Rev. Joseph Keating
Brethren, today we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Mother of God and Mother of the Church. And in so doing, we celebrate the dawn of grace.
We have just heard the gospel account of the Annunciation, the moment when the archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive Jesus in her womb, and this can be a source of confusion when we speak about the Immaculate Conception. We recall in this reading the conception of our Lord, while at this Mass we celebrate the conception of our Lady.
As we get closer, day by day, to the birth of our Lord, we pause for a moment to reflect on this most blessed moment in salvation history. The question may arise in our hearts, “Why celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary? What does it signify?”
As I mentioned, the Immaculate Conception is the dawn of grace on earth. Just as we see the first streaks of light appear in the sky before the sunrise, we see God’s saving grace appear on earth at the first moment of Mary’s life in the womb of St. Ann.
Up until this moment, God had made covenant after covenant with mankind. Starting with Adam and Eve after their fall from grace, God promised that he would send a redeemer, a savior who would restore mankind to that original grace that we lost in that original sin.
God continued to make covenants with men, time and time again. The entire Old Testament is the history of those covenants: from Noah to Abraham to Moses to David, the God has kept his promises, while his people broke them time after time. Now, in this final age, God has sent us the long-awaited redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. He has established the ultimate covenant in his own blood, and this covenant will remain forever.
In this covenant, God has opened the gates of Heaven to all who would believe in Jesus Christ and freely accept his grace. The grace that opens Heaven to each of us is called “sanctifying grace.” We Christians first receive this grace thru baptism, and we are augmented by God’s grace each time we receive one of the seven sacraments. We need this grace, given to us thru Jesus Christ, in order to be fit for Heaven, where there is no stain of sin, no impurity at all. In other words, we need to be in a state of sanctifying grace in order to be immaculate.
We have all heard that the Church is the Body of Christ; he is the head, and we are the members. And if we are to be united to Christ, our head forever, we, his Body, must be free from sin, just as Christ was. And God has called us to this state of sanctity. As the Apostle Paul writes to us in the second reading:
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
… chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
And now, speaking of blemishes… It was about two years ago that I had the living room in the rectory renovated. I got some much-needed furniture, as well as a nice big rug, which I placed in the center of the floor. The rug arrived on the truck, brand new, and when they unrolled it, it was pristine and immaculate—not a stain on it. That is, until one morning this week. I had just fixed a pot of coffee, and I went back to the living room to do my morning reading. I set the pot down and reached over it to turn on the lamp, when my sleeve caught the coffee pot and knocked it over. Alas, my rug is immaculate no more. Even if I scrub it with stain remover, I will remember that my carelessness caused it to be stained. At least it’s not a serious stain, and I can learn from my mistake. But, as with all rugs, it is only a matter of time before it gets some stains on it. It’s nearly inevitable, and sometimes we can take a similar defeatist approach when it comes to avoiding the stain of sin on our souls.
Admittedly, it is rather daunting to think that we must be completely free from sin in order to reach Heaven. After all, we fully acknowledge, just as we do at every Mass, that we have greatly sinned, thru our fault, thru our fault, thru our most grievous fault. If we examine our consciences very carefully, we must admit that we have not spent every moment of our lives in pursuit of sainthood. Even if we didn’t commit any serious sins, we still have moments when we waste time, procrastinate, or fail to care about spiritual matters. Thankfully, we have that sanctifying grace available to us in the sacraments, most notably in the sacrament of penance—the stain-remover for the soul.
God knows that this can be a tall order, to avoid sin. So, he has given us an example to follow. Yes, Jesus Christ was a man just like us, in all things but sin. “But,” I hear you object, “Jesus was also God! He had a lot of help, since, you know, God cannot sin.” Yes, he is fully God, in addition to being fully man. And so, God has given us yet another example of holiness to whom we can relate—the mother of Jesus Christ and our mother, Mary.
Mary, from her conception in her mother’s womb, from the very first moment of her life, was full of grace. She did not lack, not even for a moment, that sanctifying grace that we all need to reach Heaven. And, as she lacked original sin on her soul, she also did not suffer the effects of original sin, like concupiscence, the tendency to sin. She lived her whole life without sinning. Her entire life was dedicated to service of God. She was without stain. She was immaculate.
But Mary is not some sort of demi-goddess. She is human, just like each of us. And that means she belongs to the Body of Christ too. She has been adopted as a beloved daughter of God, and she already shares in the glory of Jesus Christ in Heaven. Brothers and sisters, we are all called to that same glory. As St. Paul continues:
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.
Mary is the first among us to enjoy the perfection of God’s grace and favor. We know this because of the way the angel Gabriel greeted her: “Hail, full of grace.” Other translations read, “Hail, most highly favored one.”
And this greeting is the reason we read this gospel passage today. Mary is full of grace. She always has been. She always will be. Her sinless and immaculate state is a reminder to us of the purity we will all experience in Heaven.
God has destined us for adoption for the praise and glory of his grace. As we celebrate the Immaculate Conception today, we celebrate that grace. We celebrate the one who is full of grace, Mary, and we glory in the source of that grace, Jesus Christ. May his grace always be with us, that we may reach Heaven holy and immaculate.