I love that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated during the season of Advent. Advent is a season of anticipation: God’s promises echo through the Old Testament, and in these Advent days, we see those promises coming to fruition in exciting and world-changing ways. Today’s feast is a glorious glimpse of that reality.
We are honored today to celebrate this, the patronal feast day of our parish and of our nation. This, of course, celebrates Mary’s conception, not that of Jesus, which we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation. 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 feast celebrates the 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 coming to fruition.
The prayer over the offerings today uses a very technical theological term to describe how Mary was born, conceived actually, without sin, and that term is “prevenient grace.” The prayer specifically says, “…Grant that, as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin…” Prevenient grace is the same as other kinds of grace in that it relies on the saving action of Jesus on the Cross at Calvary, dying for our sins. But prevenient grace refers to grace applied before that happened, as would have been in the case for Mary who was obviously conceived before her son was put to death. This prevenient grace relies on the fact that God loved us so much that he foresaw the sacrifice of the Cross and applied the grace of it to Mary at her conception. As the Collect prayer today said, “…as you preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw…” All of this is a very technical discussion that boils down to the fact that God will not let the constraints of time limit the outpouring of his grace. And that’s the really good news we celebrate today.
So, I think we know why this prevenient grace, this Immaculate Conception, was necessary: the readings chosen for this day paint the picture. In the reading from Genesis, we have the story of the fall. The man and the woman 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. Of course, he already knew what was going on: they had discovered the forbidden tree and eaten its fruit. They had given in to temptation and had grasped at something that was not God, in an effort to control their own destiny.
Thus begins the pattern of sin and deliverance that cycles all through the scriptures. God extends a way to salvation to his people, the people reject it and go their own way. God forgives, and extends a new way to salvation. Thank God he never gets tired of pursuing humankind and offering salvation, or we would be in dire straits. It all comes to perfection in the event we celebrate today. Salvation was always God’s plan for us and he won’t rest until that plan comes to perfection. That is why Saint Paul tells the Ephesians, and us, 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 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 vulnerable, taking our flesh as one like us. Mary’s lived faith – possible because of her Immaculate Conception – makes possible our own lives of faith and our journeys to God.
Our celebration today is a foreshadowing of God’s plan 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.