Last week, while in Louisville for a meeting, I stopped at the historical marker commemorating a major moment in the life of the famous 20th-century American monk Thomas Merton, who was one of the four famous Americans Pope Francis mentioned in his address to Congress in 2015.
On March 18, 1858, at what was then the corner of 4th and Walnut, Merton suddenly realized that no one could be totally alien to him. It was, he said “as if waking from a dream.” Suddenly, he realized that he could have no “more glorious destiny” than as “a member of the human race … since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!”
I am reminded of Merton today also because a decade earlier he had written that the definition of the Immaculate Conception “was a turning point in the modern history of the Church,” for “the world “has been put into the hands of our Immaculate Lady and she is our hope in the terrible days we live in.” [November 10, 1947]
Anticipating Merton’s hope a century earlier, in 1846 the Bishops of the United States had proclaimed Mary the patroness of the United Sates under the title of her Immaculate Conception. So today, already an especially grace-filled day the entire Church, is even more especially so for our country and for our own local parish community, under the special patronage of the Immaculate Conception since 1855.
The Immaculate Conception is the Church’s belief that, thanks to the salvation accomplished by her Son, Mary was preserved from all sin from the very beginning of her earthly existence and thus came into the world completely holy – thus most fully exemplifying that “glorious destiny” of the human race, thanks to her Son’s membership in it.
The story we just heard from the Old Testament [Genesis 3:9-15, 20] highlights the unity of the human race and already points ahead to God’s becoming one of us to salvage our “glorious destiny” from the damage Adam and Eve and the rest of us have done to ourselves and to the rest of the world, through our alienation from God. Mary, however, holy Mary, represents the healing effect of God’s far-greater power, empowering Mary, as we just heard in the Gospel [Luke 1:26-38], to say Yes to God where Adam and Eve and the rest of us have repeatedly said No.
Homily for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2017.
Photo: Immaculate Conception Window, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,