The Visitation by Mariotto Albertinelli
Today, May 13, on the Catholic calendar, is the optional memorial of Our Lady of Fatima. I don’t want to discuss the many theories about such things as whether or not the Third Secret entrusted by of Our Lady of Fatima has been completely revealed.] Rather, since it is a Marian feast day, I decided to take some time to review part of the Infancy Narrative in the Gospel of St. Luke. I found something interesting not about the Blessed Virgin, but, rather, about her cousin Elizabeth – something both interesting and perplexing.
In Luke 1: 5-25, the angel Gabriel visits Zechari’ah:
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechari’ah, of the division of Abi’jah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty,
according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
And Zechari’ah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechari’ah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.
And you will have joy and gladness,
and many will rejoice at his birth;
for he will be great before the Lord,
and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink,
and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit,
even from his mother’s womb.
The text does not specify whether or not John will be filled with the Holy Spirit while he is in his mother’s womb or because he is in his mother’s womb – in other words, does John’s being filled with the Holy Spirit pass from his mother to him or does he receive it independently? The text is ambiguous, as we shall see.
In any case, John will be entrusted with a mission:
And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,
and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli’jah,
to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,
and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
There are two cathologies hidden in the early part of the Infancy Narrative. The first, pertains to the mission that John was given. Both Zechari’ah, a Levitical priest, and Elizabeth are of the tribe of Aaron. Aaron was a priest (indeed, the first priest sanctioned by God for the Jewish people), a prophet, and the elder brother of Moses. It was fitting, therefore, that just as Aaron became the spokesman for Moses until, roughly, the time that Moses performed his first public miracle before Pharaoh, so a descendant of the house of Aaron (lineage passed through the father in ancient Israel) and a elder cousin was to become the herald of the new Moses, Jesus Christ, until, roughly the time that he performed his first public miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana.
As the story continues, Zechari’ah’s disbelief gets the better of him:
And Zechari’ah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news.
And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
And the people were waiting for Zechari’ah, and they wondered at his delay in the temple.
And when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he made signs to them and remained dumb.
And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she hid herself, saying,
“Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.”
Zechari’ah was stuck dumb in penance for his doubting God. He would be unable to speak until the naming of John on the eighth day during his circumcision. Did he use a slate tablet to communicate with his wife? The text is silent on the subject.
What is known is that it was never communicated to Zechari’ah by the angel that his wife’s cousin, Mary, would, likewise, be visited by an angel nor that she would become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he could not tell his wife these facts, even if he used a slate tablet to write on. The Blessed Virgin, upon hearing that her cousin is with child, does not hesitate, but sets out in haste, immediately after her Annunciation, while her baby is but a few days old, at most, to go to her cousin, to share in Elizabeth’s good news. The first meeting between the two cousins is a moment of true holiness:
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah,
and she entered the house of Zechari’ah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit
and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Now, this is interesting for two reasons. First, Mary had just conceived Jesus so that there could be no way that Elizabeth, except by a special revelation from God, could have known that Mary was pregnant, that the Lord had spoken to her, or that the child would be the Son of God. At no point could anyone have given her the information. It is unclear whether John the Baptist was filled first with the holy Spirit and caused Elizabeth to be filled or whether Elizabeth, upon hearing Mary’s greeting was filled with the Holy Spirit and caused her son to be filled. In either case, there is a revelation, here, from God to Elizabeth, but there is also a revelation to John and this is the source of the second cathology.
John was to go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah. Now, Elizabeth lives in the hill country and this is no accident. The prophet, Elijah, traveled forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb (which most biblical scholars agree is Mt. Sinai). There he was to meet God on a hill.
Remember the encounter between God and Elijah in the amazing passage of1 Kings 19:11-12:
And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
Many homilies have been preached on hearing God in the still, small, voice, but some of these explanations miss the forest for the trees. Why was God speaking in a still small voice and not through the wind, the earthquake and the fire?
Without going into details, the travels of Elijah to Mt. Horeb may be likened to a type of a second Exodus. During the first Exodus and encounter with God on this mountain, the Israelites were very frightened (Exodus 19:17-19, 20:18-24, RSV):
Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God; and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.
And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.
And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder…
Now when all the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to prove you, and that the fear of him may be before your eyes, that you may not sin.”
And the people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: `You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven.
You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.
In the first encounter with God on Mt. Horeb/Sinai, it was to the whole people of Israel that God spoke and when God spoke there was wind, and earthquakes, and fire (and the request of a righteous sacrifice). So frightening was this encounter with the voice of God that the Israelites begged Him not to speak to them in this manner, ever again. At this first encounter, God specifically forbids the Israelites from making gods of silver or gold – a command which the Israelite people broke, time and again, not only during the first exodus, but during the time of Elijah, as well, causing Elijah to flee – a true Israelite was threatened with death by his own people who had become as pagan as the Egyptians .
At the second encounter of God with the Israelites on the mountain, when Elijah was the lone representative of the true Israel, God honored the original request of the Jews never to speak to them in the way He did at the time of Moses, so God was not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. God, wishing to show that His power has no limitations of size or strength, manifested His entire self to Elijah in a still small voice, which, nevertheless, was so frightening and holy that (1 Kings 19:13, RSV):
And when Eli’jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Elijah had known the voice of the Lord before he ever came to the mountain (1 Ki 17:3, 9), so this was not merely God making himself known to Elijah for the first time, such as when God called Samuel (1 Sam 3:4). This was God manifesting himself to Elijah in the form of a still, small voice for a specific reason.
It may not be immediately apparent from this episode, but Mt. Horeb might rightly be called the Mountain of History. It is interesting to note that the two people, Moses and Elijah, who were with Jesus during the Transfiguration are not only representatives, respectively, of the Law and the Prophets of the Jewish Old Covenant, but they are, also, the only two men in Scripture to have had a recorded encounter with God on Mt. Horeb/Sinai.
With Christ standing between them, they represent, together, all of history, the past and the future. If the Old Covenant Law, which was to be the guardian of correct and righteous conduct before the coming of Christ (a Law which, St. Paul, in Romans 8:3 shows has no power to save), were given to the Hebrew people during their first encounter on the mountain through Moses in the earthquake, the fire and the wind, then the prophecy of Christ, with the coming of a second Moses and a second Elijah and a second Covenant, was given to the Hebrew people during this second encounter on the mountain through Elijah, the Prophet, in the still, small voice. Does not Malachi prophecy the replacement of the first encounter on Horeb by the second (Malachi 4:4-5, RSV):
Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
“Behold, I will send you Eli’jah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.
Who is the second Elijah? Is it not John the Baptist? Who is the second Moses? Is it not Jesus Christ? This encounter between Elijah and God, Elijah standing before God at the entrance of the cave, wrapped in a mantle, is a foreshadowing of the encounter that the second Elijah, John the Baptist, would have as he rested wrapped in the cave/womb of his mother, Elizabeth, as he was approached by Christ (the second Moses, but also God) in the womb of the Blessed Virgin.* This was the second Moses passing on the Covenant to Elijah; it was Elijah receiving the Covenant from God. The only voice that Jesus as both God and man could have used in this first encounter with the second Elijah was the still, small voice of a newly conceived child. Thus, the still, small voice on Mt. Horeb and in the womb of the Virgin are one and the same. While the voice of the first Covenant was the loud voice of wind and earthquakes and fire, suitable for a people without faith, the voice of the second Covenant would be the still, small voice of a child who would lead Israel, a voice that could only be heard with the ears of faith.
The cathology is to realize that the still small voice of God is both ancient and new, a voice carrying through the Old Testament to the New in the person of Jesus Christ, who at this time, in this hour, was the same still, small voice of God that caused Elijah to hide his face on Mt. Horeb. and that would cause John the Baptist to leap for joy in his mother’s womb.
The final thing to mention in this recitation of the revelations to Zechari’ah’s household, is notice what happens during John’s circumcision (Luke 1:57-66):
Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son.
And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechari’ah after his father,
but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.”
And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.”
And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called.
And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all marveled.
And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.
And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea;
and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
Who told Elizabeth that her son’s name was to be John? There were no kindred by that name. Mary didn’t know the name from her angelic visitor; Zechari’ah couldn’t speak, although might he have written the name on a tablet to his wife. We don’t know how she knew. I like to think that, just perhaps, her surprising knowledge of Mary’s pregnancy and her son’s name might have occurred because she, too, might have has a hidden Annunciation of her own. I mean, there is a certain delicious symmetry in the thought: both Mary and Joseph had a visit from an angel, why not both Zachari’ah and Elizabeth? I suppose we will never know, but it is a nice thought on this feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
*This point was made by Fr. Stephen Dominic Hayes, O. P., during a weekday homily, to whom I am indebted for the insight.