The Visitation and the Personhood of the Unborn

Visitation
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The Council of Ephesus formally declared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the “Mother of God” in A.D. 431. That declaration came in response to the heresy of Nestorianism, which claimed that Mary was “Mother of Jesus” but not “Mother of God.” According to the Nestorians, Mary only gave birth to the human nature of Jesus.

The Council properly grasped that Mary gave birth to a person, not just a nature. Mary gave birth to a whole, complete Person who had both the natures of God and of man. Just as no woman gives birth to “1.4” children, so Mary did not give birth to a part of her Child.

Ephesus affirmed Mary deserves the title “Mother of God,” but the term the Council used was “Theotokos”—“God bearer.”

The feast of the Visitation shows us that Elizabeth anticipated Ephesus by about four hundred years. In today’s Gospel, she asks, “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Today’s feast is not just some remembrance of something some holy people did some two millennia ago. If we think about it, its message is exceedingly relevant for today.

In the Gospel account of the Visitation (Luke 1:39-56), the human realities of prenatal life are clear. We might say that the Gospel simply takes them for granted. But in our modern world, we should make them clear.

The Visitation features two pregnant women. It is their pregnancies that have brought them together. Mary, in consenting to be the Mother of God, learned of Elizabeth’s pregnancy from the Archangel Gabriel. In response, she makes her way to Judea.

Both women’s pregnancies are unusual. They are unusual because, while God is involved in the creation of every human life, Divine agency is particularly evident here. Like Israel’s matriarch, Sarah, Elizabeth is older and childless. Zechariah, like Abraham, knows that, in the natural order of things, maternity is unlikely. But Elizabeth is pregnant because “the Lord has looked with favor” (v. 25) on her. Mary, who “has not known man,” (v. 34) nevertheless is pregnant because, as she says, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (v. 49).

Those pregnancies are blessed but also problematic. Elizabeth is older and could probably have used her younger “kinswoman’s” help, especially in her advanced state.  (We celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24). For her part, Mary must have had an inkling that her fiancé was having doubts about her blessed state (Matthew 1:18-25).  

Both women needed each other. Again, in terms of today’s debates, the Visitation not only acknowledges the reality of unborn human life but also encourages us to lend practical assistance to mothers in need. Those tasks are complementary, not contradictory.

The Gospel account of the Visitation clearly presents the encounter as a foursome. When Mary greets Elizabeth, John the Baptist “leaps” in her womb for joy. Elizabeth clearly differentiates between “my womb” and “the baby,” and it is she who attributes agency to her son: “the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” In response to all those who deny the humanity of the unborn on the claim that they lack “agency,” Elizabeth—who, as the mother involved, should know—clearly declares that her boy’s movement is a happy reaction not just an involuntary movement.

The movement of a prenatal child in utero used to be called “quickening,” and you’re likely to hear about it a lot in the lead-up to the Supreme Court’s upcoming Dobbs abortion decision. In Anglo-American law, “quickening” was an important moment in the law, after which any injury to the unborn child was considered even more aggravated than before.

Why? Well, the female reproductive system was not well understood until the 19th century. This was not because of “patriarchy” or “misogyny.” It was because it was internal. In a pre-anesthetic age (ether was first used in surgery in 1846), the female reproductive tract in a living woman was not accessible. So, “quickening” was one sure sign that pregnancy was on course and advanced. This does not mean that the pre-quickening child did not count.

Quickening was the pre-19th century science to enable us to know when life was advancing. It is perhaps paradoxical that today’s advocates of abortion—who promote abortion for any reason up through birth without apology—don’t even want to rely on pre-19th century science to guide them, much less the clear insights into the life of the unborn that modern fetology and ultrasonography afford, science that makes it clear that life begins at conception.

Elizabeth also recognizes Mary as a mother, “the Mother of my Lord.” She recognizes Mary, centuries before Ephesus, as bearer of the Living God. Mary is not carrier of a clump of cells. Elizabeth declares that Mary carries, “my Lord.” She tells Mary that she and “the fruit of [her] womb” are blessed.

As abortion increasingly roils American public life, today’s Gospel refutes the false prophets within Christianity, and unfortunately even Catholicism, who claim that support for abortion and Christianity are compatible. As is clear from the Gospel, the simple acknowledgment of prenatal human life is not the invention of a pope or some ecclesiastic; it is presumed by one of the canonical Gospels that Christians believe to be divinely inspired. 

So, something has to give: either your political choice or the Gospel of Luke. Putting it that bluntly exposes the lie of “devout Christians” who nevertheless advocate “choice.” Their position is simply incoherent in the light of the Visitation, which is a normative Christian mystery and not just a biblical story. As Elizabeth confesses, she who has come to visit her is already Theotokos—the God-bearer.

It’s too bad the U.S. Supreme Court has not scheduled today as an opinion issuance day to hand down rulings but only an order list day. For Christians, it would be a great day to overturn Roe.  

[Image: Mural from the church of the Visitation in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem.]

By

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.

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