This sermon was preached on the occasion of Sr. Miriam Elizabeth’s profession of the life vow in the Order of St. Helena, a women’s monastic community in the Episcopal Church. The sermon is based on the scriptures for the Feast of the Virgin Mary.
Miriam Elizabeth, one of the first things I thought about when I thought of you, your life profession, and today’s scriptures was the aboriginal people of Australia. I know that might sound a bit strange, and the connection tenuous, but that’s what came to mind as I sat with and listened to today’s texts and it kept coming back to me. There is a theme, a continuity, that runs through these readings the way a melody runs through a song.
So what do the aborigines of Australia have to do with you, your life profession, and today’s scriptures? They can help open the ear of our heart to hear our holy scriptures in a new way. They offer us a way of connecting our inner world with the world around us. They show us a sacred way of navigating life.
Are you familiar with songlines? Songlines are a part of the aboriginal life. The aborigines tell a creation story in which creation ancestors wandered the continent singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants, rocks, caves, desert brush, waterholes – thereby singing the world and all creation into existence. It’s akin to Adam naming the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). The paths their ancestors charted are called songlines.
Their songlines form a web over aboriginal Australia. By singing the songline one can navigate the land and traverse long distances because the sung word corresponds to a particular feature or landmark. Songlines are routes through sacred time and space and the means by which the people locate themselves, orient their lives, and navigate the continent.
I hear today’s gospel, the Magnificat, (Luke 1:46-55) as Mary’s songline. She doesn’t sing of animals, plants, rocks, caves, or waterholes. The Magnificat is a songline for the inner landscape. Mary sings of celebration and thanksgiving, blessedness, compassion and hospitality, mercy and justice, nurtured life and fulfilled promises. Ultimately though she sings of conceiving the Word and life God spoke and planted in her womb.
Mary’s songline is not, however, limited to the words of the Magnificat. “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) is a verse in her songline. Her silent pondering and treasuring (Luke 2:19, 51) are additional verses. The sword that pierced her soul (Luke 3:35) is a part of her songline. “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5) is another verse and so is her constant devotion to prayer following the ascension (Acts1:14).
I have no doubt that you know well Mary’s songline. You’ve heard and sung it countless times. But here’s what I wonder. What is your songline? Do you remember the first time you heard it, where you were, what you were doing? Or has it is always been an old and familiar tune, one that’s always just been there? What is the songline that has brought you to this place, this day, and the profession you are about to make?
Everyone has been given a songline to sing. We can hear them throughout today’s readings. Isaiah sings of rejoicing in the Lord, exulting in his God, being clothed with garments of salvation and robed in righteousness (Isaiah 61:10-11). The psalmist sings of being answered by God, delivered from terror, and invites the humble to hear and rejoice, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord and exalt the name of the Lord (Psalm 34:1-9).
The songlines travel far beyond today’s readings. Elizabeth sings, “The child in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44). “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3:30) is the songline of John the Baptist. “If I only touch his cloak I will be made well,” (Mt. 9:21) says the bleeding woman. “Come see a man who has told me everything I have ever done,” (John 4:29) says the woman at the well. Those are songlines and so is Mary Magdalene’s “Rabbouni” (John 20:16) and “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).
Do you remember Hannah’s songline? We heard it today at matins. She exults in the Lord and sings of the feeble girding on strength, the bows of the mighty being broken, the hungry fat with spoil, and the barren giving birth (1 Samuel 2:1-10). And let’s not forget Miriam at the Red Sea. She not only sings, she dances and plays the tambourine (Exodus 15:20-21).
And it surely must have been a songline that guided St. Helena through the holy land, the very land where Jesus sang his song of being anointed to bring good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).
They all had a songline and these songlines have formed and shaped you. We need each other’s songlines. But we also need to know our own songline. So let me ask you again. What is your songline? In what ways will you offer it to your sisters and the world? In what ways will you open yourself to hear their songlines?
In every life there is a songline waiting to be sung. We all have one. We may each sing in different keys and use verses particular to our lives but it is the same song. It is the primordial melody of God carrying God’s eternal Word for each of our lives.
We are the singers but not the composers. The songline of our life was written “in the beginning” when God opened the womb of creation and said, “Let there be.” Isn’t that the context for today’s gospel? It’s the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. Two women pregnant with life, faith, and fulfilled promises. One is unmarried, too young, and too virginal to be pregnant. But she is. The other is married, too old, and too barren to be pregnant. But she is. Mary and Elizabeth gave themselves to God, making a life profession. That was their songline. And today Miriam Elizabeth you offer the womb of your being to the life giving power of God. This is your day to sing.
I don’t know when or where you first sang your songline but I know that before your ever sang it, you heard it. You heard notes of beauty, wisdom, compassion, hospitality, justice, and life nurtured. And when you did it resounded in the womb of your life. It was familiar and every time your heard it you recognized something of yourself. It awakened you. It called you. It opened you to God’s Word and life. And then one day you began to sing along and your voice joined a chorus of singers. Some have gone before you and others surround you this day.
You learned the words by heart and every time you sang them your found another piece of yourself. This songline has become your way of life. It’s given you meaning and direction. It’s guided you through landscapes both within and outside you. This is your song and it has brought you to this place and this moment.
In just a few minutes you will make vows. The three-fold vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience will become another verse in the songline of your life. But there is another verse, an implicit fourth vow. How could there not be a fourth vow? Your songline is a gift and trust, and it comes with a sacred responsibility.
The implicit fourth vow is your songline vow; a vow to sing, preserve, and share your songline.
The world needs your songline. So sing to us Sr. Miriam Elizabeth, sing to us. Sing to us the song of creation. Sing with the joyful and those who are celebrating and giving thanks. Sing to those who have lost their way. Sing to those who have closed the womb of their life. Sing to those who are afraid. Sing to those who are deaf to their own music. Sing to those who have lost their voice. Sing to those who have forgotten their words. Sing to those who don’t know their songline. Teach us to sing and help us to find our own songline.
That’s a part of what this place and others like it – convents, monasteries, hermitages – are about. Monastics are the guardians and teachers of our songlines. So let us hear your notes of beauty, wisdom, compassion, hospitality, justice, and life.
Remind us that the music has not died.
Sing to us Sr. Miriam Elizabeth.
Sing to us with the voice of an aboriginal woman. Sing to us.