For the church in the West, July 2nd has traditionally marked the church’s remembrance of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. Both were with child under fearful and threatening circumstances. And in Elizabeth’s womb John the Baptist leaped for joy at encountering his savior Jesus.
In 1544, during another troubled time, Philip Melanchthon wrote a poem about this event (which you can read today at First Things) and connected it to the church in his own day. It begins like this:
Now let us all give thanks to You, The world’s eternal Architect, Because, though thronged by multitudes Of enemies, You keep Your church– Just as amidst the gentile arms And Herod’s fearsome retinue And thronging foul insanity Of passionate dogmatic rage You keep the Virgin Mary and The house of chaste Elizabeth. And these announce Your blessed gift: They tell the world that Christ has come.
Notice a couple of things. Melanchthon’s use of the present tense in describing events of the distant past is not an accident. It adds vividness, yes. (This is the usual explanation for this kind of thing.) But it is also meant to show the past’s presence. As Faulkner says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The story that Luke tells in his Gospel was just as alive in 1544 as it was at the great hinge of the ages a millennium and a half before.
Melanchthon signals this “aliveness” in another way, one that helps to show just how that aliveness is possible in this instance: he makes the church and Mary exactly parallel, which I have attempted to show in my translation. In Latin, the language of the poem, we find ecclesiam servas tamen (4)…servas Mariam virginem (9): “Still you preserve your church…you preserve Mary.” This makes sense: just as Mary was the Ark of the Lord then, so is the church thereafter: it bears Christ and offers him to the world.
It does so always amidst difficulties, always amidst “multitudes of enemies.” This, too, parallels the days of Mary and Elizabeth, Melanchthon claims, when a powerful madman king who set the value of life at nothing raged in delirious certainty against the God of heaven and earth.
And indeed, other authorities besides Herod were unaware of what was happening; their erudition and status did little to alert them to the signs of the times. Melanchthon says this in the stanza that follows:
Yet neither prince nor pontiff knew, Although they know the oracles Of prophets, that He now had come: The Author of salvation new.
His easy shift between “knew” and “know” seems at first odd, even incoherent, or at least careless. But it is no such thing; for Melanchthon is again drawing attention the essential sameness of the past and present between Christ’s First and Second Advents, and in doing so is leveling a criticism at both erstwhile and current “princes and pontiffs” by making the latter recapitulate the former. The Scriptural history is the script, and subsequent human history imitates its archetype in the presence of the Divine Dramaturge.
Contrast the sophisticated ignorance of the authorities with the humble knowledge of faith possessed by Mary and Elizabeth, a contrast signaled by the strongly adversative “But” that begins the next line.
But sweet this conference of the pair, The Virgin and Elizabeth, Which brings the secret things to light For those who worship God in truth.
As Melanchthon proceeds to expand on the opposition between knowledge and ignorance, we must be cognizant of the fact that the knowledge of faith is not something Mary and Elizabeth had of themselves. No, it is an effect of the life they carry, the necessarily reciprocal knowledge of mother and child, just as the church’s faith is an effect of Christ’s presence within it and the believer’s response is a response to that presence. Melanchthon puts it like this:
The baby hidden in the womb Acknowledges his Head, unknown To that long line of priests before; And with his leap John worships Him.
Then Melanchthon says something stunning: in his view, we here encounter the first church council. And why? The deity of Christ is here recognized and proclaimed.
This synod was the first to bear Its witness to the Christ, our Head, After, at the appointed time, The Father’s Word became our flesh.
(I cannot resist remarking that his figurative and Christological insight–or, to put it another way, his poetic knowledge–does not lead him into the kind of facile egalitarianism that attempts to construct a theology of ordination out of Paul’s reference to Junia in Romans 16. Our age would like us to think Melanchthon’s move is the same species of reading, or at least is harmonious with it. It is not.)
Melanchthon closes the poem by exhorting his readers to respond to Christ’s presence as Mary, as Elizabeth had, as John the Baptist did. The tense is again present, what one might call the present of resolution. As an answer to their testimony, Melanchthon commands the fire of faith and invocation.
Candescent with such testaments Enkindled deep within our heart, Let faith adore and call upon This Christ, the Virgin Mary’s Son; And with firm hope, let faith seek help And trust the Son the Father sent, That He may aid those calling out, And free us from all wickedness.
Thus far Melanchthon’s poem. I had thought before that I might close this short essay with some contemporary connections of my own, suggesting that our days and our trials are not so different from how the poem describes those of A.D. 1544 or 4 B.C. And in many respects, of course, they are not. But now I think better of it. For one thing, to the reader with a modicum of imagination the similitudes will suggest themselves. For another, Melanchthon has already told us how to respond to our circumstances, whatever those circumstances may be.
But lastly, and most importantly, it is a lovely and evocative poem. I do not wish to mar it with over-subtle exposition and application. It speaks for itself.
E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. He is the editor and translator of Niels Hemmingsen’s On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method.