It is fitting that we focus our attention on Mary during the season of Advent as we prepare for the celebration of the Birth of her Son. She is truly the central figure of the Advent Season for, through her consent, the Son of God was conceived in her womb and born at Bethlehem. Her quiet life anticipating the redemptive action of her Son, which had already been accomplished in her, is what the season of Advent is all about. It is very appropriate that we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception during the season of Advent
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is understandably misunderstood. Oftentimes, it is believed that it refers to the doctrine of our faith which tells us that Jesus was conceived without original sin in Mary’s womb. However, it does not. Mary’s Immaculate Conception refers to the doctrine that she herself was conceived in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne, without original sin. When the doctrine was infallibly defined by Blessed Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854, he proclaimed, “We declare, pronounce, and define that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instance of her conception was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin by the singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God in virtue of the Birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, and that this doctrine was revealed by God, and therefore, must be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
The Immaculate Conception has much to say to all of us about Mary, about the reality of sin, about the sanctity of our lives and, most of all, about the primacy of Christ. It is not a theological wonder but a reality of our faith that makes a difference in the way we live daily in relation to God. It especially has much to say to our society today which has lost a sense of the realities included in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception makes clear the eminent and singular place she holds in the life of the Church and in heaven. Chosen by God to be the first to share in the fullness of Christ’s redemption, Mary did not have the least complicity with sin. Her Immaculate Conception is the basis for Mary’s being able to be completely free from the slightest sin all during her life. God bestowed such favor on Mary, not for her sake, but for ours. She stands as the sinless one, the perfect disciple, the model of the Church, and the promise of our resurrection through her assumption, body and soul, into heaven. In her we see the promise of salvation fully accomplished. We should not believe that Mary’s Immaculate Conception made things easy for her. Like all of us, she had to cooperate with the grace of God in her life. That is why she is such a perfect model.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception reminds us of the reality of sin, both original and personal. Sin is real and it is the refusal of God’s life. It entered the world through the selfishness of Adam and Eve. By its very nature, sin marred God’s creation and His plan. We are all born with original sin, not through any fault of our own, but through the human condition which we inherit. We are prone to sin because of original sin. However, the infinite love of God for us cannot be blunted even in the face of sin. God sent His Son to us that He might restore His creation and plan. While we have been redeemed, we still bear the effects of original sin. Mary’s sinlessness reminds us of the perfect attitude toward God which should have been that of Adam and Eve and should be our own. Mary could only remain sinless through the favor of God which is held out to all of us. We still live in an imperfect world and only the grace of Christ can perfect it. Mary is our hope in the face of our own sinfulness which is always overcome by God’s merciful forgiveness.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception also speaks of the sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception. The human person comes into existence then and God’s plan for each individual begins to unfold. Such was true for Mary from the instant of her conception in the womb of Saint Anne. God’s plan for her was unique and her Immaculate Conception is the first event in that singular plan. So it is with all of us and every individual human life made in God’s image and likeness. Every life is sacred and unique, never to be repeated again. In our own day and age, the Immaculate Conception of Mary speaks volumes as to why abortion is evil and contradictory to the unique purpose and sanctity of every life. Indeed, the propensity of our culture to devalue the sanctity of life stands much in line with the original sin of Adam and Eve. Such an attitude is the result of original sin and carrying it out is the substance of true personal sin. Life is sacred at every stage, from the moment of conception until death, and must be cherished as such.
The Immaculate Conception of Mary speaks to us of the primacy of Christ for our world and in our lives. It is He who is the Lord of life and the restorer of God’s plan. He has redeemed us by giving His life so that we might be free from sin and able to live God’s life. From the moment of Mary’s conception, God’s gift of His Son was on the way. In Him, Mary’s purpose was fulfilled as is that for each and every one of us. This is well summed up in the words of Saint Paul which are read on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as 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 in accord with the favor of His will, for the praise of the glory of His grace that He granted us in the beloved. In Him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of His will, so that we might exist for the praise of His glory, we who first hoped in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12).
Last year on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis spoke on the importance of this doctrine in our lives of faith and in particular during the season of Advent. He said, “The readings of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary are two crucial passages in the history of the relationship between man and God: We might say they lead us to the origins of good and evil.” The Holy Father said the account of Adam and Eve’s turning from God after creation in the beginning of the Book of Genesis shows us the origins of sin, the first 'no' to God, when “man preferred to look at himself, not his Creator…and in doing so comes out of communion with God.” “This makes sin,” – Pope Francis said – “But the Lord does not leave man at the mercy of his evil; He immediately seeks him out and asks a question full of apprehension: 'Where are you?' It is the question of a father or a mother searching for a lost child…and this God does with much patience, in order to bridge the distance which arose at the beginning.”
The Holy Father then turned his attention to the Gospel reading, from St. Luke of the Annunciation when “God comes to dwell among us, [and] he becomes man like us.” “And this was made possible by ‘a great yes,’ that of Mary at the Annunciation,” – the Pope continued – “Through this ‘yes’ Jesus began his way along the road of humanity; it began in Mary, spending the first months of his life within mother’s womb; not appearing already an adult and strong, but by following the entirety of the path of what it means to be human.”
Pope Francis emphasized that Mary is described as “full of grace,” meaning there is “no room for sin…without a shadow of evil.” He explained Mary’s ‘yes’ is complete and unconditional, without any reservations. “Also for each of us, there is a story of salvation made of yes and no to God,” – Pope Francis said – “Sometimes, though, we are experts on the half-yes: We are good at pretending not to understand what God wants, and what our conscience prompts us to do. We are also smart, and never give a true no to God, and say: ‘I am not able’, ‘not today, but tomorrow’, ‘Tomorrow I will be better, tomorrow I will pray, tomorrow I will do good.’ Thus we close the door to the good, and evil takes advantage of this ‘yes’ which is lacking.” “Whereas every full yes to God gives rise to a new story: Saying yes to God is truly ‘original,’ not sin, which makes you old inside,” – the Pope said – “Every yes to God creates stories of salvation for us and for others.”
Pope Francis concluded by saying that in this time of Advent, “God desires to see us and awaits our 'yes'.'" May we follow Mary in this yes.
As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and look to Mary during this season of Advent, her Immaculate Conception speaks to us of the realities which will draw us closer to her Son and make our celebration of Christmas a more fruitful one in our lives and for our world today.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
December 8, 2017