‘Visio divina’: Will you rejoice in God’s miracle?

In Denmark in the year 1834, an artist was born. Though his parents desperately wanted their son to enter a more prestigious profession, Carl Bloch found his way to Italy where he studied art and, in Rome, met his wife. They were married on May 31, which is now the date on which the Church celebrates the Feast of the Visitation. During his life, Bloch rendered many images from the life of Christ. One of the most striking is one in which Christ is not even visible, for it is of a moment in time when Our Savior was still tucked within the womb of the Virgin.

The Visitation, Carl Heinrich Bloch, Public domain

The work, “The Visitation,” greets us with radiant hues of red and blue, sage and ochre. Elizabeth’s arms are swept open, wide enough to embrace not only Mary but also the viewer, who leans in to perceive this joy. All at once, we are caught up in this welcome that is anything but static. No, there is much movement in this painting. The folds of the women’s garments speak of a long journey culminating in a rush toward each other, expanding wombs and, within, a leap! Even the plants seem to bend from their pots and reach out toward the Son of the Creator.

‘Nothing will be impossible for God”

As we settle into this instant of utter joy, we hear joy uttered: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”; and sweetly, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1:42, 46). The words erupt from Elizabeth who cannot contain her happiness. Mary, swathed in blue, receives her cousin’s greeting from below; she stands at the base of the stairs, suggesting her humility, her lowliness. Peace and light emanate forth from her being. She is aglow with the Light of the World.

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We cannot forget the circumstances of this reunion. St. Luke relates all to us in the first chapter of his Gospel: Zechariah and Elizabeth “had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years” (Lk 1:7). Then, an angel appears to Zechariah and announces that Elizabeth will indeed bear a son, and they will have “joy and gladness.” How unusual, how miraculous the circumstances of this conception! And then, roughly one hundred miles north, the same angel appears to Mary, a virgin, to announce that she, too, will conceive and bear a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. The angel proceeds to tell Mary the good news of her cousin Elizabeth. His final words to her are, “Nothing will be impossible for God” (Lk 1:37). Indeed, these two women and the children within their wombs are proof that nothing will be impossible for God! And it is these two women, bursting with life and faith, that come together in this pivotal moment. It is the end of a long, treacherous journey for Mary (and, simultaneously, the beginning of a heart-piercing journey that will culminate on Calvary). It is the end of a long period of grief and barrenness for Elizabeth. It is the end of a time of wandering and wondering for God’s people, for salvation has entered the world, though still hidden within the womb.

We, the viewer, can see all of this in Bloch’s work that centers so heavily on those outstretched, heavenward arms of Elizabeth. They are arms of praise. They are arms that have been thrown wide to receive all blessing and mercy and tender love from the Lord. “Come to me, Mary. Come to me, Christ Child,” they intimate. Elizabeth is one who has seen the greatness and the goodness of the Lord. Her whole being tells that it is so. We see every bit of the Gospel’s significance, too, in Mary who, though likely very weary, ascends the steps toward this joy. She is eager to receive Elizabeth’s greeting, just as she so willingly received the words of Gabriel, the plan of the Father. She moves forward toward her cousin and forward toward the great plan of salvation, in which she plays a most critical role.

Do we, too, rejoice?

While it can be easy to rest on these central, beloved figures, our eyes cannot help but wander to the women in the right corner of the painting. They are likely going about their daily chores, but, alas! They have found themselves, just as we have, caught up in this wondrous moment; they are witnesses to a hailing that will reverberate throughout history. Salvation has come, but few know it. Do these women know it? Have they become privy to the greatest secret? Will they leave the scene, bursting with unrivaled, unbridled joy? Will their lives be forever changed by a new hope?

How will we be changed by dwelling upon this encounter? Will we let Mary visit us, bring Christ to us, sing praises of her son to us? Will we accept the gift that she bears and allow it to flow into our very beings, causing leaps within us — leaps of joy and of recognition that the story, our story, ends well? Will we raise our arms in praise? Praise we should, for this, the greeting of two humble women, is the moment that tells all: It is the moment when mankind becomes aware that our Creator’s plan of salvation has been finally set in motion. Aware of this, the only proper response is to go forth, singing praise and shouting with joy. Aware of this, we can echo our Blessed Mother’s words: “My spirit rejoices in God, my savior!” Our God became man for us. Let us rejoice!

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