Friday, August 14, 2015


Two of the most frequently used prayers in our tradition are taken from the same Gospel narrative: the visit of the Holy Virgin to her older cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-56). Both the Angelic Salutation (“Hail, O Theotokos…”) and the Canticle of the Theotokos (“My soul magnifies the Lord…”) are taken from this passage. The event which it describes is generally called the Visitation. According to Luke, the angel Gabriel who told her that she would bear a son also told her that “Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren” (Luke 1:36). Mary then travelled the nearly hundred miles from Nazareth to the little town in the hills of Judea where Zachary and Elizabeth lived.
The Holy Virgin greeted her cousin, “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For, indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (Luke 1:41-45).
The Holy Virgin replied with the Canticle, which we sing daily at Matins/Orthros: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (vv. 46-47). This canticle is clearly modeled on the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), which that mother prayed when she learned that she would have a son. This led many modern scholars to assume that Luke put these words in Mary’s mouth, using 1 Samuel as his model. They did not realize that people steeped in Scripture as Mary was would naturally weave the sacred text into their speech when they spoke of the things of God.
It may be that St Luke had another Old Testament passage in mind when he wrote the story of the visitation. Note the highlighted parallels from the story of David’s visit to the Ark of the Covenant described in 2 Samuel: “David arose and went … to bring up from there the ark of God … and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” … The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite three months. … So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with gladness.  Then David danced before the Lord with all his might …” (2 Samuel 6:2-16).
The Holy Virgin is the new Ark of God, bearing within her – not the words of God’s commandments, the tablets of the Law, but the Living Word of God Himself. Before Him the unborn son of Elizabeth leaps in her womb as David danced before the Ark.
St Gregory the Wonderworker (213- 270) would develop this image to describe the Virgin as full of grace (“Wrought with gold both within and without”): “Come also, dearly beloved, and chant the melody taught us by the inspired harp of David, saying ‘Arise, O Lord, into Your resting place – You and the Ark of Your holiness.’ For the Holy Virgin is truly an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary.”
“Notice the contrast and the choice of words. Elizabeth is the first to hear Mary’s voice, but John is the first to be aware of grace. She hears with the ears of the body, but he leaps for joy at the meaning of the mystery. She is aware of Mary’s presence, but he is aware of the Lord’s: a woman aware of a woman’s presence, the Forerunner aware of the pledge of our salvation. The women speak of the grace they have received while the children are active in secret, unfolding the mystery of love with the help of their mothers, who prophesy by the spirit of their sons. “The child leaps in the womb; the mother is filled with the Holy Spirit, but not before her son. Once the son has been filled with the Holy Spirit, he fills his mother with the same Spirit. John leaps for joy, and the spirit of Mary rejoices in her turn.”

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