Genesis 3:9-15, 20; Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12; Luke 1:26-38
On the 8th of December the Church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In teaching that Mary was conceived immaculate, the Catholic Church teaches that from the very moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was free from all stain of original sin. This simply means that from the beginning, she was in a state of grace, sharing in God’s own life, and that she was free from the sinful inclinations which have beset human nature after the fall. The Feast of Mary’s Conception is clearly known, as early as the 7th century in the East, and may even date to as early as the 5th century in the Churches of Syria. The feast spread to the West, at least by the 9th century. In the eleventh century it received its present name, the Immaculate Conception.
In 1854 Pius IX gave the infallible statement: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” The “splendour of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.” The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love.”
The feast tells us that the whole being of the Blessed Virgin Mary was created by God immaculate in nature. Mary was the only new and second Eve who was created in an immaculate state which was equal to the state of holiness that the first Eve enjoyed prior to her having disobeyed the Lord God in the Garden of Eden. There can be some confusion about what we are celebrating in this feast. What we are not celebrating, although it is part of the faith of the Church, is that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. What we are celebrating is that Mary, from the very first moment of her existence, was free from any taint of original sin, that tendency to evil with which we are all born into this world.
The Gospel is the account of the Annunciation from Luke. As the angel comes into the little house at Nazareth, he greets Mary. “Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you”. The older translation with which we are familiar in the prayer is, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” It is this term, ‘full of grace’ which led theologians to asserting that Mary, not only at the moment of Jesus’ conception, but at every moment of her existence was totally free from any kind of sin. From these words, the angel Gabriel was expressing that the Blessed Virgin Mary enjoyed a unique state of grace that far surpassed the creation of all men and the angels. Her soul, spirit and body were immaculate because of her immaculate conception. Not only was the Blessed Virgin Mary immaculate in her conception, but she remained faithful and immaculate to God to the end of her earthly life.
When Angel Gabriel appears to Mary without warning or preparation, he simply proclaims to he what is going to happen. The message he gave was very clear but the way it would take place was not at all clear. She would become pregnant and have a child of the line of David who will be called Messiah was indeed a privilege. This is a miracle as she would gather as the Holy Spirit would over shadow him and she would be with child. The Angel tells her how God has come in the life of Elizabeth and he can do anything without any hindrance. Nothing is impossible for God and Mary accepts his word and says God your will be done.
In the Book of Genesis we learn that God created the first woman who was called Eve. As a result of the woman allowing herself to be tricked by the evil one, both Adam and Eve lost the glory and beatific vision that they enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. This blessing that they had enjoyed was a conditional gift from God. They were created immaculate in their physical and spiritual natures for the Divine purpose of becoming the holy parents of holy children who would eternally enjoy the beatific vision of God. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and through their disobedience, sin entered into the world. In the new Eve, the Blessed Virgin Mary, God planned to reclaim His Kingdom and save His people from death.
In today’s Second Reading, we praise God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us through Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Through our living faith in Christ and the Church Sacraments, we now qualify to receive the blessed hope of enjoying our rightful inheritance that was taken from us. Through our living faith in Jesus Christ and the Sacrament of Baptism, we now have the opportunity to once more become holy and blameless children before God in perfect love. We now qualify to be raised to the blameless and immaculate state of grace that the Blessed Virgin Mary enjoyed throughout her life and continues to enjoy to this date.
One place in particular is linked closely with the Immaculate Conception and that is Lourdes. When Mary appeared to a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, just outside the town of Lourdes in 1858, she identified herself as the “Immaculate Conception”. In fact, the doctrine had only been infallibly declared a doctrine of faith four years previously in 1854. It was most unlikely that a girl from an impoverished family without access to the “media” of the day would have been familiar with such a theological expression, still less that she could have made it up. In spite of much skepticism on the part of both civil and church authorities, Bernadette won through and Lourdes became a place of pilgrimage. Today millions of people go there to find healing in body and soul.
Today we thank God for all the blessings and graces he showered on the Mother of his Son. We ourselves have been far from immaculately conceived and are aware of both the sins we have committed and of all the tendencies, appetites and urges which drive us away from God and into conflict with our brothers and sisters. Let us pray today to Mary our Mother to be with us, to guide us, to protect us through her prayers of intercession with her Son. Above all, let us ask her to respond as generously to God’s call as she did and to be as faithful a disciple of her Son as she was. As we continue with the celebration of the Holy Mass, let us be thankful to the Immaculate Conception for answering her special calling that was instrumental to our salvation.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome