9th December. The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
First Reading: Book of Genesis 3:9-15, 20
(God puts enmity between the serpent and the woman, between its offspring and hers.)
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
(An enthusiastic hymn to the saving grace of God, applicable to our Blessed Mother.)
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
(The annunciation, when Mary said her total Yes to God.)
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; the refore 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.
Background to the 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 everything that was going on in the world. In the mid-19th century the philosophers were talking about the total intelligibility of being and its irreversible progress toward total fulfillment. The revolutions of 1848 had been an indication to progressive thinkers that the common man – the shopkeeper, the artisan, the soldier – was now ready to take over control of his own destiny, was now capable of directing his world to peace and prosperity.
Most of the revolutions had failed, to be sure, but everybody knew there would be others that would eventually bring human kind to utopia. In literature the romantics were proclaiming the natural goodness, strength, and creativity of all human energies. In five years Darwin would announce that survival was the reward for fitness. On the basis of that, people would soon convince themselves that all human effort was naturally and necessarily evolving toward the best of all possible worlds. In this context, the idea of an original sin seemed like an ugly relic of the middle ages. Yet it was precisely in this context that the Church taught that one and only one human person was sinless, that one and only one had been preserved from being born into catastrophe. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was profoundly counter cultural in 1854 because it implied the doctrine of the universality of original sin.
In our time it’s a little easier to believe in original sin. Despite unparalleled advances in knowledge and technology, 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.
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 looked upon as outdated by some and as the source of heartbreak and ruin for others. Priests abuse children. It’s a lot easier today to believe in some fundamental human defect that undermines all our efforts. It’s a lot easier to believe in original sin than it was in 1854.
But the same Immaculate Conception of Mary that served to underline the universality of sin in the past serves 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, this same Christ makes Himself available to the desperate world of 2002. The redemption that kept Mary sinless is still there to take away the sin and the failure and the aimlessness of every human being who is willing to accept it. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception implies the universality of original sin, but it also reflects the doctrine of the efficacy of Christ, of the universality of redemption.
This shift of polarity in the existential meaning of the Immaculate Conception is reflected in the way we express our devotion to our Blessed Mother. In the past, people tended to look on Mary as the completely different one, the great exception, the utterly unique, to the point that she seemed to have nothing in common with the rest of us. Vatican II turned this point of view around when it taught that Mary is the model of the Church, the Church of which we are a part.
Scripture scholars tell us that the New Testament portrays Mary as the one who is totally committed to Christ, His first and most pre-eminent follower, but follower none the less. We, too, profess a commitment to Christ, we, too, claim to be His followers. Contemporary devotion to the Mother of God respects her uniqueness, but it stresses the realities that we share. 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. Mary is significant for us because the central factors in her life are the central factors in our own.
The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary has served as a reminder of the need for redemption to a world that was smug and self-sufficient. The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary has also served as a sign of the accessibility of redemption to a world in despair. 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.