Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Church

BIBLE STUDY - St. Mary visits Elizabeth

by H G Yuhanon Meletius

‘The lad leaped for joy in the womb’

Gospel Reading: Luke 1:39-48

One of the greatest poets of India, Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel lariat wrote, ‘Every child that is born in to the world brings the good news of God’s continued love towards the world’.

I am trying to read and understand with you Luke Ch. 1: verses 39 to 49.

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;

I. Meeting of two people in distress

For most of the commentators, this passage (continued further) is important because it contains what is called the magnificat. They find parallels to the song in Old Testament as it is written in the form of an Old Testament lyrical Psalm (see parallels in 1 Sam. 2:1-10 (song of Hannah; Mala. 3:12; Zech. 3:17; Ps. 111:9 etc.).

But to me this passage is important for different reasons. I always get so excited when I read this passage not only because of what happened between Mary and Elizabeth but also because of what happened between the two yet to be born children. One may be called, in medical terms, an embryo and the other a fetus. What happens between them is unimaginable and unbelievable.

But First Let us consider the situation two women are in. We have two women who are in trouble. One is a lot shy as she got pregnant at an advanced age. It was like something that happened to Sarai, wife of Abraham (Gen. 21:2). Elizabeth was a bit hesitant to come out in public. The second woman, Mary was in deep trouble. She was betrothed to Joseph but now she is pregnant and the wedding has not taken place. Her life and her dreams are in jeopardy; she could even be killed by the community if found out.

Consider what a normal girl of a traditional society today would do under such situation? She may decide to abort the child, she may go and hide herself some place, have the delivery and give the child to an orphanage and come back clean for the wedding, she may commit suicide, anything negative could happen. In any case the rights of the child will not be much of a consideration.

But Mary took courage to find someone who can understand her and share her feelings. One of the problems of the modern world is, it is hard to find someone with whom you can confide; someone who will not take advantage of the situation, but will understand you. So Mary goes to Elizabeth.

The word Mary used to salute Elizabeth was ‘Shalom’. Being an Old Testament student, I can say how much this may have meant to both Elizabeth and Mary. It is not something like ‘hi there’ or ‘hello’. When we say hi or hello we do not usually expect a very active response. For the Jews it meant everything the community stood for. With the word, they were supposed to work for the wholeness of others even risking their lives. That word expressed the very purpose of the community seen in the call of Abraham (Gen. 12:2. You leave … become a blessing to the nations). It requires a lot of courage on Mary’s part to utter that word under the circumstance. Greet another person with ‘Shalom’ when there is no possibility of any ‘Shalom’ in her. It is evident that Mary was not approaching the matter negatively. She met the situation positively.

There are parents who would give all kinds of reason for not taking care of their children such as the difficulties they may be facing in life, or the trouble they may be going through, economic or social, emotional or relationship based, all kinds of reasons. But it is in plain words facing the situation negatively. What comes out of a situation depends on how it is faced.

I do not know what Mary would have done if Elizabeth was not there and if she was left alone. But I can say she certainly showed a tremendous amount of courage. What will be the attitude of the Church that is supposed to be a caring community, towards a person who may face such a situation? What will the society call such a person? Look at someone who was caught in adultery and was brought to Jesus (John 8). Yes adultery is not a good practice. But do we at any point ask the question, who all are involved? Whose fault was it? What would be our response to such a situation?

II. John's Leaping in the Womb

The word ‘Shalom’ did not create so much response in Elizabeth. But it gave John, the child in the womb immense joy; ‘The lad leaped with joy’ in the womb of Elizabeth. Elizabeth felt the vibration; then she got excited and became a prophetess. She forgets everything about her shyness.

Commentators compare John’s leaping with David’s dance before the ark (2Sam. 6:16) and relates it with the messianic leap of joy among the poor (Isa. 35:6 – “Then the lame shall leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert”. This is in contrast to Ps. 114:6 “They have ears, but they do not hear; Noses they have, but they do not smell”).

A relevant question that we may have to ask is, do we always recognize and respond to the feelings of our children? Many a time they silently talk about their feelings. We may say the child is rebellious, sometimes quiet, sometimes indifferent, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, a sudden fall in grades. Are they trying to tell us something? Do we see what are they going through? Elizabeth was quick to recognize and respond to the feeling of her baby. In our daily life how much role the child is given in various decision making sessions in the family, in the Church, in the community? Do we take them seriously? Do we account them? Do we care how do they feel about things we do?

III. Reaction of Parents

On the other hand, we also have to ask are the parents in a position to recognize the feelings of the child and act on it in the given socio-political economic context? I would like to address this question a bit more seriously. There are a host of reasons that may make the parents handicapped: political, economic, emotional, social and physical; yes there are several reasons.

We have been talking about the responsibility of the Church and the parents in caring for the children. What if it is practically impossible for the parents to be positive to children? Do we try to see the reasons that make us helpless? With all the possible solutions we can think of, an effective listening and response can happen only if the socio- political atmosphere is favorable for the parents to do so. We may talk about poverty. But do not forget that poverty is political than economic.

Let me give you few examples

a). What happened recently in Nandigram in Bengal state of India in one example. Hundreds of acres of agricultural land that belonged to the farmers were taken over by the government to hand it over to a car company called TATA. That land was all that they had to sustain their lives. People took it up on the streets. Hundreds were killed by police firing. How can a woman who first lost her farm land and then her husband listen to the cry or laughter of her child in such situation?

b). Thousands of farmers in Andhra Pradesh state in India committed suicide as the terminator seed supplied by BT Cotton failed them. How can parents respond positively to the feelings of their children when they have nothing to eat and sustain life?

c). Several parents in north India sell their children for money as hunger takes over any sentimental feeling they may have towards their children. How can they respond to the cry of the child under such situation? People kill girl children at infancy itself because parents of even illiterate and jobless boys ask hundreds of thousands as dowry to take them in marriage. How can the parents of such girls feel their emotions?

d). Certain man in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu state of India sold his kidney to support his family. How many kidneys one can sell? How can he listen and respond to the cry of his child?

e). In North India, govt. started a dam for irrigation purpose. They went on raising the height of the dam and it drowned village after village. Take a family in one of those villages. They lose everything they may have. Rehabilitation is a myth in such situations. How can a family who lost its land and everything in it care for the children?

f). In the United States of America when the president Mr. George W Bush offered bailout plan for ailing companies, the three CEOs of the three automobile giants in Detroit in Michigan state went to ask for help to Washington in individual private jets spending sixty thousand each, while they could fly in one jet spending six thousand each in first class. Later GM (others are on the line) became bankrupt and thousands are left without job. How can those jobless parents take care of their children?

G). Let me bring to you a crisis parents in Kerala are going through. A boy from a middle class family goes to school and meets his friends. Many of them come from wealthy families. They carry around small communication equipment called the mobile/cell phone. It becomes so embarrassing for this boy not to have one. He comes home and asks for one. His dad cannot afford to have one. The question whether a school boy needs one is not asked by the telecom company that advertises ‘friends and family’ plan. Infants and children are constantly lured by commercials that appear on television. The parents would find it too hard to share and respond to the aspirations and dreams of the child. Children’s food habit, their dress code, their needs, what and where they should study all are nowadays decided by those trans-national corporations CEOs of which want to fly around the world in private jets even while their company is ailing. Do we at any point address this issue? With the new economic order in effect, with the Regan-Thatcher thesis as its foundation, all around the world the parents would many a time find it impossible to respond to the feelings of the child.

h). All the money the employees in US saved for their retirement went blank when the 401K where they had invested the money went down. How are they going to support their children and grand children?

Political structures decide on what kind of life we should have. The transnational corporations decide what kind of government should be there in a country. They set the agenda for our socio-economic and even religious life.

How a mother who lost her job in the IT sector when the market collapsed, can respond to the joy of the child? How can the Church alone with the WCC slogan, ‘God in your mercy transform the world’ really transform the world for the child?

Our theme for this training program is “welcome children, welcome Jesus”. We say ‘welcome children’. We welcome them to where, to what kind of a society? What kind of political system which obviously would control all areas of their lives we can invite them to?

We say, ‘welcome Jesus’ where to? To our unjust society where greed and selfishness are the rules of the time? To our society where Coco and Pepsi colas, McDonald and Kentucky, arms and drugs dealers control the governments and the governments control our lives?

Let us ask about the content of our sermons on Sundays. What are we telling the people? We preach about Kingdom of God after death or Kingdom of God in this world?

If you are talking about kingdom of God beyond, you have to wait till you are dead to know and respond to the feelings of the child. If you are talking about the kingdom of God in this world, then you are talking about a political world. Politics controls your life and dreams. They decide whether you can have a child or not. They decide how many you can have; when and what kind of child you can have. Someone the other day in one of the sessions talked about man and woman living together without getting married. Why does it happen? The social system is such that they are not sure how long they will be able to live together. The company where husband works is moving to five hundred miles away location or to the other state or even to a foreign country and he was asked to move or quit. What would he do? What are you going to do about it? Go to the Church and preach about the child protection plan of CWM? Which child you are talking about? The government decides whether you can have a child or not. How about that?

Are we ready to address the situation, or shall we ask everyone to bow their heads in prayer, closing their eyes and pray thinking that everything is going to be all right?

There are people who would say we should not blame it on any one or should not single out any one. I heard that voice here also several times. I think we are afraid to address the situation. The old colonization tendency is still in the air in other forms. We cannot ignore that. We need to address that. We need to blame it on people who try to make our lives and the lives of our children miserable. We have to cry aloud and say, ‘look the king is naked’. Prophet Amos cried aloud and said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever rolling stream” (5:24). People talk about the issue as if all responsibility lies on the shoulders of the parents and the Churches. Yes true, but our responsibility is not limited to doing something in our own court yard.

I strongly believe that we have to address this political world. Of course we have to address it on the basis of Church’s action plan for children. But it should not be limited to educating people about child care and child abuse. We have to address the situation as it is and where it is. We need to be politically active too. Jesus who called Herod ‘fox’ (Luke 13:32) wants us to address our political system realistically. I have read and got so much fascinated and inspired by “Long Walk to Freedom” the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. I am so proud of Bishop Tutu who addressed this issue with a Christian commitment.

Some time back the political system made a division between sacred and secular. Part of the blame should be on the Church. But the politicians took it for their convenience and now they are taking over the spiritual realm too. Unless we address this issue all our talk about ‘welcome children, welcome Jesus’ will be in vain, I am afraid.

How do we address this issue? The Church gets house full attendance on every Sunday morning. What is the message we give to them? This is one of the most effective campaign platforms any one could get in the world. Are we ready to talk about the wrong and unjust agendas of the political leaders? Are we ready to talk about the dehumanizing atmosphere created by the socio-political systems of our world?

I find two concrete way of doing it.

1. Making the pulpit a medium for a healthy political campaign. We have seen it working in South Africa (Bishop Tutu), in Latin America (the Catholic priests of liberation theology), in several parts of India and in many other places in the world.

2. Align with NGOs that work in the same area to make the voice heard in a united way.

After having done this we can confidently and sincerely talk about child protection plan and child welfare system for the Church and for the community.

IV. Creation meeting the Creator

My final (for now) point is related to the joy of the fetus in the womb of Elizabeth. (I am not going to dwell too long on it, rather want to raise few questions only. I have given a paper explaining what we are doing in the Orthodox Church in India in this regard)

John recognized the presence of his Lord. He is in the womb of his mother as a fetus. I would say creation is meeting the creator and rejoicing in His presence. The creator decided to incarnate and now is in the womb of Mary as an embryo. But they both recognized each other. This happens even before the formation of senses.

This is the recognition of the relationship between. This is evident from the words of Elizabeth who said in verse 43; “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me”? We may ask; at what age the child can feel the presence of its creator and be happy about it? Are we ready to consider the infant as full member of the body of Christ and treat it as one?

The joy of John was not emotional or ecstatic, rather was rational and sensible because this joy found its fullness just before his death by the hands of the king (John 3:28-30. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”)

I want to highlight two points: (1) John recognized himself and (2) his mission in this world. Both were initiated by the visit of his Lord in the womb of the mother. This recognition was the reason for his joy. We need to see two statements of John; first, ‘I am not Christ’. This comes only from one who has self realization. And I believe it started at the very moment he confronted his Lord while he was in the womb of his mother. Two, ‘therefore this joy of mine is now full’. This happened after John baptized Jesus and had introduced Jesus to his disciples (John 1:29 ff. and 1:35 ff.), and also just before John was killed. This tells us that John did understand his mission and purpose very well and he faithfully fulfilled it in his short life time. Once again to reiterate, all this, started with his confrontation with his Lord in the beginning while he was still in womb of his mother.

If a child in the womb can recognize him/herself and her/his mission why cannot one in the world, no matter how small it may be, recognize these? Will it not be helpful if we give a chance to the infants to be with Christ and experience Him through baptism confirmation and communion?

I believe, and I see in this event, recognition has not much to do with age and intellectual ability. If they did, we would not have so many problems in the Church. We who claim to have known our Lord well enough and have identified our role in this world have over centuries made the Church a laughing stock and hindrance to others in many ways.

I am not going to elaborate on this as it may look as if I am defending our practice in the Orthodox Church. But sincerely I want you to think about this seriously. Will it not be helpful for the emotional, psychological and spiritual growth of the child if we make them part of the Eucharist table from infancy itself?

“Let the children come unto me, hinter them not”. That is the word of the Lord.

Source: Bible Study Workshop conducted at Council for World Mission Training for Trainers (Mission With Children) Malua, SAMOA, 18 – 26, Sept. 2009. Malua Theological College, Malua, Samoa (September 24, 2009)

See Also:

Elizabeth - a Spiritual Guardian and Protector of Mary
by Rev. Dr. V Kurian Thomas, Valiyaparambil

Great people are born first in the heart, not in the womb
by Very Rev. Dr. Yohannan Sankarathil Cor-Episcopa

 

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