The rector was invited to attend a party in the home of one of her parishioners.
Naturally, she was properly dressed and wore her priest clerical collar. A little boy kept staring at her the entire evening. Finally, the rector asked the little boy what he was staring at. The little boy pointed to the priest's neck. When the priest finally realized what the boy was pointing at, she asked the boy, "Do you know why I am wearing that?" The boy nodded his head yes, and replied, "It kills fleas and ticks for up to three months".
When we see or hear something out of our usual frame of reference, we usually wonder what it’s all about. You might wonder why in the midst of the long season of green vestments, we are suddenly in white ones and honoring St. Mary the Virgin.
The holyday appears on the calendar for all Episcopalians—a festive day that honors the Blessed Virgin Mary as the birth-giver of God’s Son, the (ϴϵοτόκοϛ) Theotokos, a title accorded to her by one of the ancient councils of the universal church in the fifth century. When it falls on a weekday, we can miss observing this feast.
The theological background for it is both sketchy and not biblically based but rather the result of oral tradition passed on about Mary’s end of life from the early Christians. Since we don’t find anything in the scriptures to support this, the Gospel reading for this holyday takes us to a different place in Mary’s life, a visit between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, each of these women astonished at the unexpected news they have received at the hand of an angel—that they were mystifyingly, bewilderingly pregnant—a scenario for which Mary and her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, were the most unlikely candidates—one a devout teenager without a husband, the other married but way beyond the age of childbearing. Yet now they both carried the gift of new life stirring within them.
Mary then made this extraordinary and difficult journey to the hill country to visit her cousin. In spite of their limitations and circumstances, the lives of these two women have been caught up in the dramatic workings of God. What seemed yesterday to be impossibility was today their reality.
At the first sight of her cousin rushing up the hill, Elizabeth greets her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary responds in song, describing a world turned upside down, in which the poor are gratified but the rich are turned away empty. We know this as the Magnificat, recited or sung at Morning Prayer.
This story tells us that the unexpected can happen when God touches our lives in profound, surprising, even bewildering ways. Mary and Elizabeth’s stories hold out the promise that God can do great things through ordinary people—even people like you and me. God still intrudes in our lives when we don’t expect it—sometimes even when we don’t want it. But their experience did not come without its hardships.
I’m sure that Mary and Elizabeth were the topic of a lot of mean-spirited gossip and even name calling because of their unusual predicaments and pregnancy. Mary, an unmarried teenager and Elizabeth old and barren—neither a status respected in their time and culture. Mary’s story teaches us that it’s not about our inadequacies and imperfections but about how we respond to the challenges and limitations of life in spite of them and how we respond to God’s promise to do great things through us —especially when we least expect to be asked.
Today the altar flowers honor another Mary—my maternal grandmother Mae Burke who had her own unexpected trials when her husband who was a longshoreman died very suddenly of a heart attack leaving her with seven children. She had to go to work to support them. During her 92 years, she would have to bury three of her adult children but as long as she lived, I never heard a mean word or complaint out of her. Like Mary and Elizabeth, she said “Yes” to what was handed to her in life and carried on in faith.
Sometime ago, I came across a wonderful article in the newspaper called “Overcoming Limitations.” The title itself captured my attention and so I read on. “The long somber call of a bell’s toll fills the tiny monastery chapel. Those who can, stand. Some of the nuns who move about in motorized wheelchairs, who walk gingerly with the assistance of crutches or who simply do not have the strength—sit. Then the sisters open their books and begin to sing.”
Since it was founded in 1930, the Order of Benedictines of Jesus Christ Crucified has opened its doors to women whether they are sick, handicapped, or healthy. At a time when women in poor health were routinely rejected from answering a call to the religious life, this order gave women with disabilities a chance to become a nun. In the daily routine of prayer, work, and silence, the sisters live as many of them have always dreamed. And they became defined by their life of ministry in prayer and service, not by their disability. The bane of these sisters’ existence has been that everyone calls them the “handicapped nuns.” Their reality is that they are Benedictine nuns who overcame their limitation living the contemplative life.
Mary and Elizabeth and my grandma Burke and these Benedictine nuns are proof that God often chooses the most unlikely people to face difficult circumstances in life and do God’s work in the world. If we ever wonder why God is calling us to what seems just very ordinary stuff, rest assured it’s because God trusts us to do it in an extraordinary way. What yesterday seemed an impossibility could be our reality today.