When reading the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45), my imagination is captured by John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb. Although tiny and as yet unborn, John is already attuned to the presence of God. When Mary appears at the door, bearing Jesus in her own womb, John can’t contain his joy and delight. He must leap. He must jump. He must do something, anything, to express his utter delight at having Christ in his midst.
John’s joyous leaping alerts Elizabeth, and through her, Mary, to the joyful mystery of the moment. Together, Elizabeth and Mary bask in the wonder and awe of new life, new birth, Christ’s presence among them.
John’s prenatal leap came to mind when I had the great joy of traveling in south India in 2016. One of my favorite experiences in India is greeting others. In many areas, the customary greeting is “Namaste.” In Tamil Nadu where I was visiting, the Tamil greeting is “Vanakkam.” Both words carry the same, rich meaning: “The divine presence in me greets the divine presence in you.” One word, boundless truth.
In saying, “Vanakkam,” I acknowledge that God is alive and active in the intimacy of my own being and in yours. The divine presence in me greets the divine presence in you. God lives and abides in me, and God lives and abides in you.
Just as John cannot contain his joy and delight, neither can the word, “Vanakkam.” The joy spills out into gesture. Hands are pressed together in front of the heart, while the head is bowed before the other person. It is actually the gesture that expresses the greeting. The word itself is “extra.”
I love greeting people in this way. While by nature I am somewhat shy, in India I found myself looking for people to greet. My soul delighted in each new encounter. The greeting shaped my view of others, making me aware of the beauty and promise of each person I meet.
I put the greeting to good use particularly at liturgies when meeting other women, many of whom seemed to speak very little English. We would look at one another with curiosity. Then, I would use the only Tamil word I know, “Vanakkam,” and that was enough. We were connected.
The women would beam as I bowed my head before them. They returned the greeting, and brought their children up to do the same. Since I could say nothing in Tamil beyond, “Vanakkam,” I would say it over and over again. With each bow of the head, I could feel my respect and love for these women growing until I felt my heart was overflowing with joy.
Such rich moments surely are a taste of Elizabeth’s experience of John leaping in her womb. How different the world looks when greeting someone with “Vanakkam. Namaste. The divine presence in me greets the divine presence in you.” Our vision becomes attuned to God’s presence in the world, in every person we meet, in every moment of life.
In the photo, you can see me (I’m the tall one) with an American friend, Christine, and some of our new Indian friends. These four young women are students at LIFT (Leading India’s Future Today), a residential program providing education and leadership formation for gifted youth who otherwise wouldn’t have access to education. LIFT is a joyous, hope-filled place. To learn more about the work of LIFT, visit: http://www.lift-foundation.org/.