I am Rosemary’s granddaughter, the spitting image of my father. And when the day is done my Momma’s still my biggest fan. Sometimes I’m clueless and I’m clumsy, but I’ve got friends who love me, and they know just where I stand. It’s all a part of me, ’cause that’s who I am.
It is a very famous song. I’ve got the CD. I used to play that CD a lot. Probably a good ten years ago. The first verse of it says,
If I live to be a hundred and never see the seven wonders, that will be alright. If I don’t make it to the big leagues, if I never win a Grammy, I am going to be just fine. Because I know exactly who I am.
So in the first verse she says there are all these different wonderful things that I could do, but whether I experience them or not, it doesn’t affect who I am. It doesn’t affect my identity. It doesn’t affect who “ME” really is. And what is interesting, when you think about it, all these great things that she could go and do, these great experiences that she could have, she says these are not really who I am, just things that I could go and do. Those are things that you can choose to go and do. You can choose to save up some money, and get on an airplane, and fly to China and see Beijing. You could choose to pull together some resources, take donations, go on a missions trip and see what things are like in Nepal. See what things are like in the Outback of Australia. Go to the jungles of Africa and look around. But these experiences that we have, they are something that I experienced, but is not who I am. I am not defined by what I have happened to go see on vacation, or a missions trip.
But in this song, which is a pretty fair reflection, I think, on pop culture, I think it is interesting the things that she chooses to pick out and say now this is my identity. This is really who I am:
I am Rosemary’s granddaughter. Did she choose that? That’s part of her identity, that’s part of who she is. “I am Rosemary’s granddaughter,” yet she did not pick that.
The spitting image of my father. “You know, no matter if I make it to the big leagues, whether I see the seven wonders, whether I travel the world, I am the spitting image of my dad.” Half of his DNA is in me and you’d think it’s all in me ’cause I look just like him. That’s part of who I am; that’s my identity. Did she chose that? Before she was born, did she get a little questionnaire scantron and a number two pencil, and say okay, now which parent do you want to look more like? No, that’s just who she is, that is part of her identity, and yet she did not choose it.
And when the day is done my Momma’s still my biggest fan. Now what is she saying here? She is saying no matter who I meet, no matter who I talk to, there is just something about family. Which, for a lot of us, we experience that with our blood family. And hopefully on an even deeper level, once the blood of Christ connects us, we can experience it in our Church family. Part of our identity is built up in people we are surrounded by who love us.
Sometimes I’m clueless, and I’m clumsy. Well, these aren’t things that you would choose to be. It’s just part of her personality. Sometimes she is clueless, sometimes she is clumsy, but hey, that’s her, that’s who she is.
But I’ve got friends who love me. And that’s what really matters. “And they know just where I stand. It’s all a part of me and that’s who I am.”
It’s interesting to me how many of the things that are on her list of who she is, of what makes her “her”, are not things that she chose.
Now I have this icon here, and I have this icon for multiple reasons. It is the Icon of the Annunciation. The Annunciation, when the angel–the archangel Gabriel–appeared to this young teenage virgin girl named Mary, and informed her that she was about to be with child and give birth to the Son of God. It’s something else, isn’t it? Can you imagine such an experience? She is the only person who has ever had this experience!
Who is Mary? If she were to write the song of “Who I am,” what would she write? She would say, “I am Joachim and Anna’s daughter.” Oh, but did she chose that? Did she pick that before she was born? Did God pull her aside and say, “Now who do you want your parents to be? Where do you want to live?” No! It’s part of who she is. She is Joachim and Anna’s daughter. That’s part of her identity. We have an icon right over here of Joachim and Anna, very similar to Abraham and Sarah. They were elderly, they were up in age, and they were past the age of childbearing. And through a miracle, through a blessing of God, remember Sarah becomes pregnant with Isaac? Very similarly, way up in age, Anna becomes with child, baby Mary inside her. And if you go to an Eastern-Rite Orthodox Church, you will hear the names of Joachim and Anna, the ancestors of God, commemorated at the end of every divine liturgy. And in the Orthodox Church, we also, every year, have a feast where we remember the conception of the Virgin Mary. We celebrate this part of Mary’s identity. And yet it is not something that she even chose, to be Joachim and Anna’s miraculous daughter.
Another feast of the Church that we have for Mary, where we celebrate her, is the presentation of Mary in the temple at the age of three. Remember the Old Testament story of Samuel? His Mom went years, and years, and years, and could not have children. And she prayed, and she prayed, and she prayed, and God gave her little Samuel, and several other children besides. And at the age of three, she took little Samuel to the temple and she dedicated him to a lifetime of service to the Lord. And he actually grew up in the temple. Same thing happened to Mary at the age of three. Joachim and Anna take her to the temple and dedicate her to the Lord. We have a feast to commemorate this. Did Mary choose that? It’s all a part of her, it’s who she is, it’s her identity, but it was thrust upon her. I don’t think that at the age of three an angel or her parents sat her down and said, “Now here are all the options. What do you want to be when you grow up? Here are all the different things that you could be. Do you want us to dedicate you at the temple? Do you want us to dedicate you to the Lord, or not?”
Think of how many people in this church were baptized into the Church as infants. Did they choose that? And yet that baptism is a part of their identity. The word “Christian” is a part of their identity; it’s who they are.
We also have a feast in the Church where we celebrate the Dormition of Mary, the falling asleep of Mary. When she died, and then after death as a precursor to the resurrection, God took Mary, body and soul, to heaven. That’s a part of her; that’s who she is. Did she choose that? Unless you commit the incredibly heinous sin of suicide, you do not get to choose the time of your death. No matter what your age, no matter what you think your health is. You could die today. Your child could die today. You don’t get to pick that. She did not get to pick that. But we remember her for it. It’s part of who she is. Ultimately, on our gravestones, it’s part of who we all are. There are two dates put on there, neither of which you got to choose.
And then there is this feast of the Church that is tomorrow. The feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. The Virgin Mary. Did she get to choose the fact that God would pick her to be the Mother of God? Did she get to choose the fact that an archangel would descend from heaven and appear to her and give her this mind-boggling news? No.
There is one thing that happened on this day that she chose. And it, too, is part of who she is. It, too, is part of her identity. And it, too, is something that the Church remembers her for, and honors her for.
She got to choose how she would respond. She didn’t get to choose the fact that she would be born two thousand years ago. She didn’t get to choose the fact that she would be born in the Middle East or that she would speak Aramaic. She did not get to choose the name “Mary.” She did not get to choose her parents. She did not get to choose the time of her birth or the time of her death, or even that an angel would descend from heaven and give her amazing news. But she did get to choose how she would respond to all of these things. Put in the same situations, how would you respond?
You see, it might have been different if the angel had shown up to everybody. If there were great signs in the sky, and every person in all of Judea, in all of Israel, in all of the world could have seen this sign from God that Mary, as a virgin, would give birth to God’s Son. That would have been a great honor indeed. And everybody else would have known it was a great honor. But Gabriel came to her in secret. Gabriel told her that as a virgin she would conceive the Son of God. But Mary knew that “Gabriel didn’t appear to the high priest, he didn’t appear to anybody in the synagogue, he didn’t appear before everybody in the family, he didn’t appear to my neighbors. And when I start growing this way, and there is a baby inside of me, how many of them are going to believe me when I say that no man was involved? How many are going to believe me when I say that I am the one exception in the history of the universe? The one virgin woman who became pregnant. What are they going to think I am? What are they going to think my identity is?”
Among the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah, all the way until today two thousand years later–if you look in the Talmud–Jesus is considered a bastard. And his mother Mary is considered a whore. Do you realize what Mary was signing up for when she said yes to the angel? She wasn’t just signing up for this great honor from God. Simultaneously when she said “yes,” she was agreeing to a lifetime of everybody around her believing that she was filthy and dirty and unclean and unrighteous and unholy. She, who would bear the Son of God, was condemned by those around her as being one who turned her back on God. In this culture, she knew she was risking her very life. And God gave no promise that her life would not be taken from her. For in this culture at this time, if you became pregnant outside of marriage, you were not just looked down upon–legally you could be stoned to death. And who put that law into place? God himself did. So by a holy law that God himself had put into place, Mary knew that it was very possible that after giving birth to this child, she would be stoned to death as a harlot.
The archangel Gabriel appears to her and gives her this news, and she knows that it is fantastic, she knows that it is amazing, she knows that it is unique, she knows that it is honorable, for she herself, in her own body, will bear the Messiah. She will give birth to God Himself incarnate, in the flesh. And she also knows that her reputation among most of those around her for the rest of her life was going to be shattered. She doesn’t complain, she doesn’t whine, she doesn’t even beg the angel, “Please, just go tell the high priest. Go tell the synagogue, go tell some people, so that I don’t bear this shame.”
Curious as to how she is going to come with child without a man, she asks a humble and a simple question, “How? How is this going to work?” And the archangel tells her that the Holy Spirit will descend upon on her, and the power of the Almighty will overshadow he, and that she will come to be with the child, the Son of God. And then it is the next thing that she says that set her apart, the thing that we remember her for, even to this day:
She says, “May it be unto me according to thy word.” No whining, no complaining, no anger, not even any begging to change the situation. But a humble, confident and a complete trust in God and His decisions, and His plan, and His word. All of this life, this entire situation, this entire circumstance, and this entire opportunity were thrust upon her; it was not her choice. And having happened, her response was submission, humble submission before the word of God. “May it be unto me according to thy word.”
The first Adam fell and brought the world into sin. And the second Adam, Jesus, paid the penalty for that sin and brought life back to the world. That first Eve, tempted by the fallen angel, chose to exercise her own will in opposition to the will of God, and thus introduced sin to her husband, who in turn introduced sin into the entire human race. Undoing the sin of Eve, untying the knot that Eve had tied, this virgin responded to the voice of an angel in humility and in submission to the will of God.
And thus the second Adam is born into the world and all of us are given the opportunity for light and life. It’s all a part of her; it’s all a part of who she is, 99% of which she did not choose. But, the magnificent part which she did choose was not to exercise her own will, to impose her own desires on the situation, but her free choice was to say unto God, “May it be unto me according to Thy word.” For this, we remember her. For this, we read in the Psalms that she was exalted even to the right hand of God, the Queen of heaven. Just as you had the Kings in the Old Testament in Israel, and their Mothers were considered the queens, so the fulfillment of the divinity lies in Israeli Kings until Jesus, and He is the King; His mother is the queen, honored and exalted.
People that we would like to forget, people that we don’t really like to think about, we do not hang pictures of them up in our homes. But people that we love, people that we respect and honor, people that we care about, our parents, our spouse, our relatives, our friends, perhaps the King of the country, the President, any sort of leader that you respect, it is very common for us to hang pictures up in our homes. There is something about the image of a person that is part of their identity; it is part of who they are. I am thankful to God that without fear I can hold this icon up in church today.
About twelve hundred years ago, for over a century, in the eastern part of what was originally the Roman Empire, in places such as Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, & Jerusalem, there was a great battle that was waged for about a century called the–now here comes a big word—iconoclastic controversy. These are icons, and the iconoclasts were the icon smashers. After centuries of the Church sanctioning the use of holy images, this group of people rose up and decided that any image of Jesus, any image of Mary, any images of the saints or the angels needed to be destroyed, burned, done away with. “We need to have blank white walls, and with no depiction of the saints. And for goodness sakes, if you have any depiction of the saints do not show it any honor, do not show it any respect, and do not venerate that icon.”
And this was not just a dispute; this was not just an argument. Many lives were lost, much blood was shed, people killed each other over this. Many faithful Christians were put to death because they refused to give up icons. I mean, think about it: to this day we are happy to hang pictures of our family in our houses, but if we said, “No, no, no, you can’t have any images of Christ, you can’t have any kind of images of Mary or angels or saints,” what are you saying? You are implying they are not really human, they are not really real. You take something away from the humanity of Christ if you refuse to have any images of Him, the same as you would your older brother or your Dad or your son. You take something away from the historicity and the humanity and the person and the identity of Mary and the saints when you refuse to have any kind of images of them. In the year 843, they had what is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy, where the iconoclasts were finally shut down and stopped, never to bother the Eastern half of the Church again.
In the West, meanwhile, the iconoclasts did not get much traction, so they never really lost the icons in the West until about seven hundred years later, in the fifteen hundreds. During the Protestant Reformation, iconoclasm hit the West with a fury, and many of those iconoclastic churches exist to this day and have spread here in America. There are a lot of Protestant churches that you can walk into today, and you might see the cross, but you will not see any images of Christ anywhere in the church, you will not see any images of Mary or angels or the saints. The iconoclasts are alive and well today, still smashing the icons, still driving the image of Christ and his saints out of the church. So when we think about the Annunciation, which is the feast tomorrow, when we think about today as being the first Sunday in Lent, and also when much of the Church celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the triumph of keeping icons in the church, what does this have to do with us? And to be more specific, what does this have to do with us during Lent? I think it’s a good time to ask ourselves who am I? What is my identity?
You see, we grow up in this American culture that is so individualistic: everybody wants to think they are different from everybody else, everybody wants to think that they really stand out, everybody wants to think that they’re the strange bird, the odd person, a redheaded stepchild. In American culture, this individualism is prized.
Let me ask you something. What if you walked into a doctor’s office and you saw an elderly woman, a middle aged man, a teenage married couple and a seven-year-old girl, and after patiently waiting a few minutes, the doctor himself walks out amongst the people and says, “I have good news. You don’t need to wait so long. I am writing out a prescription right here and I am going to have my assistant make copies of it, and you can all have the same prescription and go on your way. No need to wait here for the rest of the morning.” Would your confidence level in that doctor drop just a little bit? Wouldn’t you be a little nervous about filling that prescription? Wouldn’t you be thinking, “Ah, this guy doesn’t know what he is doing. I mean he hasn’t even talked to me, he hasn’t even found out the details of my particular illness. How do I know that this medication, which might be good for him, is going to be good for me? I’m an individual.”
Now there is a place for that. We are individuals. We are not identical to each other, but we are far more similar to each other than we are different. Our identity for the most part is chosen for us. We don’t choose it ourselves. You did not choose to be born in America. You did not choose to be raised speaking English. You did not choose the socioeconomic status that you grew up in. You did not choose which parents you got. You did not choose the time of your birth and, God willing, you will not be choosing the time of your death.
And yet, what does God do in the Church? Does He just have a one-on-one relationship with each person? And each person is supposed to do what is “right for me”? “Just me and Jesus and my Bible”? No. In the Church, whether you are young or you are old, whether you are male or female, whether you are rich or poor, He doesn’t even ask any questions of you. The Church says, “Whoever you are, you need to be baptized. Whoever you are, you need to be Chrismated. Whoever you are, you need the Eucharist every single Sunday. Whoever you are, you need to fast. Whoever you are, it is good for you to cut down on the meat during the forty days of Lent. If you can physically handle it, cut down on the meat for the whole period of Lent. If there are physical limitations that keep you from being able to handle it, then let’s work up to that. That is still the goal. You need to stay away from meat during Lent. Doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what your background is.”
You see in how many ways the Church treats us as if we are all the same? You know what? Trace your family tree back as far as you want to. One person’s family tree may go through India, one may go through English royalty, another may go through Russia, but keep tracing it back even farther, keep tracing it back, and guess what? Noah was the grandfather of all of us. So was Adam. We are all in the same family. If you think your background and your heritage is so different from mine, you just haven’t traced it back far enough. We all come from the same blood, same DNA, ultimately from the same history.
The same devil and the same demons that have tempted you and your ancestors have tempted my ancestors and me. And God has given the same remedy to all of us because our sicknesses are so incredibly similar. They are more similar than they are different. They are not even like two different diseases so much as two different strains of the same disease, two slightly different forms of flu, two slightly different cold viruses. We are so similar that God can say, “The same prescription for you all! You all need the sacraments, you all need to worship, you all need incense, you all need to fast, you all need the same scriptures, you all need to experience liturgy, you all need to experience forgiveness. You all need to forgive.”
Now, does that erase your identity? Does that erase who you are? No! Think of Mary. Ninety-nine percent of her identity had nothing to do with anything that she chose. Ninety-nine percent of your identity has nothing to do with what you have chosen. And in the areas in your life where you do choose, if you want to be honored as Mary has been honored, then let your choice be like hers.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is One.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, March 24, 2013, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.