In February 1858, while Fr. Isaac Hecker was in Rome laying the foundation for his new American missionary society of priests, the Paulist Fathers, 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, and identified herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” At the time, the young visionary, Bernadette Soubirous, did not understand the meaning of those words. Intellectuals, in fact, had argued about their meaning for centuries. And it was only in 1854, that Blessed Pope Pius IX (who would soon bless Father Isaac Hecker’s project for the founding of the Paulist Fathers) finally and definitively defined 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.
In the middle of the 20th-century, the famous American monk Thomas Merton wrote that the definition of the Immaculate Conception “was a turning point in the modern history of the Church. The world,” he wrote, “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 for the entire Church, is even more especially so for our country, so very much in need of grace right now.
Mary is, as the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth [1770-1850] had already famously addressed her: “Woman! above all nature 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 - especially when referring to her Immaculate Conception.)
Why 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 between Eve, the mother of all the living, and Mary, mother of Jesus and mother of the Church. Thus the passage we just heard form Genesis highlights the damage done by Adam and Eve to themselves and to the whole rest of the world, and illustrates the seriousness of sin. Adam and Eve symbolize and represent us and the damage all of us have done to ourselves and to our world, thanks to our alienation from God. Mary, however, symbolizes and represents the effect of God’s 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 Saint Paul explains in his letter to the Ephesians from which we have just heard.
The New Testament does not explicitly speak of the Immaculate Conception. So the Church invites us today to consider the Annunciation, one of the most famous scenes in all of human history. The Annunciation was the centerpiece of Mary’s earthly life - from her Immaculate Conception to her Assumption - and the basis for her heavenly life since then as Mother of the Church. At the Annunciation, Mary’s life-long fullness of grace was first formally acknowledged. More importantly, at the Annunciation, her life-long fullness of grace led her to answer “Yes” to God’s great plan to save the world with his mercy. Mary’s holiness at the beginning of her life is the Church’s holiness at its beginning, even as it symbolizes and represents Church as it will be in the perfect holiness of the world to come. All of us have been empowered by Christ to share in the Church’s holiness. For Mary is the living open door through whom Christ comes into the world so that we may enter into God’s kingdom.
Homily for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, December 8, 2021.
Photo: Lourdes, July 2005.
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