A long-time, venerable member of my parish asked to see me privately in my office one Sunday after mass to discuss some church business. After she'd informed me of the matter she said she had to mention another issue which had been on her heart.
“Claire is pregnant,” she said.
This intelligence rattled my guts like a sudden attack of appendicitis. Not Claire, I thought. Not the fourteen-year-old I'd just confirmed who was such a good student and had so much potential..! My heart crashed like a led balloon.
I guess my faithful Church Lady saw a little too much panic in my reaction and quickly told me, “You know I mean my niece Claire, don't you?”
Thank you, Jesus, I thought. I'd confused the member's pregnant teenaged niece, who lived at some distance, with my not pregnant recent student. All the same I promised to keep pregnant Claire in my prayers.
As I look at the appointed gospel lesson for Advent 4 Year B (Luke 1:26-38), I am struck by the words of the angel to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” When I thought Claire (my Claire) was pregnant, I was most definitely afraid. And what I was afraid of was her fear and how I, as her pastor, could compassionately and honestly minister to it. When I was in seminary, my pastoral care professor taught a lesson in ministering to un-wed teen moms, but I'm not real sure that I'm up to the task.
Okay. We all acknowledge that kids have sex. But here in blue-collar Northeast Philly, I still detect a certain sneer that someone's teen daughter would be dumb enough to get pregnant and cause a major disruption in the flow of family life. What's worse is that some of my Roman colleagues in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (or, as I like to call it, the Archdiocese That Time Forgot) still refuse to baptize a child born of unmarried parents—as if it's somehow the baby's doing that mom and dad didn't get hitched!
Face it, the announcement the angel Gabriel made to the Virgin Mary would not be particularly welcomed should it come to any of our kids. How would we go about reassuring a fourteen or fifteen year old American girl frightened by the shear messiness of pregnancy and childbirth, by the intrusion the event would cause in the normal pattern of growing up, and by the totally-freaking-HUGE responsibility of being a parent?
But God's word to Mary and to us in this gospel is, “Do not be afraid.”
In his essay on the Annunciation, Martin Luther wrote lovingly and tenderly of Mary. He cited St. Bernard of Clairvaux's contention that three miracles were taking place in this story: God was becoming human, a virgin was conceiving, and Mary was saying “yes” to all of this. Of the three, Luther believed that little Mary's assent is the greatest of these miracles. She must have been terribly frightened by the realization that she, barely more than a child herself, was being chosen by God for a most dangerous and difficult mission. She was an average girl of no importance in the eyes of the world, and the stigma of unwed pregnancy carried many more penalties in her time and culture than it does in ours. Yet she choked back her fear and agreed to be the one who carried Jesus for the sake of the world—just as each of us in our own modest way is called to do in spite of our natural trepidation.
How can we not love Mary? Her story is so much our own. Like us, she was born and lived in a time of violence and bitterness. Like us, she yearned for God's deliverance. Like us, she greeted the news that God loved and favored her and had a purpose for her with perplexity. And like us, she would know moments of helplessness and feel the anguish of loss for one she loved—even though she, in blind faith, was willing to utter the words, “Let it be.”
And this is faith. It is the willingness to face real fear in the belief that God will do a powerful thing through little, unimportant us. And through us, this sinful world will be brought blessings the end of which we cannot imagine.
Christmas blessings to you, my friends. Go be bearers of Christ!