8th December. Immaculate Conception of Our Lady
Gen 3:9-20. After their sin, our First Parents tried to move the blame on to each other, and to the serpent. God puts enmity between the serpent and the woman, between its offspring and hers.
Eph 1:3ff. An enthusiastic hymn to the saving grace of God, which the church sees applied in a special way to our Blessed Mother.
Lk 1:26-38. The annunciation, when Mary said her total Yes to God.
Theme: Our Blessed Lady, by the foreseen merits of her Son, from the first moment of her existence was preserved from any taint of sin. We celebrate her unique holiness today.
We pray for our pope, bishops and priests, and all who actively minister in the Church. May the Lord may keep them close to his heart, and bless them abundantly in their work.
We pray for purity of heart and mind, that like Mary, we may always be available to God and fully open to his inspirations.
We pray for oppressed and marginalised people everywhere, who deserve a better share in this world’s blessings. May Mary help them with her prayers, and may God grant them justice.
We pray for people who suffer and those who care for them, that as Mary shared in her son’s suffering as she stood at the foot of the cross, God may bless and comfort them.
We pray for those who have died, may they follow Mary and all the saints into the glory of the heavenly Kingdom.
Let us join our prayers with the prayers of our Lady. Hail Mary.
Immaculate Conception: Institution of this Feast
On December 8, 1854 Pius IX defined as an article of faith that “the Virgin Mary at the moment of conception was preserved from all defilement of original sin by a unique privilege of grace in view of the merits of Jesus Christ.” In many ways this definition was a profound counter-cultural gesture because in 1854 original sin was not a particularly popular idea, at least not beyond the pale of Catholic faith. The idea that humanity had undergone some primeval catastrophe which left it out of touch with holiness and inclined toward self-destruction seemed contrary to all the progress being made in science, philosophy and industry. In the mid-19th century the philosophers were talking about the total intelligibility of being and its irreversible progress toward total fulfilment. The revolutions of 1848 had affirmed that the common man – the shopkeeper, the artisan, the soldier – was now ready to take control of his own destiny, was now capable of directing his world to peace and prosperity.
While the 1848 revolutions failed, everybody felt there would be others that would eventually bring our human race to a kind of utopia. In literature the romantics were proclaiming the natural goodness, strength, and creativity of all human energies. In five years Darwin would define survival as the reward for fitness. With popular opinion enthused by the concept of gradual evolution, people were convinced that through widespread and sustained effort we were necessarily evolving toward the best of all possible worlds. In this context, the idea of original sin seemed like an ugly relic of the middle ages. Yet it was precisely in this context that Pope Pius IX solemnly taught that one and only one human person was sinless, preserved by a special act of divine favour from the universal stain of sin. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was profoundly counter-cultural in 1854 because it implied and included the doctrine of the universality of original sin.
In our time it’s somewhat easier to believe in original sin. Despite unparalleled advances in knowledge and technology, at the political and social levels humankind has made a mess of things. We don’t know – or don’t care to know – how to distribute the abundant food supplies of the world, with the result that many go hungry while others are glutted. We continuously struggle to keep deadly chemicals out of our water, while producing them for a world marked. Terrorism has become a way of life all over the world. War is endemic, and we count ourselves lucky if it is confined to far off places and not afflicting us here at home. Individuals find their lives to be without meaning. The most sacred ties between human beings, marriage and family, are despised as outdated by some and as the source of heartbreak and ruin for others. Many carers and even priests have been shown to have abused children. It’s a lot easier today to believe in some fundamental human defect that undermines all our efforts. It’s easier to believe in original sin now than it was in 1854.
But if the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary has served in the past to underline the universality of sin, it can also serve today to teach us about the universality of redemption. The same Christ whose love and obedience to the Father preserved Mary from sharing in the universal human disaster, makes Himself available to the desperate world of 2012. The redemptive power that kept Mary sinless is still there to take away the sins, failures and past errors of every human being who is willing to accept it. The Immaculate Conception may imply the universality of original sin, but it also reflects the saving power of Christ, of the universality of redemption.
This shift of thinking about the Immaculate Conception is reflected in the way we express our devotion to our Blessed Mother, nowadays. In times past, people tended to look on Mary as the completely different one, the great exception, her unique sinlessness giving her nothing in common with the rest of us. Our perspective has changed since Vatican II taught that Mary is the model of the Church, the Church of which we are a part.
The New Testament portrays Mary as the Lord’s handmaid, the disciple who is totally committed to Christ, right there with his other followers awaiting the Spirit at Pentecost.. Contemporary devotion to the Mother of God respects her uniqueness, indeed, but tends rather to stress her life as a pilgrim-disciple that we share with her. The original sin from which Mary was preserved is the original sin from which we, too, have been freed. The grace of Christ that was hers is the same grace of Christ that is ours, through faith and sacrament. Mary is significant for us as a paradigm to be followed, because the central factors in her life are the central factors in our own. Perhaps the lesson is that, no matter in which direction we may be facing, we need Mary Immaculate in our lives in order to remember who Christ is and who we are ourselves.
Most Favoured Of All God’s Children
Popular imagination adds an interesting slant to the story of the woman taken in adultery. The Pharisees bring the woman before Jesus for judgment and he writes on the dust, and then says, “Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone.” They fell silent, and then, all of a sudden a stone came flying from the crowd. Jesus looks up, surprised and amused, and then says, “Please, mother – don’t take me literally. I am trying to make an important point here.” This joke likens the sinlessness of Mary to the sinlessness of some good women and men we have known. For we have known many good men and women who think that their holiness of life is their personal achievement. As a result they develop a certain holier-than-thou attitude toward others who have not attained their level of holiness. They become intolerant, angry and judgmental toward those they regard as sinners. People like that would not hesitate to throw the first stone at a sinner caught red-handed like the woman in our story.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which we celebrate today reminds us that Mary’s sinlessness is not something that she achieved by her own power. It is a gift of God, given to her right from the moment of her conception. In the same vein, those among us who happen to sin less than the average sinner, should regard their holiness as basically a gift of God and not an achievement. Our attitude should be characterised by two aspects, thankfulness to God, and humility before those who are naturally and spiritually less gifted than we are.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. It affirms the belief that the Blessed Virgin Mary was free from sin right from the beginning of her life. That means that by the grace of God, she was shielded from original sin which all humankind inherit at the moment they begin to live, i.e. at the moment they are conceived in their mother’s womb. That means that Mary was not burdened with a defective human nature with which you and I come into the world. She came into the world with a perfect human nature like that of Eve and Adam before they sinned and fell from grace.
Belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary is belief in a provident God, i.e., a God who provides for the future, who prepares his children for their assigned task in life even before they are born, a God who foresees and equips us with all the natural and supernatural qualities we need to play our assigned role in the drama of human salvation. God anoints them already in the womb those men and women whom He created to be his prophets. As He told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). God does not just throw us into this world to fight it out among ourselves. The theory of evolution with its doctrine of the survival of the fittest may describe human nature in its fallen state, in the state of original sin, it does not describe life for the people of God redeemed by grace from the unbridled effects of the Fall.
As we rejoice with Mary, God’s most favoured one (“full of grace”) we should all thank God for his love and mercy which embraces us right from the moment of our own conception. As Scripture says, “What have you that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:7). Everything is gift, everything good in us is from the grace of God. Yet Mary remains the most favoured one of all, the mother of all God’s favoured ones, the one that enjoys the fullness of grace.
First Reading: Book of Genesis 3:9-15, 20
But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
Second Reading: Letter to the Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel as sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and behold the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, you relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.