This is a fairly late feast, going back only to the 13th or 14th century. It was established widely throughout the Church to pray for unity. The present date of celebration was set in 1969 in order to follow the Annunciation of the Lord (March 25) and precede the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24).
Like most feasts of Mary, it is closely connected with Jesus and his saving work. The more visible actors in the visitation drama (see Luke 1:39-45) are Mary and Elizabeth. However, Jesus and John the Baptist steal the scene in a hidden way. Jesus makes John leap with joy—the joy of messianic salvation. Elizabeth, in turn, is filled with the Holy Spirit and addresses words of praise to Mary—words that echo down through the ages.
It is helpful to recall that we do not have a journalist’s account of this meeting. Rather, Luke, speaking for the Church, gives a prayerful poet’s rendition of the scene. Elizabeth’s praise of Mary as “the mother of my Lord” can be viewed as the earliest Church’s devotion to Mary. As with all authentic devotion to Mary, Elizabeth’s (the Church’s) words first praise God for what God has done to Mary. Only secondly does she praise Mary for trusting God’s words.
Then comes the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Here Mary herself (like the Church) traces all her greatness to God.
One of the invocations in Mary’s litany is “Ark of the Covenant.” Like the Ark of the Covenant of old, Mary brings God’s presence into the lives of other people. As David danced before the Ark, John the Baptist leaps for joy. As the Ark helped to unite the 12 tribes of Israel by being placed in David’s capital, so Mary has the power to unite all Christians in her Son. At times, devotion to Mary may have occasioned some divisiveness, but we can hope that authentic devotion will lead all to Christ and therefore to one another.
“Moved by charity, therefore, Mary goes to the house of her kinswoman.... While every word of Elizabeth’s is filled with meaning, her final words would seem to have a fundamental importance: ‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her from the Lord’ (Luke 1:45). These words can be linked with the title ‘full of grace’ of the angel’s greeting. Both of these texts reveal an essential Mariological content, namely the truth about Mary, who has become really present in the mystery of Christ precisely because she ‘has believed.’ The fullness of grace announced by the angel means the gift of God himself. Mary’s faith, proclaimed by Elizabeth at the visitation, indicates how the Virgin of Nazareth responded to this gift” (Pope John Paul II, The Mother of the Redeemer, 12).