Behold, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
By beloved is like a gazelle,
or a young stag.
Behold, there he stands behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
For lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone…. (Song of Songs 2:8-12)
It seems like a strange reading, given where we are in the liturgical calendar (so close to Christmas). And yet, the Gospel reading gives us a hint (Luke 1:39ff). A young woman, full of life and wonder, hastens toward her dear, infertile friend Elizabeth, with whom she is about to share one of the most profound of all womanly experiences: motherhood. And as Mary’s delighted greeting fell upon Elizabeth’s ears, the new life within her leaped for joy.
Today something happened to me that made me consider this passage in a whole new light. Craig and I attended Christopher and Sarah’s school Christmas pageant, and I struck up a conversation with a woman whose son was in one of my children’s preschool class. “Anna” has three children and has never been married. I asked Anna whether she was planning to do something special with her kids over the Christmas break, and she admitted that she only had off work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The rest of the time the children — the youngest not quite two — would be in daycare.
At this time of year, she admits, she lives on credit cards and basically works to pay for daycare. With no help from the children’s father — she can’t afford a lawyer to fight for her in family court, while his lawyer has had the father’s childcare payments reduced twice — she doesn’t feel she has much choice. And to a point, she’s right. Many of the most important choices she could have made are behind her: the most important being the choice “up and come away with” a wild stag, and to have and raise on her own several children. Like many single moms, she puts her head down and copes as best she can, fighting to keep the wolf away from the door … while her “stag” leaps and grazes far ahead, oblivious to her plight. How does one begin to give this woman the kind of assistance she needs, help that will remove both her and her children from this swirling pool of despair?
Back to today’s Gospel. We tend to read this account of the Visitation with the eyes of faith, with Mary running joyfully to share her news with Elizabeth, who welcomes her young cousin with unabashed joy.
As I left the program today, I had a different thought: Was it possible that Mary’s haste was even partly due to the fact that she needed time and space to process what was happening to her? That she ran to Elizabeth not with elation … but a teensy bit panicked? Her fiat had been willing and unreserved while she basked in Gabriel’s heavenly radiance. But when the aura disappeared, did her misgivings creep in with the shadows?
How different, then, was Elizabeth’s role. She was not simply the recipient of grace, but a benefactor as well. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Because of infertility, Elizabeth knew what it felt like to bear the judgment and shame of wagging tongues, and was in a unique place to be able to reassure Mary. She must have known difficult times were ahead of her young cousin. While she did not doubt Mary’s story — that God had chosen her to be the mother of His Son — she knew that the young woman would still need help. A listening ear. A helping hand. Above all, an open heart.
It’s the same for all of us. We all make choices (some intrinsically sinful, some merely imprudent) from which we need to be rescued, or certainly assisted. In this case, Mary had made a courageous choice (just as my friend Anna chose life for each of her children). She made it, knowing full well that tongues would wag and even those closest to her might judge her harshly. But she did it anyway, trusting that God would make her way straight.
This Christmas, as we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, is there someone in your life — perhaps someone God has specifically placed in your path — that needs your help? It may be that this person is suffering the consequences of his or her deliberate actions. Then again, this person may simply be “Jesus in distressing disguise,” as Blessed Mother Teresa used to say. Take up the Spirit of compassion, relinquish judgment, and extend yourself in the name of the Christ Child, who gave up all of heaven so that one day we might share it with Him.
If you don’t know anyone personally, this might be a good year to pitch in at your local domestic violence or crisis pregnancy center, shelter, or soup kitchen. Merry Christmas!