Recently, I celebrated my graduation from my PhD program. As I stood in line of the academic procession, waiting for the moment to cross the stage when my name was called, I caught the eye of a former professor who was standing near me. Without saying a word, this professor reached out her hand and clasped mine, and smiled so proudly at me. Just a few years before, I encountered this smile in my professor’s office as I confided in her about my anxiety about my future, my career plans, and my relationships. My professor had listened patiently as I told her about a challenging situation I was going through, offering words of wisdom and encouragement. Since that day, my professor continued to accompany me. She often became the person I sought out for advice or guidance, always eager to draw on her own experience as a doctoral student, Catholic, and woman to help me find the next step on my path.
I could not help but imagine that, on the day of my graduation as she stretched out her hands towards me, my professor remembered just how much anxiety, worry, and fear I had to navigate to get to that day. Unlike many others who just saw fancy academic regalia and a large diploma, my professor had seen the challenges that I went through that others did not understand. As she gripped my hand and smiled, my professor remembered my journey and knew the deep meaning of it. She had been with me on the journey as my professor. She was able to offer wisdom to me because she had also been on the journey herself.
Today’s feast is the Feast of the Visitation, which I believe invites us to contemplate those who have been on the journeys of our lives with us, who understand so much more than others who just perceive our lives at surface level. In other words, the Feast of the Visitation calls us to consider those who live in solidarity with us, walking with us and helping us to consider the work of God in our lives.
In today’s Gospel, we see the excitement of Elizabeth and the infant, John the Baptist, in her womb as Mary greets them. Though the words of the Gospel do not reveal all the details about Mary’s and Elizabeth’s conversations with one another, I like to imagine and fill in the gaps. Both women might have shared their stories with one another about their encounters with angels and miraculous pregnancies. Imagine the laughter, sighs of relief, and the words ”You, too?!” exchanged with one another in the telling of their stories. Think of what their conversations sounded like: posing questions to one another, offering insights, and asking, “What could this mean for us?” Consider what emotions both women might have felt when they recognized they weren’t isolated in their experience any longer. Though Mary had Joseph and Elizabeth had Zechariah, imagine what it must have been like to feel seen and understood by another who had also been through such a unique and particular experience.
The Feast of the Visitation reminds us of a great truth that Pope Francis himself often makes reference to: that in the Christian life, we are never meant to be isolated. We are meant to be seen, known, understood, and accompanied. In Fratelli Tutti, the pope writes, “Once more we realiz[e] that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together.” In Mary’s and Elizabeth’s case, the two women considered the mystery of what happened to them together. They were able to consider the meaning of each other’s story in a profound way because of their own separate experiences. In the moment I shared with my former professor on my graduation day, I was reminded of someone who walked with me during my years in my doctoral program, and shared solidarity with me in the struggles I navigated. Without the accompaniment of my professor, my journey would have felt isolating, with no one to share questions, experiences, and “You, too?!” with.
The Visitation invites us to consider those who walk with us and bear witness to significant moments in our lives. Who is with you on your journey? Who has made you feel seen, known, and accompanied, and how are you called to be with others on their journeys?
On May 31st, our Church celebrated the Feast of the Visitation—that hallowed moment when Elizabeth was greeted by her cousin Mary and when Scripture tells us that the infant leaped in her womb. We hear that the very first thing that Mary did after she was visited by the angel Gabriel was go and visit her cousin Elizabeth.
The line that always sticks out to me from this Gospel account of the Visitation is: “During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste.” Mary did not just travel to visit her cousin - to celebrate the faithfulness of God and what He had done for her – but she traveled immediately, quickly, and with haste.
Not only did Mary know that the good news of the Incarnation - of God dwelling in her very womb - was too good to keep to herself, but she also knew of the importance of showing up for those whom she loved most. One of the things I believe most firmly about our lives as Christian disciples is that when we encounter the faithfulness of God (either in our lives or in the lives of those around us) we are called to share it with others.
It can be all too easy to think that the stories of Mary and Elizabeth - one conceiving by the power of the Holy Spirit and the other receiving the gift of a child after being called barren - is some far off story that happened 2,000 years ago and not something applicable to us. We must ask ourselves: Where have I experienced the faithfulness of God in my life? Where have I seen it around me? Where am I being called to share it? Am I making haste to get there?
I was lucky enough to attend a school called Visitation High School; as you drove up the main drive to our school building, there was a beautiful statue of Mary and Elizabeth embracing. Every day I was reminded of the great joy that they shared with each other and ultimately the peace that came by believing that what was promised to them would be fulfilled. (Luke 1:45).
In our hurting, broken, and messy world, we could use more moments of making haste. Making haste to show up for a friend that we know is suffering. Making haste to share the good news of Jesus with a family member or friend. Making haste to celebrate our loved ones even while we experience sorrow or hardship.
It is the great privilege of the Christian to make haste like Our Lady, to show up and to share the good news that,“The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” (Luke 1:49).
I am often struck by the Gospel call and invitation to have no fear. It seems liberating and intriguing, but often unrealistic as I look around at the situation of the world or confront my own littleness. As a wife and mother, the quietness or anonymity of my days can sometimes seem mundane or insignificant in a world marked with suffering.
Then Christ’s words echo in my heart, “Be not afraid!”
Be not afraid.
So powerful is this message that it permeates Sacred Scripture. Pope St. John Paul II even began his pontificate with it. “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ,” he said. “Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power.”
A large portion of my adolescence was dominated by fear: the fear of rejection, of not fitting in, of failure. I had not opened the door to Christ and instead relied on my own devices rather than accepting his power, as the pope suggested. I found that fear is enslaving.
This changed with various experiences throughout my college years. I remember being on a retreat, as a senior, where we were asked to meditate on the Annunciation and the Visitation. I walked to a hill overlooking the mountains of Northern California and began to re-read and reflect upon a passage I had heard countless times.
As a spunky middle child, I had never much affiliated with the Blessed Virgin Mary. She seemed too pristine for my rambunctious, sporty, and mischievous personality. I couldn't relate.
This particular reading of Mary’s assent to God’s plan, however, was different. No longer did I see a dainty girl who only radiated perfection, but a strong and bold woman who accepted God’s will without fear. I read her response of surrender, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” not as a feeble “OK, sure, whatever you say, Lord” but as a “Yes, Lord! Together, let’s do this!”
Mary had opened wide the door for Christ. Her response was whole-hearted, even joyful. She was not afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power.
“What a bold answer,” I remember thinking. What freedom! Up to that point in my life, I couldn’t recall ever responding to God in that way. I wanted what Mary had, a life without fear. Moments later, I repeated those immortal words, having finally embraced them as my own, “May it be done to me according to your word.” My life has never been the same since.
Mary’s experience of trust in the Lord is what we are all invited to. Her lack of fear is completely possible for Christ’s followers. This does not mean lack of uncertainty, lack of stress, lack of hard choices or suffering. It means overarching faith and trust in God’s plan of goodness over our own.
Mary did not have all the answers. In fact, she asked the angel Gabriel, “How can this be?” as he shared God’s plan of salvation. I can imagine Mary repeating this question years later in the silent recesses of her heart throughout Christ’s torture and crucifixion, “Lord, how can this be?”
This is a question I often find myself asking throughout my day. How can this war be going on? How can this life be ending? How can this poverty be?
God typically answers our questions not with a detailed explanation of his plan, but with himself. “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid,” he tells his shaken disciples as he walks on water during the storm. In doing so, he does not belittle or ignore our questions, but redirects them. God alone suffices. It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II began his papacy by inviting us to “welcome Christ and accept his power” over our own. It is when we turn inward, relying on our own strength or power, that we become paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. It is when we turn inward that we forget who we are.
Pope John Paul II poignantly stated, “So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair.”
How many people do you know for whom these words are true? Pope John Paul II’s prophetic words strike at the heart of many of the issues of our society, issues that we ourselves face daily.
Mary did not know this fear, this uncertainty, this despair. She never forgot who she was in God’s eyes, for she never knew herself apart from him. As we continue to live each day in our various jobs, ministries, and vocations, let us look to Mary as our model of liberation—a model of a life of freedom rooted in God, a life without paralyzing fear. May we repeat, until it becomes the prayer of our heart, “let it be done unto me according to your word.” May we open wide the doors for Christ in order to go out, as Mary modeled for us in the Visitation, to our fearful and suffering world, bringing the light and love of Christ to all we encounter.
Be not afraid!
Question for Reflection: What fears keep you from placing your trust fully in God? This week, ask Mary to help you say “let it be done to me according to your word.”
For many of us, the “infancy narratives,” from Matthew and Luke are well loved, but also well worn. Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Our Lord in Bethlehem — not only do we ponder these events every year during Advent and Christmas, but also every time we pray the Joyful mysteries of the rosary. We know the stories, we know what they illustrate, we know why they’re important. But knowing the basic bullet points of the New Testament is not enough. We are called to know our Lord more deeply, more intimately.
Dei Verbum compares the gift of Scripture to the gift of the Incarnation: “for the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (13). The Holy Spirit has bundled the immensity and perfection of God into our limited and imperfect human language. Like Christ contained himself in human form, so too has the Father contained himself in our human tongue. This Advent, let us return to the infancy narratives with fresh eyes. Recognizing that, like St. Ignatius advised his Jesuits to do while on mission, we can use the Word to ignite our senses, engage our collective memory as the people of God, and to understand our Lord as both father and friend.
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56) is one moment from the infancy narratives that can prepare us in a special way for the coming of our Lord this Christmas. It provides us with a snapshot of Mary as a loving servant who is familiar with the Scriptures, bubbling over with joy, and confident in the promises of her God. Her example is one we can imitate even today. Spend some time with the narrative here and then consider Mary’s threefold approach to Advent:
Amidst the flurry of shopping, visiting, and end-of-year work activities that will surely fill our Advent calendars this season, take five minutes a day to spend time with God in prayer. If you struggle with prayer and don’t know what to say, read the Magnificat. Imagine a young, triumphant Mary, glowing before gray-haired Elizabeth and try to imagine the feelings of joy and wonder Mary must have felt in those moments. Then ask the Lord to help you channel that wonder as you prepare a place for him in your heart. Let your soul proclaim the greatness of the Lord this Advent, through joy, Scripture, and service.
"To let our lives speak a story of evangelization, to live out the Gospel, we must humble ourselves like Mary who lived as a handmaiden of the Lord."
Does your life speak a story of evangelization?
I think about this question, and it is easy to think about the moments where I have really fallen short. I could have been kinder and more loving with a student who really needed me today. I could have been quicker to help a colleague in need. I know that I have missed clear opportunities to be Christ to others. As Christians in the age of the New Evangelization, we have been called more than ever to think about these moments and act with grace to better love God and share his love with others.
The story of the Visitation deeply teaches us about bringing Christ to others. Mary has just learned that she is with child; yet she travels to Judah after she finds out that her relative, Elizabeth, is six months pregnant in her old age. Although Luke does not elaborate on the details, we can only imagine the sacrificial love beaming through this selfless act: Mary, in her first trimester of pregnancy (which is often filled with morning sickness and other trials), gives up time at home to care for a fellow expecting mother. Her heart is filled with joyful love as she physically brings Jesus to Elizabeth and her family. She is the “Theotokos,” or God Bearer. Elizabeth affirms Mary’s faithfulness and the gift of bringing Christ to her:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Luke 1:41-45
It is clear that Mary’s life speaks a story of evangelization to others.
Mary’s life and witness call us to be God Bearers to others, too. This may manifest in a physical way, as Mary physically brought Jesus in her womb to Elizabeth. During my time as a Catholic missionary for middle school and high school students, we reflected on the Visitation by bringing a friend to kneel with us in front of Jesus in the Eucharist in Adoration, physically bringing those we love closer to Christ. It was so humbling, and deeply moving to physically soak up Christ’s presence by being brought to him by someone you love.
Perhaps Mary’s evangelization story calls you to bring others to Christ physically in the Eucharist, inviting a friend to attend Mass or Adoration with you. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis explained in his Lenten message that “in the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited” (Pope Francis, 2015). Perhaps in your evangelization story you are called to serve those who need to know or be reminded of Christ’s love by your service. Whether directly or indirectly, as Catholics we trust that God makes every gift and sacrifice more perfect when done in his name.
To let our lives speak a story of evangelization, to live out the Gospel, we must humble ourselves like Mary who lived as a handmaiden of the Lord. When we submit to the will of God and “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5), surely we make Christ’s presence more known to others.
Today we are called to let our lives speak a story of evangelization, just as the Visitation teaches us. We can entrust ourselves to Mary’s mission of bringing Christ to others, and know that through her patronage and guidance, our attempts to bring Christ to others will bear fruit in more lives than one. Pope Saint John Paul II entrusted his papacy to Mary with the simple prayer, “Totus Tuus,” or “totally yours,” knowing that Mary leads all hearts to her son, Jesus Christ. Let us, too, live in the spirit of the Visitation and follow the great evangelizers who have brought us closer to Jesus through Mary. Let your life speak a story of evangelization.
To learn more about our call to let our lives speak a story of evangelization, visit our New Evangelization Resources page.
Alyce Shields is a teacher in Washington D.C