ADVENT WEEK IV Words of Greeting Luke 1:41. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting… Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Season’s Greetings. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. These greetings sound forth from our lips and show up in our mailboxes frequently these days. More than any other time of year, this is a season characterized by the sharing of good wishes. I cherish the tradition of exchanging Christmas cards with friends and family and of exchanging words of good will and joy even with strangers.
A greeting plays a role in the gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent (Luke 1:39–45). The young Mary is visiting her older cousin Elizabeth. Both are with child. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, and Elizabeth herself is filled with the Holy Spirit. What a moment it must have been, what ranges of emotions the two must have shared as they pondered their unexpected pregnancies. What a comfort each must have been to the other as they lived into the mystery unfolding in and around them.
I was intrigued to hear a different sort of greeting story recently on All Things Considered. In a series called “Discipline and Women in Prison,” NPR reported that women in prison in the U. S. are disciplined more frequently—sometimes two or three times more frequently—for minor infractions of rules than are imprisoned men. Some states, working to change that, now train their corrections officers to be less reactive when women inmates break minor rules that pose no security threat—things like wearing a sweatshirt inside out or rolling their eyes.
For one segment of the program, NPR interviewed Lucinda Gillam. An inmate at a women’s detention facility in Iowa, Gillam used to get into trouble for being “smart aleck-y.” Then the more recently-trained officers began interacting differently with her and the other women, speaking to the women more frequently and greeting them with things like, “How are you doing?”—not, she emphasized, to become their friends, but to recognize their humanity. “They’re kinder,” she says. Being greeted in that kinder way, she says, has helped her mature and stay out of trouble. At the time of the interview, she was enrolled in college classes. When she gets out of prison, she plans to complete her degree and eventually to counsel people dealing with substance abuse.
Though Lucinda Gillam’s greeting story differs greatly from the one in Luke, there is mystery in both. What the two have in common is the inexplicable transformation that can occur when one person’s words touch another person’s spirit. Probably for each of us there has been someone whose words have quickened something in us: courage, hope, insight, gratitude, faithfulness. Or perhaps someone’s words planted in us the seed of a call, or gave us the impetus to overcome a hurdle. Perhaps someone’s words helped change the direction we were headed, or helped us to discover new ways to think, or pray, or dream.
In the brief time left in Advent this year, pay attention to the greetings you receive. How do they make you feel? Which ones warm your heart or touch your spirit? Also pay attention to the greetings, written or spoken, that you pass along to others, whether they be family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, or strangers. You never know what mystery might be at work in your words, or how the simplest kindness might touch another person’s spirit, altering the arc of their day.
Artistic renderings of Mary greeting Elizabeth (turn the sound off for images only):