Life & Soul

The pure joy of the Visitation

The Visitation (c 1310–20), by Master Heinrich of Constance

In our traditional Roman liturgical calendar, July 2 (the conclusion of the long-suppressed Octave of John the Baptist) is the feast of the Visitation. In the Novus Ordo calendar, the Visitation falls on May 31, between the Annunciation and the Nativity of St John the Baptist.

We reflect on the visit of the Blessed Virgin to her cousin Elizabeth. Little pre-born John leapt in his mother’s womb at the arrival of his pre-born Lord and Mary’s utterance of the Magnificat burst forth from her pure internalised, incarnate joy.

At the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, there is a small statue of the Visitation made for German Dominican nuns in about 1300. It is of gilded walnut, with paint and inset rock crystal cabochons (polished gemstones) behind which were images of the babies Jesus and John.

A speech scroll descends from Elizabeth’s shoulder, giving utterance to the amazement erupting from her heart: “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Their hand placement and arms form a circle to embrace the mystery surrounding them but within them, the meeting of Eternal Word with Precursor Voice.

Speaking of uttering, the antiphon for Marian Masses at this time of year is Salve Sancta Parens, quoting Psalm 45 (44):

Salve, sancta parens, enixa puerpera Regem; qui caelum terramque regit in saecula saeculorum. Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum: dico ego opera mea Regi. (Hail, Holy Mother, thou who didst bring forth the King who rules heaven and earth forever. My heart hath uttered a good word: I speak my works to my King.)

Remember that one verse of a psalm was enough for our forebears to remember the whole psalm and to mine it in memory for its hinted treasure, in this case profound nuptial imagery.

“Utter” translates the Hebrew rachash, “boil or bubble like a fountain” and the Latin eructo “to belch, emit”. Eructavit, “belched”, so sweetly sung in chant, can startle the Latinly turned ear.

Cassiodorus (d 585) wrote: “One is said to ‘utter’ when a full meal in the stomach dissolves into healthy digestion. Yet it is clear that the word of God is food for the heart.”

In both chant and statue the utterance has burst up from the inmost depths of the completely filled souls of Elizabeth and of Mary to convey something that cannot be any longer contained.

Utter joy.