Each year on December 8th Catholics the world over celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception; this important feast day honors Christ by honoring his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary, in particular by celebrating our belief that she was conceived free from original sin. Thus the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary, not that of Jesus himself, though the feast is tied in an important way to the person of Jesus.
To understand this and see the connection between the conception of Mary and the birth of Christ which we will celebrate soon, we can look to the scripture readings for today’s mass. The first reading from Genesis reminds us of original sin, which is the human condition from which we believe Mary was exempt by virtue of her Immaculate Conception. This does not mean that Mary did not need the redemption which Christ would bring to the whole world. Rather, it means that Mary shares in this universal redemption by a different means than any other human person who has ever lived—that is what we celebrate today.
Every other person who has ever lived has inherited from the first humans that “drop of poison” of selfishness which we call original sin. Mary, by contrast, was chosen before all time to be the Mother of the Redeemer and thus she found her redemption as a member of the human race by being the unique person who would play the crucial role in the rest of humanity’s redemption—the only one whose free consent God sought, so that man would have a role in overcoming the freely chosen sin of our first parents.
This is what today’s reading from Ephesians helps us to understand: even though these inspired words speak of all of humanity, they help us to see that God freely chose to save us from our selfishness and sin, and that he freely chose the means of that salvation—Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer. “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” (Eph 1:4-5).
Seeing now that the Immaculate Conception refers directly to Mary, and understanding that it was a gift to her solely so that she might be the Mother of the Redeemer, indeed the Mother of God, as we honor her, we now turn to the Gospel reading from Saint Luke. There we hear the words: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you….Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Elsewhere in the Bible the words “you have found favor with God” or similar ones have been spoken to any number of heroic figures, yet they often respond (understandably) by asking for some confirmation of this favor, or some sign that God has truly chosen them. Mary does not do this: she alone was free from both the fear and the self-interest that so often defines our decisions, and she freely and humbly consented to exercising her central role in the salvation of humanity.
On this feast of the Immaculate Conception may Mary intercede for all of us so that by her intercession we might be freed from our sins and might participate freely in the work of our redemption through the course of our lives. Mary, Mother of God, help us to prepare joyfully for the coming of your Son our Lord, in these days of Advent and beyond.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Photo: Brother Placid Sellers, O.S.B.