Song of Songs 2:8-14
Sitting with today’s Gospel reading I found myself reminiscing on my teaching career and travels to the Holy Land.
I began teaching in the late 70s with the Lismore Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVMs). The women I worked with were quite progressive in their thinking, having a strong sense of who they were as women in the church and their mission, being committed to social justice and outreach.
The children in the school had an extensive repertoire of religious songs for various occasions. Two songs have stayed with me, one the “Ave” which was sung in Arabic – ninety-five percent of the school population were from Lebanese-speaking families with a strong Marian tradition. The other, “The Visit”, (The Medical Missionary Sisters from the Album “I’ve Got a Secret.” Worth listening to on YouTube) which speaks to today’s Gospel.
Many years later I found myself teaching at St Mary’s Erskineville – the parish in which I worshipped and recently worked in as Sacramental Coordinator. On both sides of the church are nine-metre-high windows in sky blue led light, the centre of each depicting a symbol and title attributed to Mary. At some stage, I remember attending a Christian / Muslim talk given in the parish exploring the various titles given to Mary. Ark of the Covenant comes to mind – Mary became the living Ark, carrying the new covenant – the hope of humankind and of all creation.
Since 1994, I have been fortunate to have traveled to the Holy Land on several occasions as both a tourist and pilgrim. It is on these occasions that I visited Ein Karem – Spring of the vineyard. This is the birthplace of John the Baptist and the context of today’s gospel. It is in the Judean countryside southwest of Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem. Here is the Church of St. John the Baptist, built over a cave said to be his birthplace, and also Mary’s Spring, where Mary is believed to have quenched her thirst after a long arduous trip to visit her cousin.
These three scenarios are the context of my reflection. The spotlight on the two women, Mary and Elizabeth, and equally as important John and Jesus in their mother’s womb.
I believe what we see happening in this narrative is Spirit at work transforming the social structures of the times in choosing two would-be-shamed women to be key figures in his plan for salvation. Mary pregnant out of wedlock and Elizabeth barren without child in old age. In this vignette the women shine, when so often they are overlooked and ignored in the society of the times and in so many biblical accounts.
Mary greets Elizabeth and there is silence from her as the child in her womb leaps for joy as lyrics to the song say, “There leaped a little child in the ancient womb. And there leaped a little hope in every ancient tomb.”
From within Elizabeth’s womb, John acknowledges Mary’s greeting and the one she is carrying. John’s reaction to Mary’s voice fulfills Gabriel’s prophecy, “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:15). Already John points to the coming one.
In this scenario Elizabeth takes on the role of prophet – Mary is not visibly pregnant, yet Elizabeth refers to her as “mother of my Lord”. This we know would be fulfilled later when her own son prepares the way of the Lord. Again, the spirit at work transforming their lives, pointing to what will come.
Elizabeth blesses Mary for her status as the mother of the Jesus and also for her trust in God’s promise – “blessed … among women” and proclaims that the fruit of Mary’s womb as “ blessed!”
What is happening here between these two women?
Mary is blessed, honoured and favoured rather than shamed for having this baby….” all generations will call you blessed”. Mary invites these accolades upon her because she believes God will deliver on his promise.
It is interesting to note, that the situation of both women would warrant them being ostracised, shamed and judged.
The social mores of the time dictated that the primary purpose of a women’s life was to bear children. So as an elderly infertile wife, Elizabeth had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure. Her response to her miraculous pregnancy emphasizes that God’s grace has reversed her social status.
In greeting Mary with honour, Elizabeth overturns social expectations. Life experience has taught Elizabeth the price of being shamed and excluded. “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25). At long last, in her old age, she is an honourable married woman, pregnant with her Zachariah ’s son.
When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus would show to outcasts. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.
Elizabeth’s words and actions invite us to reflect on our own openness to the ways that God chooses to act in our world. What is God doing through unexpected people in our society today? Where is God at work through people whom we, our neighbours and others often exclude or treat as shameful? Will we listen to the Spirit’s prompting when the bearers of God’s new reality show up on our doorstep?
May we, like Elizabeth and Mary, trust that God is coming to save and free us. May we, like them, give thanks that God has taken away our shame and then respond to God’s love by welcoming the shameful. May we, like them, become communities that support each other as we hope and wait.
Michael Schiano has been a member of St. Brigid’s parish since 1990. As a parish member, he has served on the Parish Pastoral Council, Liturgy Committee, and Bereavement Team and is a member of the Passionist Companions. He has been an educator in the Archdiocese and has held positions in middle management and executive leadership positions. He currently works in Aged Care in the roles of Pastoral Care Co-Ordinator at Brigidine House, Randwick; St. Anne’s Hunters Hill; and Chaplaincy, Pastoral Care Officer at Calvary Ryde.