Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Immaculate Conception

It was my one of the first phone calls I received at my first assignment after seminary. On the line was someone wanting advice - because the Devil was throwing books at him. At first, I felt totally at a loss how to answer. Nothing in my training had, I thought, prepared me for this. I remember thinking to myself, “I hope at least they are paperbacks,” which thankfully I didn’t say out loud and which would probably not have been very helpful if I had. As we talked, however, it became obvious to me what the right answer really was – namely, that in Christ God has already defeated the Devil, decisively defeated the Devil. For God is more powerful than anything we can throw at him – or the Devil can throw at us. God is more powerful than sin. And that is essentially what we celebrate today on this great festival of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patronal feast of our historic parish.

When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in what was then more-or-less a garbage dump in a very cold and wet, little town in the Pyrenees Mountains, known as Lourdes, in 1858, she identified herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Poor Bernadette did not recognize the reference or understand the meaning of those words. No surprise there! Intellectuals had been arguing about their meaning for centuries. In 1497, the University of Paris had decreed that no one should be admitted to the University without first swearing to assert and defend Mary’s Immaculate Conception! (One can only wonder, if that rule were still on the books, how much better off European society might be today!)

It was only in 1854 – just four years before the miraculous events at Lourdes – that Blessed Pope Pius IX finally defined infallibly the essence of the Church’s belief about Mary’s Immaculate Conception – the Church’s faith that, thanks to the salvation accomplished on our behalf by her Son, Jesus, Mary was preserved from all sin, from the very beginning of her earthly existence, and so was from the very start completely holy. She is, as the English Romantic poet Wiliam Wordsworth (1770-1850) famously called her:

Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied;
Woman! above all nature glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.

The story we just heard from the Old Testament [Genesis 3:9-15, 20] highlights the serious damage done by Adam and Eve to themselves and to the whole rest of the world. Adam and Eve symbolize and represent all of us and the damage all of us have continued to do to ourselves and to our world, through our sinful alienation from God. Mary, however, holy Mary, represents the healing effect of God’s far-greater power – and his powerful plan to save us form ourselves.

The story calls Eve the mother of all the living. In spite of sin, human life continued – the very first sign that God is not ready to give up on us. Of course, the serpent still lives and continues his mischief, but his doom is already certain. He (Eve’s greatest descendant and Mary’s Son) will strike at the serpent’s head and crush him.

When Our Lady appeared in Mexico in 1531, she spoke in the Aztec language, Nahuatl (as at Lourdes she would later speak not in fancy French but in the local Pyrenees dialect). The Nahuatl word, which to the Spaniards sounded like an already familiar title, “Guadalupe,” literally meant “Who crushes the serpent.”

God’s great plan for our salvation, the mystery decided upon from all eternity and hidden for so many centuries, has been realized in Mary’s Son, Jesus, and is now revealed in the life and mission of the Church. Mary’s holiness at the very beginning of her earthly life is the Church’s holiness at its beginning and invites us to look forward to the Church as it will one day be in the perfect holiness of God’s kingdom.

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you!

Homily on the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2010.

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