Saturday, May 30, 2009

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord..."

Since the feast of the Visitation this year is pre-empted by the major celebration of Pentecost, I thought I'd slip it in here on this Saturday which has no particular liturgical commemoration.  Fr. John Julian, OJN, monk and founder of the Order of Julian of Norwich has a new book on the saints which will appear this summer: Stars In A Dark World. The following is just a sampling from his wonderful collection.

"During the international General Chapter of the Franciscan Order in 1263, the great Saint Bonaventure proposed a new feast day for the Franciscan liturgical calendar on July 2: it was to be the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lady, commemorating the Blessed Virgin’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth as recorded in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:39-56). The Chapter embraced the idea, and the feast began to be celebrated among Franciscans.

It seems an insoluble mystery why this clearly Biblically-based and fairly central event in the grand picture of the Incarnation should not have received an earlier liturgical commemoration, especially since it did receive homiletic attention from some of the great preachers: Origen, Jerome, Ambrose, Cyprian. It may be that it was seen earlier to be simply an integral part of the Annunciation drama, and did not need separate attention in its own right. 

After the feast had been kept for over a hundred years by the Franciscans, and during the Great Schism in the western Church – when there were two men claiming to be Pope, one in Rome and the other in Avignon – the Roman pope, Urban VI, proposed the adoption of the Feast of the Visitation apparently as a kind of spiritual bribe to obtain the intercession of the Blessed Virgin on behalf of his side of the schism. His death in 1389 delayed the process slightly, but his successor Boniface IX, in one of his first acts as Roman Pope, formally adopted and promulgated the feast – but the promulgation was effective, of course, only in those places which recognized the Roman Pope, that is, in England, most of Germany, Scandinavia, and northern and central Italy. Boniface’s stated purpose for the feast was to implore the aid of the Virgin Mary towards the ending of the Papal Schism. (Apparently to little effect, since the schism lasted another fifty years.)

Fifty-two years later, after the Schism was at long last healed, the stormy Council of Basle in 1441 once again ordered the celebration of the feast, and finally Pius V (the same Pope who excommunicated Queen Elizabeth) established the feast formally for the whole Roman Catholic Church in 1568, and in 1662 it was included in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. 

In 1969, the liturgical commemoration of the Visitation was moved from July 2 to May 31 (halfway between the Annunciation and the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist)...

...Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary is the basis for the widely-used
Angelus. The reaction of the fetal John is both a foretelling of his own prophetic role as forerunner and “announcer” of the Messiah, and an expression of the joy that must eventually have overcome the women’s confusion and uncertainty. Elizabeth says that her baby “leapt for joy” in her womb – just the verb itself means a carefree skipping or leaping like lambs in a field.

And, of course, the Gospel account of the Visitation contains the most famous of all Canticles, the Magnificat. Since the 6th century, this Canticle has been used at Vespers in virtually all Western monastic traditions, where its importance has been emphasized by its special Antiphons and – at Solemn Vespers – by the use of incense during the singing of the Canticle. In the Greek Church, the Magnificat is sung daily in the morning office, except on a few exceptional feasts.

This universal popularity has made the text attractive to serious Biblical scholars over the centuries, and since the Magnificat is the centerpiece of the Visitation account, it is significant that in some six ancient biblical manuscripts or commentaries, the speaker of the Magnificat is identified not as the Blessed Virgin Mary, but as Saint Elizabeth. It is
obvious that the Canticle is modeled on the Old Testament Song of Hannah (another barren wife who is given a miraculous pregnancy), and there are many lines in the Canticle which seem to apply to Elizabeth more perhaps appropriately than to Mary, but the best scholars tend to believe that the Canticle is probably a later addition by Luke to his original Incarnation story, as a response to and a balance with the “Angelus Song” of Elizabeth which precedes it. It is likely that the Magnificat itself may originally have been composed by others in a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian community who identified themselves with the poor and powerless who were the remnant of the true Israel. Luke’s choice to include the hymn and to ascribe it to Saint Mary at the Visitation is a demonstration of his belief that the promises made to the Old Testament patriarchs are fulfilled finally (and only) in the birth of the Messiah – and that they are offered not only to all generations of the Jews, but to all people on earth.

In 1610, it was this Biblical account of the Visitation which moved the great Savoyard Bishop of Geneva, St. Francis de Sales, (with Madame Jane Frances de Chant├íl) to found the contemplative Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary – for women who felt drawn to a life of religious commitment, but who were not sufficiently young, robust, or free of family ties to bear the austerities of the traditional orders, or who were simply not attracted to the lukewarm religiosity of the older, lax orders. The new Order was devoted to the cultivation of humility, gentleness, and sisterly love, following an adapted Augustinian Rule. The story of Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth involves no heroic or dramatic display, but hidden in the person of Mary, so too the Visitation community was to be known not for any visible works, but for living the hidden life of great interior intimacy with God and charitable love of one’s neighbor.

And it might be profitable for us, too, to consider our reaction to the hidden Lord in our own lives, to search for our own leap of joy when we discover Him come to us."

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