James Spencer Northcote was a convert to Catholicism, having been a married Anglican minister. At the death of his wife, also a convert, he entered the Catholic priesthood and eventually became president of St. Mary’s College at Oscott. Between the years 1856 and 1860 he gave a series of lectures to refute the Protestant claim that, according to the Bible, the Blessed Virgin Mary is nothing but an ordinary woman. They were later published, and furnish some of the best rebuttals in print against those who attack Catholic devotion to our Beloved Mother Mary. We present them in a slightly condensed form.
Now in those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town of Juda. And she entered into the house of Zachary and saluted Elizabeth. And it came to pass, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe in her womb leapt. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost, and cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb! And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, the moment that the sound of thy greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who has believed, because the things promised her by the Lord shall be accomplished."
And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid; for, behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed; Because He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name; And for generation upon generations is His mercy, to those who fear Him. He has shown might with His arm, He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has given help to Israel, His servant, mindful of His mercy—Even as He spoke to our fathers—to Abraham and to his posterity forever."
And Mary remained with her about three months; and returned to her own house. (Luke 1: 39-56)
We come now to the Second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, the Visitation of Our Blessed Lady to St. Elizabeth; an incident which to a Catholic seems full to overflowing of testimony to the greatness and glory of Mary, and of a distinct Divine sanction to the honor in which we hold Her, but in which I think few Protestants are in the habit of seeing any mystery at all. Let us examine its details in order, and comparing Scripture with Scripture, see what it really teaches us.
First we read that "Mary rose up and went into the hill country with haste," and we are at once arrested by this last phrase, "with haste." It is the one occasion in the whole of Our Lady's life in which such a word or idea is anywhere connected with Her. It stands out in striking contrast with the habitual reserve, self-possession, and perfect calm of Her life and character. In the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, those two most solemn moments when, if ever, Her whole moral being was tried to its very inmost depths of what spirit it was, nothing is more remarkable than the total absence of any manifestation of feeling. What then is the meaning of this announcement, that "She rose up and went with haste"? The mystery of the Incarnation has now been accomplished in Her womb; the Holy Ghost has come upon Her, and the power of the Most High has overshadowed Her; and it is impossible not to attribute this haste to a Divine impulse given by Him Whom She now bears within Her.
We are irresistibly reminded of those words of the Canticles (2: 8), which have been so beautifully interpreted of the Incarnation (by St. Gregory, St. Bernard, and others), "The voice of my beloved, behold He cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills;" or again, of those words of the Psalmist (18: 6-8), "He hath set His tabernacle in the sun, and as a bridegroom coming out of his bridal chamber, He hath rejoiced as a giant to run the way: His going out is from the end of heaven, and His circuit even to the end thereof, and there is no one that can hide himself from His heat;" words which St. Augustine in like manner explains of the same mystery, saying that when the Word was made flesh, God, as a bridegroom uniting to Himself human nature, found a tabernacle in the womb of Mary, whence in due course He came forth, then grew up, taught, suffered, died, rose again, and finally ascended, running the whole course assigned to Him with joy and eagerness, without delay or hesitation. As He drew near to the end of that course, and "they were in the way going up to Jerusalem, Jesus went before them, and the apostles were astonished, and following they were afraid" (Mark 10: 32). They marveled and were frightened at the haste with which He went forward to His death. A little later He Himself said, "With desire have I desired to eat this pasch with you before I suffer" (Luke 22: 15); and this desire and eager haste to fulfill the work He had undertaken, which He then expressed in words, here (in the mystery of the Visitation) He shows forth in action, ere yet the use of words was possible. He has become incarnate in the Virgin Mary's womb; He has become so in order that He may redeem sinners: this is the work which His Father has given Him to do; and from the very first moment, He would "be about His Father’s business." Already, while still a Babe unborn, He would begin the deliverance of His brethren from the bondage of Satan, and the first whom He would thus deliver, cleansing him by an act of special grace from the stain of original sin, shall be His own forerunner. He, too, is yet unborn; but bars of flesh and blood, bars of sense, can be no hindrance to the operations of God, of Him Who "reacheth from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly" (Wisdom 8: 1). "There is no one that can hide himself from His heat."
Mary then, rising up, goes with haste, and entering into the house of Zachary, She salutes Elizabeth. "And it came to pass that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leapt in her womb." I suppose it would be impossible for any Christian to doubt but that this movement, thus solemnly recorded by the Holy Ghost for the instruction of the world, was something more than natural. Even if nothing further had been said about it, either in the Bible, or by the Bishops and Pastors of the Church, we should all have had the strongest possible conviction that there was some kind of supernatural mystery wrapped up in it, even though we might have been wholly unable to comprehend what it was.
But now call to mind what infant this is who thus anticipates the laws of nature, and recognizes the presence of his Lord, and rejoices in it before he is born—for Elizabeth, "full of the Holy Ghost," will tell us presently that this is the true cause of what had happened; "the infant in my womb leapt for joy." Who is this infant? St. John the Baptist; he of whom it had been foretold that he "should be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1: 15); he who was to go before the Lord to prepare His way, and who should by-and-by say concerning Jesus and himself, "I am not the Christ, but I am sent before Him. He that has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices exceedingly at the voice of the bridegroom. This my joy, therefore, is made full" (John 3: 29). Yes, the word is well chosen; this joy is fulfilled, perfected, now that the Bridegroom has come out of His bride-chamber and is running the course of His public ministry; but it had begun years before, it began when as an infant he leapt for joy at hearing that Bridegroom's voice, speaking by the mouth of Mary. For Christ then spoke by the mouth of His Mother, and John heard by the words of Elizabeth; and the tradition of the Church has always taught that at that moment he was sanctified in his mother's womb. The Baptist preceded Jesus in the order of his public ministry; but in the order of grace Jesus is before John, as he himself said, "He that shall come after me is preferred before me, because He was before me, and of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace" (John 1: 15).
John receives of His fullness now. The first act of the Incarnate Savior is the sanctification, the preparation of His own forerunner. He has gone before him by His grace, to the end that he may be hereafter enabled to go before Him in his ministry. St. John is the first to receive that grace which he is to be the first to announce; and already, as it were, by this leap for joy in his mother’s womb, he gives that witness which he shall one day give by word of mouth, "Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him Who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1: 29). How wonderful is the secret harmony of every part of the Gospel narrative; the words and works of all the chief agents and instruments in its mysteries mutually confirming and explaining one another.
But to proceed with the history before us. No sooner has Mary spoken than "Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Ghost, cries out with a loud voice," as if for this very purpose, that the people of all nations and all ages should hear; and utters words which—one may almost literally say—have never since ceased to be repeated, whose echo has never yet died away, nor ever will die away, so long as the Church endures. She snatches up, as it were, the last words which the Angel had brought from Heaven, saying, "Blessed art Thou among women;" she repeats them and adds "and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb;" thus setting the example which the Church has so closely followed ever since, of so coupling the praises of Jesus and Mary in the same hymns of thanksgiving. Then, reflecting on her own unworthiness, she exclaims, "Whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come unto me?"
Remember, that this is the history of the very first fact we know about Our Blessed Lady, after the Son of God had "set His tabernacle" within Her, and mark the height of dignity to which She has already been exalted. Compare the two figures. St. Elizabeth, well advanced in years, the wife of a priest who had been lately favored by the visit of an Angel from Heaven, and herself, too, wonderfully "dealt with by the Lord, Who had had regard to take away her reproach among men." She was soon to give birth to a child, of promise and prophecy, at whose nativity (it has been revealed from God) "many should rejoice," and who was to be "great before the Lord" (Luke 1: 14,15). Mary, on the other hand, was a young maiden, espoused to a carpenter. Nevertheless, because She was chosen to be the Mother of Jesus, Elizabeth immediately humbles herself before Her, and expresses her deep sense of grateful wonder at the condescension of Mary's visit. "Whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" We are reminded of the words of the Royal Psalmist (8: 5), in which he cries out to God and asks, "What is man that Thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that Thou visitest him?" Or still more forcibly we are reminded of the words of Elizabeth's own son to the Son of Mary, spoken on the banks of the Jordan, when Jesus came from Galilee to John to be baptized by him, "and John stayed Him, saying, I ought to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me?" (Matt. 3: 14) There is a certain proportion between the mothers and the sons, as might reasonably be expected, seeing that the dignity both of Mary and Elizabeth is a light reflected from the dignity of their Sons; and Elizabeth therefore acknowledges her own immense inferiority in this proportion, as every child of the Catholic Church can never cease to do in the presence of Mary, no matter how exalted his dignity, how eminent his sanctity, because She is the Queen of Saints and the Mother of God.
Mary has told nothing to St. Elizabeth, but the very voice of Her salutation has sufficed. Mary is now the temple of the Holy Ghost, filled with His Presence, so that it overflows upon all around. Elizabeth herself is also filled with the Holy Ghost, and under His inspiration gives this testimony to the surpassing greatness of Mary. She also reveals the sign which has been given her of the Divine Presence in Mary, saying those words which we have already considered, "Behold, as soon as the voice of Thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leapt for joy." Finally, she concludes by again pronouncing Mary to be blessed; but this time it is not merely because of the great things that have been done in Her, but also because of Her own share in the doing of them: "And blessed is She who has believed, because the things promised Her by the Lord shall be accomplished."
Doubtless, as she spoke these words, she had present to her mind the words which the Angel had spoken to her husband six months before, and whose effect still continued in the penalty of speechlessness which he was paying for his unbelief. "Behold thou shalt be dumb and shalt not be able to speak until the day wherein these things shall come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words, which shall be fulfilled in their time" (Luke 1: 20). God’s words will be fulfilled, whether those to whom they are addressed believe them or disbelieve them; but belief in them wins an additional blessing besides what may be contained in the words themselves, and disbelief a punishment. The mouth of Zachary shall not be opened, nor his tongue loosed, till St. John the Baptist has been born and named. Mary is blessed, because the Lord is with Her, and because Jesus is to be born of Her, but She also has another blessing because of Her faith. "Blessed art Thou that hast believed;" and this blessing it is which reverses the curse brought upon the whole human race by Eve. For, as St. Irenaeus says, "the knot of Eve's disobedience received its unloosing through the obedience of Mary; for what Eve, a virgin, bound by incredulity, that Mary, a Virgin, unloosed by faith." "Eve had believed the serpent, Mary believed Gabriel," says Tertullian; "the fault which the one committed by believing [the evil spirit], the other by believing [God] blotted out."
And now Mary Herself begins to speak, and She too, lifts up Her voice in such a way that all ages shall hear and repeat Her words. They shall fulfill, almost unconsciously, the prophecy She makes about Herself, repeating the grateful outpouring of Her own heart to God as their favorite hymn of praise to Her. The Magnificat is at once the hymn of Mary to the honor and glory of God, and the favorite hymn of the Church in honor of Mary; and this because the greatness and honor of Mary are only a reflection from the greatness and glory of God. She is "fair as the moon," only because She has been "clothed with the sun," and shines with His light. She is great, only because "He that is mighty hath done great things to Her;" and the higher those "great things" have raised Her above ordinary creatures, the greater are Her obligations to God, and the more perfectly does She magnify His name. Her elevation glorifies God more than all other creatures can glorify Him; first, because no other has ever received so much at His hands, and secondly, because no other ever so entirely and absolutely gave back to God all that She had received. Let us examine the hymn in detail.
St. Elizabeth had addressed to Her high words of praise and congratulation for Her faith and other graces, and the wonderful privilege by which they have been rewarded. But Mary takes no heed to the praises bestowed upon Herself; She does not even address Her answer to St. Elizabeth at all; Her whole soul is drawn upwards and absorbed in the thought of God, and in the fullness of Her heart She bursts forth into an acknowledgment of Her debt and gratitude to Him, "My soul doth magnify the Lord." In one sense, indeed, "the heavens and all the works of God's hands" praise and magnify the Lord; for they "show forth His glory" (Ps. 18: 2). But they do this irrationally, and only as the servile echo of God's own voice; they have no consciousness of their own beauty—no sense of the benefit of their existence—no knowledge of what they owe to God, and cannot, therefore, offer Him "a reasonable service" (Rom. 12: 1). It is only in man that they find thought, a heart, a voice; he sees their goodness and beauty, and, "understanding by the things that are made, the invisible things of Him Who made them" (Rom. 1: 20), he can praise and worship Him, and give Him thanks. But even his praise and worship must depend upon the gifts which he has first received from God, and in proportion to those gifts will be the measure of the glory he can bestow. God must first magnify us, and then we can magnify Him. Mary, therefore, being now exalted above all other creatures, pours forth the noblest hymn of praise to "magnify the Lord" that any child of Adam ever sang. God "hath done great things to Her;" and, as some bright and powerful reflector, whose smooth and polished surface, free from any stain of rust, or flaw of inequality, gathers into itself all light, only that it may give it back again with greater brilliance and perfection, so the pure soul of Mary, flooded with "every good gift and every perfect gift... coming down from the Father of Lights" (James 1: 17), pours itself forth in this magnificent doxology, Magnificat anima mea Dominum—"My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior." Observe, She does not speak of God by any of those titles which would express His newly-created and more intimate relations with Herself, but only those which belonged to Her in common with the rest of mankind. God was now Her Son; She bore Him in Her womb. She had been made, too, in a special sense, the Spouse of God. Yet She is still the same humble "handmaid of the Lord" as She was before, and She rejoices in God Her "Savior," thereby proclaiming that truth which the Church has never ceased to teach, that whatever gifts and privileges might have been bestowed upon Her, they were all entirely due to the merits of the Passion and Death of Her Son. For in Herself She is nothing, and has nothing; and it was Her deep consciousness and hearty acknowledgment of this truth which won for Her the special regard of God: "He hath regarded the humility of His handmaid."
The words "my Savior," have often been insisted upon as a conclusive argument against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Would that men would try to understand our doctrines before they try to refute them! The very collect which the Church appoints to be used for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception contains these words: "Thou Who, through the merits of the death of Thy Son foreseen, didst preserve the Blessed Virgin from all stain..."
But though so lowly and abject in Herself, She knows well the dignity to which God’s grace has raised Her, and She foretells its consequences: "He that is mighty hath done great things to Me;" "He hath showed might in His arm." Here is the measure of the greatness of Mary, viz., the things that have been done to Her, and these are so great that Mary Herself cannot describe them; She only gives them this very name, and calls them great things; great, and done by Him that is mighty, Who, moreover, put forth for their accomplishment the whole might of His arm. Holy Scripture, accommodating itself to the language and thoughts of men, speaks at various times of the finger, the hand, and the arm of God, denoting thereby different degrees of the exercise of His power; and for this, the greatest work which the created world could ever see, there was required (if I may so speak) the whole power of His arm. What an immeasurable idea of Mary's greatness do not these words suggest to us! And yet, in truth, no words that human tongue can utter can ever come up to the simple reality of the case. Try to imagine for a moment that you do not know what God has done for Mary; that you only know Her description of it; or rather the few words She here uses in speaking of it. You know that it is something great, done by Him Who is greatness and power itself, Who has put forth all the strength of His arm to do it. Build upon these few but significant words all that you think they could be made to bear, all the conjectures that the boldest imagination could devise. Run over in your mind all the richest and noblest gifts of creation, all the treasures of grace and degrees of glory. Heap gift upon gift, greatness upon greatness, privilege upon privilege. Call to mind all that you have ever heard or read of the greatest saints, of confessors and martyrs, of virgins and apostles, of patriarchs and prophets, and of the very angels and archangels, the cherubim and seraphim themselves. Add these all together, make but one greatness, one privilege, one dignity of the whole, and confer it upon the Blessed Virgin. Will it not after all fall short of that title and dignity which is undeniably Hers, that She was made the Mother of God?
When St. Paul, writing to the Hebrews (1: 4-5), wished to express the greatness of Jesus Christ, he said of Him that He was "made so much better than the angels, as He hath inherited a more excellent Name than they. For to which of the angels hath He said at any time, Thou art My Son?" And we too, wishing to express the greatness of Mary, may ask, "To which of the angels hath God said at any time, Thou art My Mother?" But to Mary it had just now been said by God's own messenger, an angel sent from Heaven for the very purpose of making this announcement, "The Holy which shall be born of Thee shall be called the Son of God." If we try to bring home to ourselves all that is contained in these words, truly we cannot wonder that Mary's "spirit should have rejoiced in God Her Savior," nor at the prophecy She makes concerning Herself, "Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call Me blessed." For no matter what might happen in any future ages of the world to the end of time, nothing could ever blot out the memory of this "great thing" which had now been done to Her—nothing could ever eclipse the brightness of this high and incommunicable privilege. Times and seasons might succeed one another in ceaseless change; empires might rise and fall; the manners and customs of men, their social and political institutions might be reformed, upset, and created anew; but so long as the world should last, it is impossible that anything should happen so wonderful as this union of the Creator with the creature, and impossible but that the privileged creature in whom this union was effected should be forever accounted blessed. "Behold all generations shall call Me blessed." And all generations have called Her so; all, at least, within the pale of the Church, until at length it has come to be a part of Her very Name, which is seldom or never used without this prefix, "the Blessed Virgin." What St. Ildephonsus said many centuries ago may be repeated with still greater emphasis today—"Look abroad throughout the whole world, wheresoever the sun shines, and see if there be any nation or people among whom are no believers in Christ; and wheresoever Christ is confessed and worshiped, there the venerable Mary, Mother of God, is proclaimed as Blessed. By the whole world and in every tongue is Mary blessed; all mankind are witnesses to this prophecy: She alone foretold it, all mankind is accomplishing it."
But the prophecy of Mary goes beyond what is merely personal to Herself. After having poured forth Her gratitude, published Her greatness, and foretold Her glory, She next draws a rapid but very striking picture of one of the great characteristics of God's work which was now begun, the moral revolution which Christianity should effect throughout the whole world. "He hath showed might in His arm; He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts. He hath put down the might from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away." It is impossible, in reading this part of Mary's hymn, not to be struck with its close resemblance to the canticle of Anna, the mother of Samuel, sung more than a thousand years before. Some few passages in the one seem almost taken from the other; at any rate the same general sentiment pervades both. "The bow of the mighty is overcome, and the weak are girt with strength. They that were full before have hired themselves out for bread, and the hungry are filled, so that the barren hath borne many, and she that hath borne many children is weakened. The Lord killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to hell, and bringeth back up again. The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich; He humbleth and He exalteth. He raiseth up the needy from the dust and lifteth up the poor from the dunghill, that He may sit with princes and hold the throne of glory" (1 Kings 2: 4-8).
The explanation of this close resemblance between the songs of Anna and Mary is easy. They are in truth the same canticle, ever new yet ever old; the hymn of grateful thanksgiving, sung to commemorate the triumph of God over His enemies by means of some feeble instrument, whose very weakness only serves to show forth more strikingly His power. The heart of Anna "rejoiced in the Lord," because "her mouth was enlarged over her enemies," because God had "looked down on the affliction of His servant and been mindful of her" and taken away her reproach, and she had borne a man-child, who was given to the Lord all the days of his life, and who was a type of Jesus in His threefold character of Prophet, Priest and King. Mary rejoiced, because She recognized in what had happened to Herself the accomplishment of that divine purpose announced to Abraham and to the first parents of the human family, and whose fruits should continue to the very end of the world. She concluded, therefore, this wonderful hymn by a brief summary of the whole history of religion: "God hath received Israel His servant, being mindful of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever."
Thus does the Blessed Virgin sing of the mystery of the Incarnation, in accents which seem to indicate a most complete knowledge both of itself and of its consequences; She blesses and praises God for all His benefits to Herself, to the children of Israel, and to the whole world. She shows Her consciousness of Her own greatness without doing violence to Her humility, which consists not in suppressing but in publishing the great things that have been done to Her, as a testimony to the power and mercy of God. She announces by anticipation, and as it were invites, the homage of the whole Christian world, and the honor and devotion with which we celebrate Her praises finds its complete justification in Her own prophecy.
It is a hymn of wonderful beauty and grandeur in itself, but our appreciation of its merits is still further enhanced when we call to mind the character and position of its author. It would have excited our admiration as the song of Debora, of Judith, or of any other of those heroines whose manly courage was sufficiently displayed by their actions; but it fills us with amazement, when we consider that it was the song of a humble maiden of Israel, "the handmaid of the Lord," thus suddenly raised from the lowest obscurity to be the most highly exalted amongst women and the nearest to the throne of God. She sang it and then remained forever silent. O wonderful silence of a mouth that could speak so well! O divine humility, enlightened by such superhuman wisdom! Had Mary never spoken, we might have doubted whether She had any knowledge or understanding of Her position in the world's history; but the revelation of Herself which She makes in the Magnificat gives a new meaning and value to everything else which the Holy Ghost may have recorded of Her.
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