Dec 7, 2011

The Perfect Mother for the Perfect Son

"Hail, full of grace!"

“And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you . . . Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’” (Lk 1: 28, 38).

If it were possible to speak words that would change the course of humankind, these words of an angel from heaven and those of a young, virginal Jewish teenage girl are it.

In our age of memorable one-liners, email shorts, sound-bites, and “tweets,” no other phrase has had more impact than the simple dialogue between the Angel Gabriel and that of Mary, who became the human mother of the Son of God. With Mary’s “yes” the ship was turned around and she became the first to hear the good news of God’s salvation.  But, in one sense we look ahead in this Gospel passage from Luke on this beautiful solemn Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

As a main player in this Advent story as we look forward to our annual Christmas celebration, Mary’s role was not something of her choice.  The Scriptures make it crystal clear, as the Church has always understood that it was God’s choice of Mary, God’s own divine initiative which has made all the difference.

The Immaculate Conception speaks of the perfection of God’s grace in the soul of Mary from the first moment of her conception in the womb of her mother Anne. This means that from the beginning, she was in a perfect state of grace, sharing in God's own life, and that she was free from the sinful inclinations which have beset human nature after the fall. This, infallibly defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854, is a Dogma of our faith. 

In the Scriptures: Gen 3: 15, Luke 1:28, Proverbs, the Book of Wisdom and the teaching of early Church Fathers and the early Christian tradition passed on to us from generation to generation, all attest to this truth.  Beyond that, it is a matter of faith.  
A popular way to understand this might be this example.  There are two ways to be “saved” from danger (temptation.)  If I fall into a pit of mud (sin) someone reaches in and helps me out (God’s grace).  Or, I may be heading towards the mud pit (Mary) and someone reaches out to prevent my falling in (God).  Either way, my salvation takes place. 

We are those who have fallen into the pit through original sin and we inherit that weakness in our human nature.  It is the grace of Jesus Christ and the sacrament of Baptism which reaches in and pulls us out.  But we can always fall in again and when we do, we know that our God is forgiving to those who seek it.  But sooner or later we have to learn to avoid the pit all together as often as possible (virtue).
In Mary’s case, she never entered the pit in the first place and through God’s singular grace was spared ever falling in (to sin).  

Why?  Simply put, the perfect child (Jesus) needed the perfect mother (Mary) to enter the world.  The “God from God and Light from Light,” who took on our human nature in its fullness, except for sin though he was tempted, could only enter the world through a human who was likewise without sin.  Mary’s sinlessness is our true human nature – to be without sin.
We may always wonder in the face of such profound theological doctrines about the likes of Mary, what could it possibly mean for our ordinary lives? Much of what people care about concerns the things of this world: safety, food, shelter, clothing, paying the bills, getting along, staying healthy, having fun, taking a nice vacation, finding a good job with a successful future (tough for many these days), discovering a meaning and purpose, living a long and purposeful life, enjoying a spouse in marriage, raising children, the latest high tech gadget, etc, etc. 

The layer over all of this is of course the tents of our faith.  How do I live the good news of the Lord in a practical application to my life?  As priest, I always hope that I am being at least somewhat effective as a parish leader and making a positive difference in the lives of my parishioners.  I can only hope that I am an acceptable model of Jesus Christ to my parish and strive to always be better than I am through the grace of God’s mercy.
In short, we may feel the “immaculate conception” is just too abstract.  But, just imagine what an example God has given us in his own mother.

Her free will was never diminished and nor is ours.  Mary chose to respond to God’s plan for her life.  And so can we. On December 12th we mark the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  That miraculous image on the tilma of St. Juan Diego stands as the sign of a mother who cares for her children – not just those who speak Spanish by the way. 
As Mary was here on earth, a messenger of the good news by her cooperation with God – doing what she was called to do in a life of utter faithfulness, we too are invited to the same. 

In spite of our inherent flawed nature, we are still capable of great things.  Artists, musicians, authors, poets, sculptors, humanitarians, architects, inventors, honorable great heroes in war and peace time, are just some indications of what we are capable of doing. 
Yet, above all that since we are created by God in his own divine image, we are called to rise to the occasion and find our ultimate fulfillment in Christ himself.  Mary, like John the Baptist, points to the one person who has shown us the way.  

O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin
prepared a worthy dwelling for your son,
grant, we pray,
that, as you preserved her from every stain
by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw,
so, through her intercession,
we too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Collect from Mass)