Thursday, December 8, 2016

Full of Grace

It was 30 years ago, but I can recall it as if it were yesterday. My very first phone call, my first day at my first assignment after leaving the seminary, was a call from someone wanting my advice because the devil was throwing things at him.  For a moment, I was at a loss as to how to answer.  Nothing in my seminary training had, so it seemed at first, quite prepared me for this conversation. Eventually, however, as we talked, the right answer came to me, which is, of course, that Christ has already decisively defeated the Devil, for God is more powerful than Satan or sin.

And that is essentially what today’s celebration is about.

Early in 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a poor, rather sickly girl in a riverside grotto in an off-the-beaten-track town in southern France named Lourdes, and identified herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” At the time, the young visionary, Bernadette Soubirous, did not understand at all the meaning of those words. She certainly did not know that intellectuals, in fact, had argued about their meaning for centuries, or that, in 1497 the University of Paris had decreed that no one should be admitted to the University without swearing to assert and defend the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Imagine if that rule were still in force today! Only four years before the events in Lourdes, in 1854, had Blessed Pope Pius IX dogmatically defined the essence of the Church’s belief about Mary’s Immaculate Conception – that, thanks to the salvation accomplished by her Son, Jesus, Mary was preserved from all sin from the beginning of her earthly existence and thus came into the world completely holy.

She is, as the English poet, William Wordsworth famously called her:

Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature's solitary boast.

That was one of my 8th grade teacher’s favorite quotes. She often used that title for Mary - Our tainted nature's solitary boast - and never more so than when referring to the Immaculate Conception.

Why any of this matters, what it means for us, here and now, is what today’s celebration is all about.

The scripture readings we have just heard suggest a comparison, first popularized by the Fathers of the Church, between Eve, the mother of all the living, and Mary, as the New Eve,” mother of Jesus and mother of the Church.

The passage we just heard from Genesis highlights the damage we sinful humans have done to ourselves - and to the whole rest of the world. It illustrates the seriousness of sin and our resulting alienation from God and one another. Mary, however, Immaculate Mary, represents the effect of God’s much greater power – and his powerful plan to save us from ourselves.

Calling Eve the mother of all the living celebrated the fact that, in spite of sin, human life continued – the very first sign that God would never give up on us. Of course, the serpent still lives and continues his mischief, but his doom is already certain.

God’s plan for our salvation, the mystery decided upon from all eternity and hidden for centuries, has been realized in Jesus Christ and is now revealed in the life and mission of the Church, as St. Paul explains in his letter to the Ephesians from which we have just heard.

Mary’s holiness at the very beginning of her earthly life, thanks to the salvation accomplished by her Son, represents 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 - and to our place in that kingdom, thanks again to the salvation accomplished by Mary’s Son.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2016.

(Photo: Stained glass window celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the apse of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Knoxville TN.)

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