On today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception it is important to remember what exactly we are celebrating: that the Blessed Virgin Mary was born free from the stain of original sin, and that she was born thus on account of her unique place in God’s plan for our salvation as the Mother of the Redeemer. As in all matters that relate to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception is therefore a mystery that touches upon her life, in the words of Pope Pius IX, “by the singular grace of Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ.” That is to say, we celebrate Mary today because of her relationship to Christ; this in no way takes away from the honor due to Mary, rather it affirms that honor and directs it to Christ, as Mary herself would have done.
God willed that as Mother of his son Mary be free from all sin, both the stain of original sin and the actual sins that follow from original sin in every other human person. The Church celebrates this doctrine so prominently because the path toward redemption opened by the Immaculate Conception as well as the pain of original sin which makes that redemption necessary affect all of us in a profound way. The first reading today indicates this latter fact by reminding us of the dialogue between God and “Adam,” the first man God is said to have created. When confronted with the fact that he had eaten the fruit which was forbidden to him Adam responded by blaming his wife (see Gen 3:11-12)—biblical proof that men have been doing this from the dawn of history!—and then he listened sadly as the Lord told him that all of his descendants would suffer on account of his transgression (Gen 3:16-17).
The former fact, that the redemption made possible by Mary’s Immaculate Conception touches all of us, is clarified in the second reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, where we read: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who…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” (Eph 1:3-5). Mary’s Immaculate Conception thus reminds us both of the pain of sin and of God’s awesome plan and desire to save us from sin and the death to which it leads.
Mary’s state of being free from original sin enabled her to make her beautiful declaration to the Archangel Gabriel: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary’s consent to God’s will at the moment of the Annunciation set in motion at the human level what had already been in the mind of God from all eternity; namely, that in spite of the dangers and uncertainties of human freedom God would let nothing get in the way of his sharing his divine love and life with his beloved children, even if it meant becoming one with us in our humanity.
A final thought brings all this together for me: when thinking of Mary and her role in our redemption my mind almost always turns to the sublime rendition of the Ave Maria assembled by Franz Schubert. This hymn is simply a setting to music and slight adaption of the “Hail Mary” prayer universally known by Catholics, and it is often performed at Catholic funerals. Invoking Mary in this beautiful hymn at the very moment we commemorate the death of our loved ones is a moving reminder to all of us that she whose Son was united to us through his death on the cross was also the “new Eve” who undid the disobedience of Adam by her humility and thus became the hope and refuge of all who seek her and her son to whom she forever leads us.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.