Saturday, December 8, 2018

Conceived without Sin

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

When I was in elementary school, that invocation and response were an integral part of our regular school prayers. Although I dutifully responded pray for us who have recourse to thee, I suspect that, for some of those years at least, I probably had no clue what the word recourse really meant. Given the high quality of the religious instruction we received, my guess is that I had a better understanding of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception before I ever actually got to understand the meaning of the word recourse!

When, in 1858,  the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in the out-of-the-way town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains, she identified herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette did not recognize the reference nor understand its meaning. Nor did she know that scholars had been arguing about its meaning for centuries. In 1497, the University of Paris had even decreed that no one should be admitted to the University without first swearing to assert and defend Mary’s Immaculate Conception! (Presumably that requirement is no longer in force).

In 1846, the U.S. bishops unanimously chose Mary, under the title of her Immaculate Conception, as Patroness of our country. Eight year later, in 1854 Blessed Pope Pius IX infallibly defined the essence of the Church’s belief about Mary’s Immaculate Conception – the Church’s faith that, thanks to the salvation Jesus accomplished on our behalf, Mary was preserved from sin, from the very beginning of her existence, and so was from the very start completely holy. She is, as the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth [1770-1850] famously called her “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” Meanwhile, soon after Pius IX’s dogmatic definition, the small and struggling Catholic community in Knoxville, TN, purchased a lot here on Summit Hill outside what were then the town’s northern limits, intending to build their first parish church here. At its dedication later that year, the new church was named for the Immaculate Conception. “We should all be especially devoted to the Immaculate Conception,” Thomas Merton wrote in 1940, “whose feast was given us especially for our time.”

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 rest of the world - and the damage all of us have continued to do to ourselves and to our world, through our alienation from God. Mary, however, represents the healing effect of God’s far-greater power - God’s far-greater power that empowered her to say Yes” to God where Adam and Eve had said “No” – God’s powerful plan to save us from ourselves.

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

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 also the Church’s holiness at its beginning and invites us to look forward to the Church as she 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 for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2018.

Photo: Sanctuary Window of the Immaculate Conception, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.

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