Last week, I tuned into the concluding episode of a five-episode reality t.v. show called, “The Sisterhood.”
I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t think it’s destined to be a big network phenomenon, like, say, “Survivor” or “Honey Boo-Boo.”
You see, “The Sisterhood” chronicles the ups and downs of a group of young women who are thinking of becoming nuns.
Now, I can’t say for sure just how much reality there is to this reality t.v. show.
It seems to me that it must be hard enough to find five young women who are actively considering becoming nuns; however, finding five particularly telegenic young women who are also interested in becoming nuns must be even harder.
Some had clearly been feeling a pull toward religious life for many years, while for others it was a more recent feeling, and so they began this period of close discernment in very different places.
Almost all of them came from large, close, and deeply religious families—the kind of families where dad stood and offered a formal blessing when it was time to drive to the convent, and the parents shared their long-held hope that God would call at least one of their children into formal religious life.
My favorite part of the whole thing was watching each—contestant doesn’t seem like the right word…but…well, contestant—arrive at the convent, and having the sisters come out to greet them.
The sisters were unfailingly kind and welcoming. And they sized up each young woman in about ten seconds. Charitably, of course. But dead-on accurately.
In the end, as the sisters clearly anticipated, some of the young women decided that being a nun was not for them. More than one felt in all sincerity that Jesus was asking her to come and be his bride. And some realized they still needed more time.
But what was fascinating was watching them return home to share the news, whatever it was, with their families.
And I was actually quite surprised that the ones who had the very hardest time were the ones who felt the clearest call.
One mother burst into tears and blurted out, “But now you’ll never live down the street and let me take care of your babies!”
And one father, after responding to the news with a prolonged, and ominous silence, finally said, “It seems to me that this is all pretty sudden, wouldn’t you say?”
These reactions were surprising, and yet: what parent doesn’t understand, at least a little bit?
Because teaching our children to love and follow the Lord is one thing, but seeing them love and follow the Lord right out the door and out of our lives is something else, entirely—and it calls for a very different kind of faith.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how Mary’s parents responded when she told them the news that she was with child, and that the child was not the product of some youthful indiscretion, but rather a unique sign of divine favor.
But it isn’t hard to imagine her father responding a little bit like the father I just mentioned…responding with a prolonged, ominous silence and then saying “It seems to me that this is all pretty sudden….”
Because it is sudden.
It must have been sudden for all of them.
We often forget that—we who live on the other side of the resurrection, when the great role that God asks this young girl to play in His plan seems like the ultimate low-risk/high-reward kind of proposition.
We forget how suddenly Mary is thrown into this whole thing.
Generations of artists have treated her with kid gloves – depicted her as a renaissance lady, with a royal blue cloak and alabaster skin and a great open, oval face, and a serenity about her that is as deep as the ocean.
According to Luke, the angel appears and says to her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”
And then Luke says, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
And that sounds so…grounded…doesn’t it?
But if you look a little closer, it’s clear that this moment is way beyond “perplexing” for Mary, who would have been in mid-teens at this time—in our culture, she would be considered still very much a girl.
Luke’s word for “perplexed” is diatarasso, and it means, actually: “agitated greatly” or even “troubled greatly.”
And while we’re looking up words, it’s important to note that when Luke says that Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be,” the word for ponder, dialogizomai, means “bringing together different reasons, revolving something around in one’s mind.”
It’s not a word that particularly suggests serenity—it’s more of a word for a mind that’s suddenly thrown into overdrive—a word for those arguments you have with yourself when you’re trying to get to the bottom of something and don’t know quite where or when it is you’ll come down.
And yet, the remarkable thing, of course, is that for all her agitation, for all her mind spinning, for all the suddenness of this breaking news from the messenger of God, this girl Mary doesn’t say no, and she doesn’t say that she needs more time to discern.
She says yes to God.
For all her questions, for all her doubts, for all the sheer surprise of the whole thing, for all her youth, she still says yes.
And yet: don’t you wonder what her parents said when they found out?
I just can’t help but ask: how was it for them to learn that the God they had taught their daughter to love and follow was telling her to love and follow him right out their front door?
Did they think that God worked that way?
Or were they more like the kind of people who expected religion to be about tartan skirts, and not wearing makeup, and obeying your mother and father? Or about cultivating a kind of unobjectionable goodness, or acquiring a confirmand’s knowledge of the basics so that religion would, well, have its rightful place in her life, and her life would have its rightful place in the eyes of all the neighbors, going forward?
Is that who they were?
If so, then what was it like to see God leading her right out of the respectable world of Nazareth and forward into who knows what?
Luke’s gospel never explains it, but Luke writes this in the very next two verses after this morning’s lesson: “Soon afterwards Mary set out and hurried away to a town in the uplands of Judah. She went to Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 39-40).
And we’re never told if this is was because Elizabeth was also with a child, conceived under miraculous circumstances…or if the reason was simply that Mary’s parents could not handle what God had handed them. Could not handle the sidelong looks. The smirks. The lively conversation among the neighbors that suddenly went silent as they walked by.
So, in the wake of Mary’s news, it seems all but certain that there would have been plenty of agitation in addition to hers, and at least two other people in her house whose thinking was also suddenly thrown into overdrive.
I’ve mentioned before the quotation from the philosopher William James, who once wrote, “…in some individuals religion exists as a dull habit, in others as an acute fever” (from The Varieties of Religious Experience).
What was it like for Mary’s parents to discover that, thanks to the intervention of God’s own angel, their daughter had caught religion like an acute fever?
Don’t you wonder what they thought? I do.
To me, that’s also why it’s so important that we tell this story now, just before Christmas Eve—just before the great celebration of God’s coming to be among us so that He might reach us, once and for all.
So that our redemption in his undying love would be secured at last.
With everything that has sprung up around Christmas, the way it often speaks most deeply to us is not in its festivity, but in its traditions, in its serenity, and in the eloquence of a silent night.
Silent nights are so powerful, and especially evocative to a people trying to make it through so many screeching days.
We are to be forgiven, I think, if part of what speaks to us so deeply about Christmas is that image of Mary in her royal blue mantle, silently…serenely…taking in the wonder of it all.
But it’s supposed to be something much deeper, and if we would truly journey to the heart of Christmas, we need to go beyond that healing silence, however much we may need, or even crave it.
We need to say yes to God, who comes to us at Christmas, who calls to us to follow him, and to help build his Kingdom—who dreams for us that as we near the end of our lives, we will be able to look back with a clear conscience and a full heart, and the sense that, when it mattered, we did our very best to follow His rules and nobody else’s.
God came down at Christmas so that you and I, and those we love, and those we seek to serve—and in the fullness of time, all people and all Creation—would catch that acute fever that Mary had.
God came down at Christmas so that for all our questions, for all our doubts, for all the sheer surprise of the whole thing, we might say yes to Him.
Take us where it may. Ask of us what He will.
God came down at Christmas so that whether our faith leads us out the door or right back in, off to the convent or onto some entirely different stage, among the respectable or the downright scandalous, all our paths would lead us back to Him.
At Christmas, we celebrate the beginning of that journey.
And we pray for the grace and courage to set out in search.