December 8, 2016
Lectionary 689 - Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
Catholics have always held Mary the mother of Jesus in the highest honor and have found great consolation through her intercession. There is something about veneration of Mary that sounds the depths of the human spirit and brings a peace which is rare in our worldly way of thinking and which can put us in touch with God at a thematic level. Artists, writers and musicians have long sought to capture the moving power of Mary's role in God's plan: looking upon Michelangelo's Pietá, pouring over the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins' Mary Mother of Divine Grace, or listening to Schubert's Ave Maria can melt the heart of even the most practiced atheist. Even if such moments of pathos are based on human emotion, they point us toward the mystery of love which gives birth to such emotion and which is where we all ultimately discover God, if by paths winding and uncertain.
Marian piety used to be cited by non-Catholics as a point of criticism of our faith, seeming as it does to give an almost superhuman status to Mary. I think a good way to understand the place of Mary in Catholic devotion is to see it from the opposite perspective: Marian piety can be so deeply satisfying to a believer and so challenging to a newcomer to Catholicism precisely because it so powerfully underlines both the dignity of human nature seen in its original beauty in Mary, and the marvel of the incarnation and its accompanying "condescension" of God to humanity.
We indeed believe that Mary holds a pre-eminent place in God's plan for human salvation and that as the result of this plan Mary was uniquely conceived free of original sin, to become a worthy mother to the Savior. As great a sign of God's love as this Immaculate Conception is, we ought to marvel just as much if not more that by this action God desired to save humanity which unlike Mary had so profoundly sinned and departed from his plan for creation. We might consider which is more remarkable, Mary's Immaculate Conception, which the Church celebrates today, or the fact that God desired to save and redeem humanity by means of Mary's Immaculate Conception even after it had so badly rebelled against him?
Taking these divine actions and putting them in human terms, another way of saying this is to ask which is more amazing, that Mary by virtue of her Immaculate Conception would as the young virgin of Nazareth say "yes" to God (Luke 1:38), or that the rest of humanity, like Adam and the woman in the first reading, would consistently say "no" to God (Gen 3:9-13) and yet still be infinitely precious and worthy of redemption in the Lord's eyes?
In any case, the feast of the Immaculate Conception should cause us to rejoice as we reflect on the perfect goodness of Mary and her complete harmony with God's will, which is something for which we are called to strive in our daily Christian lives. We should rejoice as well that we who have turned away from God and dissembled from his truth have been so eagerly welcomed back into his friendship, through the incarnation which Mary made possible.
Whether we understand all this as Mary's human nobility rising up to God or his gracious condescension, let us focus this week on the wonder of the incarnation and Mary's central place in this drama of redemption, thanking the Lord for fashioning Mary as the New Eve who is both Mother of God and our Mother. (594 words)