Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Patronal Feastday of the United States of America
The readings for the day are available here.
I wonder why the Church chooses to celebrate the conception of the Virgin Mary so close to its celebration of the birthday of her Son? It cannot simply be that this date falls nine months before the traditional celebration of Our Lady’s own birthday; the very fact that this year the feast has been ‘bumped’ from December 8 to make room for the Second Sunday of Advent suggests that the date may not be what’s most important here.
Maybe it has more to do with the time of year: for us (in the northern hemisphere) these are the darkest days of our journey round the sun. The long nights and cold days suit Advent well: this time of waiting, even enduring, until Life and Light again become fully present in our world. And it can help to be reminded that sometimes even the best stories begin in the dark.
But I was afraid because I was naked.
The readings today certainly begin in the dark: with the first man and woman on earth running away from God. How often we hide away because we are afraid! How difficult it is for us now to be naked: to be open, and vulnerable, and to not attempt to conceal some parts of everything we are, with all our clumsiness and frailty.
But then comes Gabriel’s greeting:
Do not be afraid, Mary.
Four words that will be repeated by Mary’s own Son, on a Sunday morning in Spring, in a different kind of garden.
And Gabriel’s opening words, so familiar, so often repeated, that it can sometimes be difficult to hear what they actually say:
Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.
For me, these words provide a key for unlocking the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: that is, the conviction that the Virgin Mary was conceived and born untouched by original sin – the only human being (aside from her Son) who entered into the world without being wounded in this way.
But what is it that washes away original sin? Grace – and Mary, remember, is proclaimed to be full of grace – the grace unleashed upon this world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God.
We find it easy to believe this grace is available everywhere: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation by our God. But the Immaculate Conception is surely a (mind-twisting) reminder that it is also available everywhen. It boldly asserts that the grace of the Cross can reach back in time to cleanse the Mother of the Crucified at the very instant of her own conception.
For why indeed should the Greatest Sacrifice of God Himself be limited or bound by anything as trifling as the time of this created world? And why should we imagine that God’s powerful grace can only move forwards in time? Should we not dare to believe that it can, and does, extend to the entirety of the created universe: the alpha as well as the omega; the beginning as well as the end?
And then, why should we not sing for joy with the Apostle, who reminds us that we ourselves also stand in the same place as Holy Mary? For we too are washed by that very same grace of Christ which broke the bonds of time to achieve the Immaculate Conception:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
for the praise of the glory of his grace
that he granted us in the beloved.
Dr. Tomás O’Sullivan is Assistant Professor of Medieval Christianity in the Department of Theological Studies.