Maryland Day & the Annunciation

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.

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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)

‘YOU SAY THAT I AM A KING’

The Kingship of God is a scriptural concept and expresses a spiritual truth: God, the creator of all, is in charge of this world.  And we are members of that kingdom.  As such, our lives are worked out in the context of a world which is neither chaotic nor random but ordered by love and maintained in justice, an orderly world which is a kingdom, the very Kingdom of God.

Jesus himself was called King by several of his followers.  During his lifetime on earth, Nathanael called Jesus “King of Israel” after Jesus said he’d seen Nathanael by a fig tree. (Jn. 1:49)  The crowd used the title as a derisive one, mocking him while he hung on the cross: “He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now…” (Mt. 27:42, also in Mk. 15)  Those Magi  went in search of the child “born King of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2), and even Pilate asked Jesus if he was, in fact, a king. (Jn. 18:37 & Mt. 27:11)  The title was, from time to time, ascribed to Jesus after the ascension.  Writing to Timothy, Paul confessed that Christ is “King of the ages” (1 Tim. 1:17) and called him “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (1 Tim. 6:15)  For obvious reasons, John’s Apocalypse abounds in language about Christ the King, the righteous victor who will overthrow the wicked powers of this world: Jesus is “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5), “King of the nations” (Rev. 15:3), and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16, also 17:14).  Jesus talked about his kingdom, and he made mention of kings in many of his parables, such was the association readily made for his listening audience.

Jesus never called himself King, though, nor did he accept it when offered.  The title he seemed to prefer was ‘Son of Man’ or ‘Son of God’, and yet Jesus resisted people making a ready connection between him and the great messianic hope of the people.  The Messianic Secret of the gospels – the reason Jesus tells people to keep quiet that he is, in fact, the Christ – is because a commitment to discipleship must be the result of an organic faith, growing from the inside out, not following a leader like we are so readily programmed to do.  The titles we employ – King, President, CEO – carry so many associations that they have the dangerous tendency to inhibit a truly heart-grown faith, the only thing which will lead to that kingdom within, the only thing which creates true discipleship.

For these reasons, then, Jesus and Pilate have what seems an unnecessary argument in Pilate’s chamber on the night our Lord was handed over to be crucified. (Jn. 18:33-37)  Pilate wants desperately to maintain order on that clamorous night, and it seems he’s aware that Jesus has been wrongfully accused.  “Are you King of the Jews?” Pilate asks, exasperated by the proceedings.  Jesus answers in an odd way, not answering the question with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.  “How’d you hear that?” Jesus asks.  Pilate shoots back, “Look, tell me, what have you done?”  Jesus gives an unusual answer once again, mentioning his followers and talking of his kingdom.  “Aha!  Then you are a King,” Pilate snaps back, thinking he’s caught Jesus.  “You say that I am a king,” Jesus says, and again goes off on a seemingly disconnected musing about truth and his followers and pointing to his work of reconciling all things in Him: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus doesn’t deny his kingship, not at all.  The fact that we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King is meet and right so to do.  That God in Christ is King of everything is a standard of faith and a profoundly comfortable truth (…well, I suppose it’s decidedly uncomfortable if you are already a worldly power or principality).  And Christ’s Kingship has profound consequences for the ways in which we live in this world, amidst these powers and principalities.  Officially instituted in 1925 with Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Quas Primas (In the first), the Feast not only affirms the scriptural witness about our Lord’s Kingship but also made clear in the early 20th century – a time of growing fascism and vitriolic nationalism – that the Christian’s supreme allegiance is due only one ruler, Christ the King, in heaven.

This is why Jesus makes Pilate squirm through an oddly philosophical conversation about kingship and kingdom on that heated night.  What Jesus points to in not taking on the title “King” is that it is God’s nature to give and give freely and give of God’s very self.  As Lord of all, God has everything, indeed, is everything.  God is complete in Godself, the very fullness of Being.  In God, there is no gift that is not shared (in truth, the opposite it impossible; if it’s not given freely it’s not a gift).  The gifts of God, being that they are, by definition, of God are also, by definition, shared.  God knows no other way than to give freely, vulnerably, fully. There is, then, in God, only blessing.

As ruler of all, we short-handedly call God “King”.  Moreover, He could very well establish  that fact by having us pay continual homage, receiving as a monarch our fidelity and love and service.  But God doesn’t establish his dominion by power; no, he does the opposite: He makes Himself vulnerable, becoming one of us, even dying for our sake in a humiliating, dreadful means of public execution, dying so that we may live.  Our Lord doesn’t ‘lord’ over us in the way we would otherwise associate with the term “king” or “monarch”.  On the one level, He models for us selfless, unconditional love.  On a much deeper level, however, He does this because He is this; by God’s nature He is selfless, generous, vulnerable and blessed – hence that greater mystery we call the Trinity, a mutual, egalitarian, self-giving monarchy of the One who is Three and the Three who are One.

The identity and nature of God cannot, therefore, be summed up in words like “King”.  After all, God is not what God says He is, nor is He what we say.  No, God is is who God shows himself to be by acting meaningfully and decisively in history and our lives.  Faith, in turn, is not intellectual assent to a series of beliefs – God is King – but, rather, an experience of the living God, the experience of knowing that one’s life caught up in the life of God, the creator and lover of all.

We are called to a beatitude life, a life of supreme blessedness, which means we are called to share freely and with humility the gifts we have been given.  Especially in this fast approaching season of gifts – gift-giving, gift-buying, gift-wrapping, gift-getting – it’s counter-cultural to celebrate that the only true gift is the one which is given away, freely, and used for the wellbeing of all – shared, not owned; given away, with no expectation or hope of return.

That’s what the gospels call a beatitude life, a life marked by blessedness, not fullness, not giftedness.  Sharing of yourself in some small reflection of the way in which God, who is and yet never accepted the title, King of kings and Lord of lords, shared – freely, vulnerably, for the life and blessing of the world.

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 25 November 2012, the Last Sunday of Pentecost and Feast of Christ the King.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.