O Lord Christ, whose prayer that your disciples would be one, as you and the Father are one, inspired certain of your followers to create on American shores a colony that would practice tolerance, consecrated in the name of your blessed mother to whom the angel announced this day a new gift: Grant that the people of this land may continually give thanks for your protection and uphold the liberty of conscience and worship, until all shall receive the benefits and follow the disciplines of true freedom, endowed by the Name of the same, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
On my grandmother’s Illinois kitchen windowsill there was a decorative ceramic tile, maybe it was a coaster or a trivet. “Maryland,” it read, an image of that state’s flag. I suppose my aunt and uncle who lived in Maryland gave it to my grandmother, or she bought it there on one of her trips. I, too, had visited my aunt and uncle, and I remember that Maryland was a faraway place — not just geographically but historically and, in many ways, another world entirely.
I remember staring at that flag, the checked black and gold set in quarter panels opposite red and white crosses; the family crests, I learned in time, of the Calverts (black and gold) and their ancestral Crossland family. I’d seen nothing like it before. It suggested another world, an ancient world.
I’m now a Maryland resident and, what’s more, our daughter was born here, specifically in the birthplace of the colony: St. Mary’s County. After nearly seven years of residency, I still feel honored to live here, blessed to participate in an ongoing experiment of community building, a gift we celebrate today. It’s Maryland Day.
On 22 November 1633, a group of English travelers — about 150 in all — boarded two ships, the Ark and the Dove, and set off from their mother country from the Isle of Wight. Most of the group were indentured servants. They would help settle the new colony and prepare the way for future arrivals. There were, roughly, an equal number of Catholics and Protestants, and on board was at least one Jesuit priest, Fr. Andrew White. Also sailing with them was Leonard Calvert, the future governor of Mary’s Land — the third English colony in the so-called “new world” — himself, Lord Baltimore’s younger brother. Rough sailing met them as they traversed southward down Europe’s coastline and even more demanding storms beset them as they made a direct western trek across the ocean. At one point, the Ark separated from the smaller Dove, only to be reunited in Barbados. Eventually, they made their way to their new home, pausing initially at their destination to make a peace treaty with the native Conoy tribe in advance of their landing. When the time was clear and the setting just right they waited a few more days. That is, they waited until March 25 — the Feast of the Annunciation, the Christian remembrance of the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a child (amazingly exactly nine months before December 25!)
On 25 March 1634, Fr. Andrew White, along with the others, stepped off the boat onto the shores of what is now St. Clement’s Island — a rather tiny island in the Potomac River, a quick swim from what is now northern St. Mary’s County — and celebrated Mass, presumably the first such Catholic celebration in what was British North America. Although religious toleration wouldn’t be the official policy of the new colony until several years later — the Maryland Toleration Act, an ‘Act Concerning Religion’ wasn’t signed until April 1649 — it was clear from the earliest days that this new place, named for and consecrated in Mary’s name, was going to practice a degree of forward-thinking inclusivity that was unknown in their homeland and yet unpracticed in this new frontier.
Today, March 25, is Maryland Day. We in St. Mary’s County uphold our role as the birthplace of the colony. For some among us, St. Mary’s County is the birthplace of Catholicism in America and, indeed, just as it was in the 17th century, so too it remains today — Episcopalians down here are vastly outnumbered by Catholics! For still others, Maryland Day and this place, the birthplace of the colony shines with the bright and not uncontroversial origin of a new thing in a new land: religious toleration, or at least freedom of worship for Trinitarian Christians. This is a special day celebrating a special place. Mary’s Land is a unique contribution to the American experience, and it’s well worth the time to pause and consider what implications the ideas that led to this colony’s founding had on the development of the rights and privileges we enjoy — some may say, ‘take for granted’ — today.
It’s not inconsequential that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). I’m sure it was just good timing. But the story we hear in Luke’s gospel is a profound story about God doing a new thing and in a new way with a new setting and new people — God’s messenger, Gabriel, announcing to a poor Jewish woman that she would bear and bring into the world the living presence of God, Jesus. It’s downright amazing that the King of the universe would’ve acted in this way, this strange and unexpected way — inviting a marginal, poor, frightened woman not only to say “Yes” but, depending on her answer, re-route the world and overturn the powers-that-be.
The special gift of these juxtaposed stories — Maryland Day and the Annunciation — is that they are new revelations, new ‘showings forth’ of ancient, eternal mysteries. When, after hearing Mary’s striking tale, you read the story backward, turning once again through the pages of prophecy and the unexpected ‘showings-up’ of God in scripture, it all starts to make sense. When you see what those Calverts were up to, and trace the lineage of their thinking back in time, the pieces start to come together. And when you live, like I do, in a place that will constantly humble you by the very imprint of its history and historicity, its tradition and profound staying power, you realize that you are both new and, at your best, part of the old; that your creativity is truly fresh and yet, at once, also just another instance of the long story resurfacing.
When, that is, you’ve had the gift of practicing new revelations for a very long time, you realize that the old is the handmaiden of the new and the new the power of the old. You realize, in a far deeper sense, what the writer to the Hebrews was trying to say: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” (Heb. 13:8)