What difference does any of this make?
Many if not most Christians make the mistake about today’s feast that it celebrates the conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of his Mother, Mary. Indeed there are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the reading for today’s Mass which comes from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel and speaks of the Angel Gabriel telling Mary of her impending pregnancy. Rightly so, most of us are focused on the central event of our faith that occurs in the passage, the Incarnation of God, the Word becoming flesh! But the reason for reading this passage today, is to get at the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary, “Hail full of Grace! The Lord is with you.” For the Feast of the Immaculate conception is concerned with Mary’s conception, through the procreative act of her parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne, and what it tells us about the kind of person that Jesus is.
Going back to the Church Fathers, there was tremendous discussion of the role of Mary as the Mother of God. Indeed, there was much controversy among some over whether to simply call her the human mother of Jesus or to call her the Mother of God. In the end, the latter won out because one cannot be simply the mother of part of a person. You are the mother of a person, whole and entire, and Jesus is a Divine Person. These considerations gave birth (pun intended) to further prayer and contemplation of Mary’s special place in the history of the world. For, if Mary is the Mother of God, and God commands that we honor our Father and our mother (see the Ten Commandments), what great honor might God himself bestow upon his own mother? This question consumed much time in prayer and contemplation in the early Church. For to understand these things gives us a greater understanding of God himself.
Writings on this topic go back to the early 300’s as does the idea of celebrating Mary’s
conception. Yet in the beginning, no one used the term “immaculate” to describe this event, even though this is what they describe. One of my absolute favorite saints, St. Ephrem the Syrian, speaks of the Blessed Mother as being “as innocent as Eve before the fall.” St. Ambrose states that she is “immune through grace from every stain of sin.” Though, there were always doubters and dissenters. Historians speak of massive arguments between religious orders over the doctrine throughout the middle ages. It was not until much later that Marian apparitions began to encourage the setting forth of this idea into official doctrine. St. Bridget of Sweden in the 1300’s and St. Catherine Laboure in the 1800’s, both had visions of Mary indicating her being conceived without sin. Mary herself seemed to be indicating her identity in order to tell us something about her Son. Pope Pius IX set forth the doctrine in a papal Bull called Ineffabilis Deus. Four years after the doctrine was declared, a young French girl by the name of St. Bernadette Soubirous, confirmed the Pontif’s declaration, as Mary revealed herself as “The Immaculate Conception” and brought forth the miraculous healing waters of Lourdes.
But what does the Immaculate Conception actually tell us about Jesus? St. Paul tells us that all are saved through the suffering and death of Jesus (Romans 3:24). But what about Mary? This means she also needed to be saved! And she was born before Jesus anyway! Yep, all true. But One of the things this doctrine points out to us is that God is not bound by space and time. He lives in what we call the eternal present. This means that Mary can be saved by an event that didn’t happen yet. It means that it is possible for God to give a gift to someone before it happens for the rest of us. This would be similar to the assumption of Enoch and Elijah in the Bible, before the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We can say of Elijah that he too was saved by Christ on the Cross! In the same way, Mary received the grace of redemption and was kept free of original sin, by her son’s saving power, at the moment of her conception. Jesus is God from all eternity, and while he was not yet incarnate, as God we can say of him that he has loved her and honored her in that same eternity. This speaks to his divinity and his omnipotence. God is not bound by the things that we are.
But let me close with this. Jesus does not love selfishly. What he loves, he shares. He clearly states that he came so that we might know the Father and from the Cross, as he’s breathing his last, Jesus gives his mother as a gift to the us (JN 19:25-27). The Father whom he loved from all eternity, he gave to us to be our Father. This woman whom he loves from all eternity, he gives to us to be our mother. His gift to her, becomes his gift to us. In this way, we become members of the divine family. Because God is our Father and Mary is our mother, Jesus is our brother and we no longer have to experience God as some distant entity. He knows us and loves us because before he formed you in the womb, he knew you. (Jer 1:5)