Fr Billy Swan
Today, 31st May, the Church celebrates the feast of Mary's Visitation to Elizabeth. The episode is recorded in St Luke's Gospel. For us dedicated to mission, Our Lady's visitation is a model of how we can approach evangelisation.
For us who have a fire in our bones to evangelize and make Christ known and loved, there are certain feast days of the Church that add fuel to that fire and connect its energy to the missionary zeal of the first Christians. Today’s celebration of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth is surely one of those feasts. Why? Because the story connects us to our Blessed Mother who was the first to share the Good News about her Son and who teaches us how to evangelize by presence, action and word.
First and most importantly, Mary is the first evangelist because she carries within her the presence of Christ. Long before the Church gave her the title, at that moment of encounter with Elizabeth, she is the ‘Theotokos…the God bearer’ because of the presence of the Word made flesh in her womb. Long before St Paul declared ‘it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20), the truth of his words were seen in Mary in whom Christ was alive and living.
By her visit to Elizabeth, Mary reminds us that mission begins, not in actions and words, but by bearing Christ to others within ourselves as living tabernacles. Mary testifies to the primary importance of simply carrying Jesus even before there are words or deeds to show him and explain him. For us, this is a crucially important lesson. Before we ever try to speak or do anything in the name of evangelization, what must inspire our words and deeds is the indwelling of the Word within us. Mary was the first to bear Christ in a unique way but we are also called to be Christ bearers and become walking tabernacles, carrying around the real presence of Christ, even though most of the time we are unaware of it. In our efforts to evangelize, we often focus first on what we need to do or say. But maybe the first thing we need to do is return to the well from which the water of actions and words are drawn – the real presence of the Lord within us who has come and made his home in us (cf. John 15:4). And because he is present within us, it is Christ himself who mysteriously evangelizes through us in ways we often forget.
St Therese of Lisieux, the patron on the missions, put it this way: ‘Never have I heard him speak but I felt that he is within me at each moment; he is guiding and inspiring me with what I must say and do’ (Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux, ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1996, p.179). So as we continue our efforts to evangelize, let us be ever more aware of ourselves as living tabernacles who carry the presence and power of Jesus to all we meet and everywhere we go. As the power of his presence in Mary caused the unborn John the Baptist to leap with joy at the Visitation, so the power of his presence within us acts in ways that we constantly underestimate. If only we believed this more!
Second, Mary teaches us to evangelize by action. It was the presence of the divine Word within Mary that inspired her to ‘go in haste’ and visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also with child. Being a living tabernacle of Christ’s presence led to her embarking on an adventure and leaving the safety of her home and to travel from Nazareth to a remote place outside Jerusalem. Immediately after she had given her ‘Yes’ to God to be mother of his Son, Luke tells us that ‘Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah’ (1:39), to be with her relative and friend.
Being committed to evangelization means that similar demands will be made of us. At her visitation, Mary is the archetype of the Church that is also called on mission. Sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ will move us, uproot us and often call us to leave the safety of familiar environments. St Catherine of Siena once wrote that ‘love never stays idle’ (Letter, T82). Similarly, St Teresa of Avila said that ‘love cannot possibly be content with remaining always the same’ (Interior Castle, 7, 4, 9). And if love never stays idle or stays the same, then the mission the Lord entrusts to us will likely lead us ‘to places we rather would not go’ (John 21:18). This may mean us leaving our comfort zones by engaging our faith with friends, family and the culture of our time. This going forth can be scary but that is the nature of mission! The fear we feel is an invitation to greater trust and asking the Holy Spirit to ‘grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness’ (Acts 4:29). By going to the edges of society and culture, we are in communion with Mary who shared her joy with Elizabeth but who also spent significant time with her in charity and practical support. So let us not be afraid if God calls us into new pastures or the fire of his presence within us begins to move us in new directions. In the words of Pope Francis, we are called to be a ‘Church which goes forth…who takes the first step…who gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives…supportive, standing by people at every step of the way’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 24). This is the spirit of Mary’s visitation. May it be our spirit of mission as well.
And then Mary speaks. Her words flow from the Word made flesh within her and her gift of deep faith. What can we as missionaries learn from the gracious words of her wonderful Magnificat? First, that what we say comes from a place of humility as we seek every opportunity to ‘proclaim the greatness of the Lord’. It’s not about our glory but God’s glory and his kingdom. Second, we speak as believers whose lives have been touched by God’s transforming goodness and joy for ‘the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name’. Everything we say exhibits a desire to share that joy so that others can know it too. Third, our words proclaim the presence and action of God in every situation and in everyone’s life. This is what Mary does in her hymn of praise to God and his action that reverses order by humbling the proud and exalting the lowly. Fourth, that the words we use to evangelize are prophetic – that they point to the God who keeps his promises throughout the history of Israel and the Church – from the time Abraham right up to the present day. Mary’s awareness of the living Tradition of faith is evident in her Magnificat. She is firmly rooted in this Tradition and invites us to join her in thinking, feeling and speaking in communion with our faith in the God of Abraham who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This month of May concludes with one of the most beautiful Marian feast days - the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. For a Church community called to mission, this episode from Luke’s Gospel is a spiritual gem that deserves much prayer and contemplation. It connects us with the first disciple of Jesus and the first evangelist who teaches us how to be missionaries by presence, action and word. On this day may we join our Blessed Mother as she bursts into praise of the Lord in a spirit that overflows with missionary joy!