One of the struggles that I have often had with the rosary (for I too am a sinner) is my sense of its lack of sense. There seems to be no proportion between the mysteries. Thirty years of Jesus's life sweep by in the five joyful mysteries; three years of his active ministry are pondered in the five luminous mysteries; suddenly, as if at a halt, barely eighteen hours pass in the five sorrowful mysteries; accelerating again, we zoom through untold years and even into eternity in the five glorious mysteries. Why the lack of balance? And then, too, look at the mysteries themselves: something as seemingly banal as finding Jesus in the Temple stands cheek by jowl with the very mystery of the Incarnation - and the examples could be multiplied. Is the wedding at Cana, beautiful as it is, really in the same league as the Resurrection? No, of course not. So what are we to make of this? The question becomes particularly appropriate as we depart from the dizzying heights of the Annunciation and descend to Mary's visit to Elizabeth. I think the only answer that I can offer is this: Scripture itself does the same. The evangelists, writing beneath the prompting of the Holy Spirit, chose to spend far more time on Jesus's suffering and death than on any other part of his mission. They too included the seemingly pedestrian with the magnificent. The rosary's sense of balance is rooted on the proportion of God's word itself. (Once again we see the rosary as an essentially biblical devotion.) And God's word speaks this way for a simple reason: all the aspects of Jesus's life, great and small, contain revelation from God - for he himself is the Word made flesh.
In order to get a sense of the importance and meaning of the Visitation, then, I want to look at the biblical account of it, found in Luke 1:39-56. As I examine it, I discover in this account three movements or moments ripe for reflection: Mary's journey, the response of Elizabeth, and Mary's canticle.
"Mary arose and went in haste." (Luke 1:39) The full weight of this did not strike me until I encountered it in Dante's Purgatorio. (Such is the power of poetry.) In the Purgatorio, Dante depicts souls being cleansed of the remnants of the seven capital sins, often known (rather misleadingly) as the seven deadly sins. The souls being purged of sloth see a depiction of the Visitation, and are confronted with the verse above. And I myself was confronted with the power of Mary's response. In us there is normally an apathy toward good deeds, an inertial resistance arising from selfishness that dampens our zeal and hinders our action. We often wish to be better, to do more, but our wishes never become action. Or if they do, they often skid over into the ditch of extremism and lack of discretion. We never seem to escape our self-centered focus. Mary shows what a woman lifted up by grace and docile to the Holy Spirit can do. There was in her neither extremism nor inertia. She had no crippling thought of self. She had quite literally just heard that she was going to conceive the Son of God while remaining a virgin, and yet her mind did not slip into paralyzing anxiety or overbearing pride. She had also heard that her cousin was to bear a child, and her first thought was to help. Mary shows the utter freedom of divine love. Completely free of that inertial selfish sloth that drags at us, she "arose and went in haste," in freedom, to serve.
Elizabeth greets her; but it is not just Elizabeth who does so. Rather, it is Elizabeth "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Luke 1:41) - the phrase is reminiscent of the prophets. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" It is the Holy Spirit speaking through Elizabeth who says this. The truth of the statement is both prophetic and apparent. What I also wish to note is this - true reverence for Mary is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel itself testifies to this. It was Elizabeth filled with Holy Spirit who spoke thus - surely we cannot expect such a greeting between family members to have been normal or natural, especially not from the elder to the younger. Think of your own families! Who speaks so? Elizabeth's devotion to Mary was from the Holy Spirit - so is the Church's devotion to Mary. Elizabeth also testifies that John the Baptist danced in her womb. The image is reminiscent of King David before the Ark of the Covenant. Indeed, the whole passage bears literary resemblance to various processions of the Ark. Mary should be reverenced not only in herself, but especially because she is the new Ark of the Covenant - the new Dwelling Place of God.
Finally, Mary lifts us her canticle of praise. We are again reminded of the ties between Mary and Miriam, who also led a song of praise after the crossing of the Red Sea. The language of the hymn is reminiscent of Hannah, mother of Samuel, the anointed of the Lord. There is much to be said of the hymn, not least the fact that Mary prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. (Luke 1:48). But what I really want to point out is the sense of revolution in the song. Similar language had been used by Hannah as a tool of her own vindication. On the lips of Mary, phrases very similar to those of Hannah take on a wholly new meaning. The order of the entire world is being upended! There is something truly new here - "he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." Mary is so aware of the newness of her Son that she is depicted by Luke as asserting that the kingdom is already dawning, even while Christ is in the womb! In a sense, Mary becomes the first evangelist, proclaiming the dawning of the kingdom of God some three decades before John the Baptist or her Son. Mary cries out the coming kingdom with joy and certainty; she brings that kingdom in her womb to Elizabeth. As we pray the rosary Mary, both bears witness to the kingdom of God and brings the kingdom of God to us by bringing her Son. Mary comes to visit us with her love, and we, like John, must dance for joy.