In other words, there is a condition to receiving His mercy. It is given to those in every nation who fear him, that is upon those who through repentance are turned to faith and renewal. Unbelievers shut themselves off from the mercy of God through their sin.
Bringing down the lofty from their thrones can refer to the leaders of the world who oppose Christ, but this is only in a limited sense in that they are being controlled by demons and evil spirits of the world. The fathers tell us, the sense is a lot more that the evil forces of the world are brought down by Christ. Christ has openly triumphed over His spiritual enemies.
It follows then that he has laid bare every heart that was puffed up and not obedient to Him and has exposed the wickedness of proud hearts. However, this is not without remedy. If men and women have been cast down because of their pride and rebellion, they can if they humble themselves return to his grace when he has mercy on them. They can be counted among the lowly that he exalts. One of the Fathers explains,
For our understanding is acknowledged to be the judgment-seat of God, but after the transgression, the powers of evil took their seat in the heart of the first man as on their own throne. For this reason then the Lord came and cast out the evil spirits from the seat of our will, and raised up those who were vanquished by devils, purging their consciences, and making their hearts his own dwelling place.5
The hungry she is referring generally to the human race and specifically to the Gentiles. Israel had the food of the law and prophets, but the Gentiles had nothing. When the Jewish people collectively rejected Christ, they were sent away empty, but now the Gentiles have been fed with the life of Christ.
His servant Israel does not necessarily refer to ethnic Israel. (Although it does include as many as were faithful to God in ethnic Israel). He has helped His servant Israel i.e., all those who through faith and the sacraments have been made children of Israel.
The Theotokos’ Return
The Theotokos remained for three months. Both out of friendship for Elisabeth, and also for the benefit that Christ was giving to her yet unborn child. She left before the birth of John because it was not proper at that time for a virgin to be present at the birth of a child.
Today, let us follow the example of the Theotokos and Elisabeth and live in humility. If we are younger, we must help those who are older, and if we are greater, we must serve those who are less. If we are less, let us give thanks to those who are greater helping us.
Let us join with the angels and the saints of all generations and venerate the Theotokos. In our veneration, let us be drawn to the fruit of her womb i.e., to Christ. We must give Him our worship and honour today.
Let us also praise God that He raised up the humility of servant girl to be His Blessed mother.
Finally let us praise God for the salvation that He has accomplished through His Son.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Visitation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58366 [retrieved December 7, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Visitation_Pelendri.jpg.