This statue of Mary and Elizabeth is outside the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel, the actual site of the Visitation. (Mary is the figure with the smaller belly and Elizabeth the figure with the larger.)
John Mason Neale was born in London in 1818, studied at Cambridge, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1842. He was offered a parish, but chronic ill health, which was to continue throughout his life, prevented him from taking it. In 1846 he was made warden of Sackville College, an almshouse (a charitable residence for the poor). Here he remained until his death in 1866.
In 1854 Neale co-founded the Sisterhood of St Margaret, an order dedicated to nursing the sick. The restoration of the Religious Life in the Church of England was opposed by many people inside and outside the Church. Neale and others who believed in the Catholic Revival were sometimes spoken of as “agents of the Vatican” subverting the Church of England it from within. Neale was even attacked and mauled at the funeral of one of the Sisters. From time to time angry crowds threatened to stone him or to burn his house.
Neale is best known today for his translation of the ancient Eastern liturgies into English, his mystical and devotional commentary on the Psalms, and his translation from Greek and Latin of many ancient and medieval hymns that have since become well known to English speakers. For his scholarship he was given a doctorate by Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, USA. In the end, it is said that Neale's basic goodness won the confidence of many who had fiercely opposed him, and the Sisterhood of St Margaret survived and prospered.
The following is from his Sermons on the Black Letter Days Or Minor Festivals of the Church of England, published in 1872. (Of course, while relating to today’s Festival, Neale speaks of its observation in mid-summer, July 2nd - as was the case before the revision of the Calendar following Vatican II.)
HOW OUR LORD COMES TO US
“And whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43)
THIS day - the Visitation of St Mary - we here in England look upon as in the very height and best part of summer: while the days are at the longest, while the woods and hedges are at the greenest, while the hay is in the fields, before the great heats have parched the earth or withered the leaves. It is a pleasant summer feast, both the time and the thing we are called to remember. And it is a fit day to be, as it is, the birthday of that divine Hymn, “My soul doth magnify the LORD.” To-day it was that St Mary uttered it: the first Christian hymn that ever was made, the first of a whole multitude of glorious songs that the Saints of the Church have written; Kings, Bishops, Priests, Martyrs, Confessors, who are now singing the song of Moses and of the Lamb. They all say in different words the same thing which St Mary now said:- ”My soul doth magnify the LORD, and my spirit hath rejoiced in GOD my SAVIOUR.” And notice this: as Miriam - which is the same name as Mary - was the first to sing a Hymn in the Old Testament, when the children of Israel had escaped from Pharaoh: “Sing ye to the LORD, for He hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea;” so now, the Blessed Virgin was the first in the New Testament to praise GOD with a Hymn for delivering us from him of whom Pharaoh was a type - the devil.
But it was not really in summer that this happened: it was towards the beginning of April. April there is not as it is with us, the month of cold winds and many showers. The vines and the figs are just in full leaf; “the winter is past; the rain is over and gone; the voice of the turtle is heard in the land,” and the fireflies glitter backwards and forwards over the hedges and in the damp grass. I wonder whether St Mary, in passing along the beautiful valleys of Judah, would call to mind the Song of the Three Children,- ”O ye nights and days, bless ye the LORD; O ye mountains and hills, bless ye the LORD; O let the earth bless the LORD!”- or whether rather she were so taken up by the wonderful message which she had received but a few days before, that she had no eyes, nor ears, nor thoughts for anything but this:- ”The HOLY GHOST shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.”
Our dear LORD was to travel many weary miles for our sake after His Birth; as an Infant when He was carried into Egypt; as a Child, when He went up to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover; as a Man, when He went about doing good, and healing all that were vexed of devils. And twice before His Birth He journeyed; first to-day, when His Blessed Mother went to see her cousin, St Elizabeth; and afterwards, at the end of the same year, when there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed, and Joseph and Mary went up to Bethlehem, because they were of the house and lineage of David. To-day’s travel was His first journey of all - a journey of gladness. His last journey was to the top of the Mount of Olives, where His Blessed feet stood upon this earth for the last time before He shall come to judge the quick and the dead; and that also was a journey of gladness. But between those two, what a world of suffering and bitterness did He go through in His journeys for us men and for our salvation, till He journeyed up Mount Calvary with the wood of the Cross, and there said, “It is finished!”
And now think for a moment of St Mary, as she went on. That she was chosen to be the Mother of GOD; that she was containing Him Whom heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot hold; that she was bearing Him, Who even then might have said, “The earth is weak and all the inhabiters thereof; I bear up the pillars of it;” that she was nourishing Him Whose are all the beasts of the forest, and so are the cattle upon a thousand hills. As yet it had not been prophesied to her, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also.” As yet she little knew by what agonies this great work would be brought to pass; she could not tell what she herself would suffer in the Passion of her Son (for holy men have not feared to call her the greatest of all the Martyrs.) It must have been all one glorious prospect to her: the Seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head. She knew that from her should come the SON Who should destroy the devil; should ransom from the power of the grave; should open the kingdom of heaven to all believers. She knew that now the prophecy was on the point of being fulfilled:- ”Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name IMMANUEL, GOD with us. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty GOD, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” And were not these her thoughts, passing almost what we can imagine, as she went through the hill country of Judæa? Yes: I think she could not have had eyes and ears for anything else.
And look at St Elizabeth waiting for her visit: she also to be honoured; she also a mother by miracle; she to bring forth a son who should be great, and should go before the LORD GOD in the spirit and power of Elias. The mother of a Saint- of one of whom it should be said, “Among them that are born of women, there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist;”- but yet only a Saint - and how must she have looked forward to the coming of her that was the Mother of GOD? And when they drew nigh, she herself tells us what she felt: “And whence is this to me that the Mother of my LORD should come unto me?” And notice this: the first time that our LORD JESUS CHRIST was called by the two names which now we most commonly give Him, our LORD and our SAVIOUR, was now. Mary said, “My spirit hath rejoiced in GOD my SAVIOUR:” Elizabeth said, “That the Mother of my LORD should come unto me.”
Whence indeed? And whence is it to all of us, that our LORD Himself should come to us- should come from the Bosom of the FATHER into a world that hated Him- should come unto His own, His own receiving Him not- should come to the very men that should persecute Him, revile Him, and slay Him? Whence is this to us that He should come to the Garden of Gethsemane- should come to the judgment-seat of Annas, Caiaphas, and Herod,- should come and stand before the people, when Pilate said, “Behold the Man!”- should come to Calvary, and to the Cross?
And again; whence is this to us, that He should come to us on the Altar? That as He gave His Body to be crucified for us on the Cross, there He should give it us to be our food? Whence is this that the LORD of Glory, the KING of Kings, should vouchsafe Himself to come to His sick and dying servants,- to enter miserable cottages, to be received in wretched beds,- to comfort the meanest and the lowest? Why, when an earthly king goes anywhere, people ever after mark the room where he lodged with honour, set up pillars where he stood, point out the road by which he travelled. And yet, probably, there is not a single room in this College in which CHRIST Himself has not thus visited His servants. Whence is this to us, that in such a way as this our LORD should come to us?
St John the Baptist has his part in this day. “As soon,” said St Elizabeth, “as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” The LORD’S messenger was in haste to give His message. And think what a cottage that must have been where, with their LORD and with the Mother of GOD, all those Saints were met together! Never was there one like it, except only that cottage at Nazareth where Gabriel gave his glad tidings, “Thou shalt bring forth a Son, and shalt call His Name JESUS.”
This is the only festival which is not mixed up with sorrow. True, the joy lasted but for awhile; yet, while it lasted, who can tell how sweet and holy it was? And that should lead us to look forward to the time when our LORD, Who has visited us in this world, shall send for us to visit Him in the next: “Ye shall haste and bring my brethren up hither:” “FATHER, I will that they whom Thou hast given Me, may be with Me where I am.” And we- what shall we say then? Will it be, “When shall I come and appear before GOD?” Will it be, “I was glad when they said unto me, We will go into the House of the LORD?” Or will it be like prisoners going to execution, without love, without hope, that we are dragged out of the body, left by our guardian Angel, Satan standing by us to accuse us, GOD meeting us as a strict Judge That will by no means clear the guilty?
GOD grant not! GOD grant that, after so often saying here, “Whence is this to me that my LORD should come to me?” we may one day say there, Whence is this to me, that I should go and see my LORD, and dwell with Him for ever?
And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.