Blessed Pope Pius IX instituted the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8, 1854, when he proclaimed as truth the dogma that our Lady was conceived free from the stain of original sin. This had been a traditional belief since about the eighth century, and had been celebrated as a feast first in the East, and later in the West. So let us be clear that this celebration pertains to the conception of Mary, and not that of Jesus, whose conception we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation on March 25. The Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, is the patroness of the United States of America, and so this feast is always a Holy Day of Obligation, every single year.
This feast celebrates the dogmatic belief that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to be our Savior, and gave to him a human mother who was chosen before the world began to be holy and blameless in his sight. This feast is a sign for us of the nearness of our salvation; that the plan God had for us before the world ever took shape was finally coming to fruition.
The first reading paints the picture for us. The man had eaten of the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them to eat. Because of this, they were ashamed and covered over their nakedness. God noticed that, and asked about it – obviously he knew what happened, but he wanted to hear them say it. He knew they had discovered the forbidden tree because otherwise they would not have the idea that their natural state was shameful. Sin had entered the world, and God asks who gave the man the forbidden fruit.
This leads to the first instance of passing the buck, as the man blames not just the woman, but also God, for the situation: “The woman whom you put here with me;
she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.” In other words, if God hadn’t put the woman there with him in the first place, he never would have received the fruit to eat. The woman, too, blames someone else: the serpent. As if neither of them had been created with a brain to think for themselves, they begin that blame game that traced its ugly path all through history and that we all participate in from time to time.
This is a pattern we will see all throughout Scripture: God gives a road to salvation, human beings turn away, and so on and so on and so on. And we still do it today, don’t we? We have the Scriptures to show us the way, but we don’t take time to read and reflect on them. We have the Church to lead us in the right way, but we choose to do whatever we think is right, as if we are smarter than two millennia of saints. We have the Sacraments to fill us with grace, but some hardly ever partake of them. As the Psalmist says, “The LORD has made his salvation known: in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice.” How will we respond to that grace? God is always pouring out his generous gifts, and we so often reject them and in doing so, reject the Divine Giver.
This cyclic state of sin and rejection was never intended to be the case. We are not defined as a people by our sins. We cannot mess up and say, “hey, I’m only human,” because being perfectly human does not include sin. The perfectly human one – Jesus Christ – came to show us the way out of the cycle of sin and rejection. This grace was always intended. As St. Paul says to the Ephesians today: “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…”
And so, in these Advent days, we await the unfolding of the plan for salvation that began at the very dawn of the world in all its wonder. God always intended to provide an incredible way for his people to return to them, and that was by taking flesh and walking among us as a man. He began this by preparing for his birth through the Immaculate Virgin Mary – never stained by sin, because the one who conquered sin and death had already delivered her from sin. He was then ready to be born into our midst and to take on our form. With Mary’s fiat in today’s Gospel, God enters our world in the most intimate way possible, by becoming one of us. Mary’s lived faith – possible because of her Immaculate Conception – makes possible our own lives of faith and our journeys to God.
One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Mary, Did You Know?” The lyrics are very touching, and they express a lot what we believe about Mary.
Mary, did you know
That your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
has come to make you new;
the child that you delivered
will soon deliver you?
But I have one quarrel with the theology. That last line: “the child that you delivered will soon deliver you” is wrong based on the theology of today’s feast. The feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates that Mary has already been delivered by the death and resurrection of Christ – before those things ever happened – and makes possible that all of us will soon be delivered.
Our celebration today has special meaning for us. Because Mary was conceived without sin, we can see that sin was never intended to rule us. Because God selected Mary from the beginning, we can see that we were chosen before we were ever in our mother’s womb. Because Mary received salvific grace from the moment of her conception, we can catch a glimpse of what is to come for all of us one day. Mary’s deliverance from sin and death was made possible by the death and resurrection of her Son Jesus, who deeply desires that we all be delivered in that way too.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.