When I was in parish ministry in Chicago many decades ago, I remember once wandering through an old church cemetery that had many gravestones dating back to the 1850s and 1860s. Some of the inscriptions were so worn that I could scarcely read them. But there was one inscription that caught my eye, and I'll never forget it. It stated very simply: "He Did What He Could."
Wow, I thought, that's really neat: "He Did What He Could." Who could ask for anything more? Who among us would not feel honored to have that on our gravestone as the final verdict of our family and friends: "He did what he could." "She did what she could!" The memory of that inscription warmed and comforted me often over the years. But after hearing today's Gospel story and the conversation between angel Gabriel and maiden Mary, I'm beginning to have second thoughts.
Did the man whose bones have lain so long beneath that gravestone really do what he could? Or did he do only what he and his friends thought he could? I wonder about that. If we take a closer look at today's Gospel, we discover Gabriel delivering an extraordinary message to Mary, and her initial response is something like: "That's impossible! Are you sure you have the right address? I'm just a peasant girl; and besides, I don't even have a husband!" She didn't say no and she wasn't trying to be difficult. She just couldn't imagine how something so wonderful could be true. Had this dialogue stopped there, that would have been it, Mary would never have been a part of the Christmas story that we know so well.
But Gabriel prodded her further, and Mary finally gave her "yes" : not because everything suddenly became crystal clear to her, but because she trusted the One who sent both Gabriel and the message. She put her trust in God; and with that trust in place, she became what she imagined to be impossible. In doing this, Mary confronts each of us with an important question: In the things that really matter most, do we dumb ourselves down, shrinking our vision and our hopes? Do we speak the word "impossible" too fast and too often? Do we too easily settle for being less than we can be : less whole, less healthy, less loving, less at peace, less bonded to each other in our relationships because we've convinced ourselves that the "impossible" always lies beyond our reach?
Of course, in one sense, we're right. Not much is possible if we are working alone. But we're not working alone. God gives us helpers. We are all meant to be amazing graces in each other's lives. And as Mary discovered, God gives us himself as well. For all time God says, "I am with you!" And nothing is impossible with God. With a deep trust in our Abba God, the impossible becomes possible. And then we can actually put on our own gravestones: "We did what we could" and mean it!