The Gospel reading for the Feast of the Assumption is the Visitation, that meeting made up of Elizabeth’s words of greeting to Mary and Mary’s poetic response to Elizabeth. As is elsewhere so often the case, we cannot understand this story without recalling again the announcement of God that He wishes Mary to be mother of the Messiah and the Son of God and after Mary’s acceptance of God’s will.
Upon Mary’s greeting Elizabeth, John leaps in the womb of his mother. This ‘leaping’ is to be understood as John’s recognition of the presence, now in Mary’s womb, of the Lord. Elizabeth, sensing this ‘leaping’, interprets correctly its meaning, and recognizes Mary as the ‘mother of my Lord’. Elizabeth understands who Mary is and who Jesus is because she is inspired by the Holy Spirit to know and to speak as a prophet. Moreover, Elizabeth shows great reverence for Mary and again rightly understands Mary’s virtue in Jesus’ conception: ‘blessed are you who believed that what God told you would indeed come true’. Belief is key to Mary’s decision to do what God has asked of her, even if she now or ever understands fully what God’s plans for her are. Mary is often praised for her obedience, but it is her faith in God that opens her life to obeying God’s will. Thus, Luke presents Mary in his Gospel both as an individual living her life on earth and as an ideal disciple. If her faith leads Mary to choose God’s will for her, it is also clear that in her faith is a trust in God, in His love for her, which makes her confident to do whatever God asks of her. Mary never understands God to the degree that she could say that she knew from the start all that God would ask of her. But not understanding everything did not mean that God did not love her. In this she never doubted. This faith, this trust, then this readiness to obey the God who loved her so much – all this burned in her heart all her life.
Mary’s lengthy response to Elizabeth’s inspired words is a hymn or poem. Called from its first words in Latin “Magnificat”, it is a hymn best divided into three parts. First, there is Mary’s recognition of what God has done for her. She, like the rest of us, should live and die and be remembered by only a few people for a relatively short time, and then forgotten forever. But now, in virtue of God’s creation of Jesus in her, she will be remembered forever, praised forever. Great be God’s name for this favor! It may seem strange to us that Mary puts so much value on her being praised and remembered and glorified, but glory and dignity were vital values in her world. As one can tell from reading the entire Lucan Gospel (and the Old Testament), there is great concern for honor and dishonor, glory and humiliation; often in the Mediterranean countries glory is more valuable than even money or health.
But Mary’s thought about herself quickly makes her think of the many times in Israelite history when God intervened for humble people like herself and raised them up, scattering their sinful enemies who have humiliated and impoverished them. The list of these divine interventions of mercy are legion in the Old Testament.
But Mary not only sees herself as the latest of God’s mercies towards Israel. Did He not promise His abiding help to Abraham, the founding father of all Israel? Mary, then, places herself within this promise: what has happened to her is to be understood as the latest fulfillment of the ancient promises God made to the forefathers. Yes, her conception of Jesus made her glorious, but she realizes that we must see it as the realization of God’s promise always to be with Israel. What affected one woman now affects all mankind.
John Kilgallen, S.J