Today, we commemorate the feast of The Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Gospels tell us very little about the childhood of our Lord’s mother. She’s thought to have been of Davidic descent… brought up in a devout Jewish family that cherished the hope of Israel as the coming kingdom of God, in accordance with God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So little is known of Mary’s parents, named in a second century apocryphal gospel as “Joachim and Anne,” that we can only imagine what they might have been like… their appearance… their habits. But if we study Mary’s reaction to the visit of the angel Gabriel in today’s Gospel passage, then perhaps we’ll be able to infer a little bit about Joachim and Anne, who we honor here today, and achieve a greater understanding about what God is asking of us here, during our own earthly sojourn.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done with me according to your word.” Mary’s response to Gabriel in Luke’s gospel was a study in gracefulness and self-composure. Let’s think about this for a moment: Mary was probably alone… at least we’re not told that anyone else is with her. And she was confronted by the same angelic being that had first terrified Zechariah by his mere presence, and then struck him mute for his disbelief. Mary was perplexed… she wondered how the miraculous event the angel had foretold might unfold… but she never doubted God. “Let it be done with me according to your word.”
So, who was Mary? The Gospel writers tell us stories of Mary in the temple searching for her lost twelve-year-old son, Mary at the wedding at Cana coaxing the first miracle out of that same son, and Mary, devastated and alone, at the foot of the Cross. The Church has called her the Mother of God, Theotokos or “God Bearer” and Madonna. She is venerated by Christians throughout the world: religious orders, convents and monasteries have been founded in her name.
In fact, Mary was a peasant girl in a small village in a backwater province of the Roman Empire in the first century CE. As far we can tell from Scripture, there was nothing particularly special about Mary, except that she had somehow “found favor with God.” She was probably young. Maybe she was pretty. Maybe the hardscrabble village life of Nazareth had already begun to age her: girls in those days married early and took on the burden of raising families in a subsistence-level economy at an unbelievably tender age by today’s standards. Yet, she was chosen by God to do something important, in this case of the first importance. And what made Mary special was that she said “yes.”
As many of you know, I received my first call to ordained ministry in 1982, when I was in my young twenties. When I approached my bishop and priest and asked what they thought I should do about it, they were supportive… but told me to wait – finish school… find a job… maybe start a family and see where the call might lead. Later, I learned that many other “twenty-somethings” in the Diocese of Atlanta back in the day were given similar counsel. At the time, most dioceses preferred to recruit clergy who were older, with a little gray around the temples… and a little more life experience. I was disappointed but took the advice of my spiritual elders to heart. If you had asked me when I was twenty-one year’s old what might be the top one hundred most likely career paths for me, policing wouldn’t have made the list, but that’s where I was called. And I was good at it… and it was good for me. I learned a lot of things I needed to know, and have come to understand that my years policing and in the Coast Guard are key to me being where I am… and doing what I’m doing… today.
I spent several years of my Coast Guard Reserve service assigned to a large Cutter doing counter-narcotics work in the Caribbean. Whenever we’d train a new helmsman (that’s the person who steers the ship), we would let him (or her) take the wheel and do the best s/he could to steer a straight course… for about ten minutes… using just the ship’s compass and their “seaman’s eye.” The open ocean is big place, and even when you’re on a vessel that’s longer than a football field, the winds, swells and current make it hard to maintain a steady heading. When their ten minutes was up and they were asked how straight they’d manage to steer, most trainees thought they had done OK. Then we’d take them out onto the bridge wing and show them their wake… which typically looked like a mile-long snake with lots of twists, turns and corrections. But that was expected. The point of the exercise was to help these new sailors learn not to take the wind and sea for granted.
I remember a time when I thought of my life as being a little like that long undulating wake: the people I’d known, the places I’d been, the things I’d done, though mostly serendipitous – seemed somehow random and lacking clear direction. That is, until I approached retirement from policing and the military… the end of my first journey… and began thinking about seminary formation again. That was when I stepped out onto my own “virtual” bridge wing and checked my wake and danged if it wasn’t straight as an arrow. God had begun a work in me back in 1982 (likely even before that) that has taken most of my adult life to come to fruition. But that’s OK, because now I know that my previous vocations were part of my larger “formation,” helping to prepare me for what God has in store for me in my second journey. Part of my life’s work was figuring that out.
How about you? Have you ever felt called to do something by God and then, felt somehow thwarted? Or perhaps you’ve been waiting… waiting for God to tell you where you’re called to be and what you’re called you to do… waiting for so long that you’ve pretty much given up on hearing anything. Or you think maybe the call came, but you somehow missed it.Maybe you just weren’t at the right place at the right time to hear God’s call. Maybe you just aren’t quite “special” enough… whatever specialmight mean to you. None of these impediments seemed to cause God a problem in Mary’s case, however.
As I mentioned in last week’s homily, Frederick Buechner tells us that, “the place God calls us to be… is the place where our deep gladness…and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where is your deep gladness? Live into it. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, and you’ll find the place God is calling you to be. God knows you down to the number of hairs on your head, and God has a unique purpose for you in this world and the next. Trust that. So, you’ve never had a visit from an angel? Be careful what you ask for. Anytime an angel shows up in the Bible, things are about to get interesting.
Or perhaps, you think you’ve done something you feel separates you from God to such an extent that God has little or no use for you. Thomas Merton was among the most influential Catholic writers of the twentieth century. His early years were marked by the tragedy of his mother’s untimely death from cancer, and the crippling family instability that resulted from that trauma. Nominally an Anglican, Merton had drifted into agnosticism by the time he entered college at Cambridge at age seventeen. During his first year at school, he had a reputation for being a spendthrift and, it would appear from the record, fathered a child out of wedlock. Merton had “gone prodigal” as most of us have done at one time or another. And yet… and yet… by the time he turned twenty-five, “something” was stirring in him, and that something was God. By the time he was twenty-seven, he had taken on Cistercian orders at the monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky… and the rest is history. Thomas Merton’s story reinforces for us, in twentieth century terms, that “nothing is impossible with God.” So, if you think that maybe you’ve stumbled to the point that you’re no longer useful to God, you need to think again. Not only are you redeemed, you’re loved and needed – not in spite of but because of your human frailties. So, keep the faith. Listen… pray… engage your Creator! Don’t be afraid to tell God what you think you need and want. But remember… your deep gladness… and the world’s deep hunger. “Here am I… let it be with me according to your word.”
And, having been reminded of the story of Thomas Merton’s early life and the challenges that he overcame with God’s help, I offer you the words of “Merton’s Prayer,” which have been a source of great comfort to me over the years:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.