The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (No. 4)
The fourth in a series of reflections about thinking, praying, and professing the Faith of the Church
in celebration of the Year of Faith, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI.
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
The mystery of the Immaculate Conception is about how God prepared the way before hand for the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, preparing a human “vessel” as mother of the redeemer. After many generations in which Christians pondered the mystery of Mary's uniqueness, what the Church believed was officially promulgated in these words: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” (Ineffabilis Deus,Pope Pius IX).
That is, (1) Mary, like the rest of us, was redeemed by her Savor Jesus Christ, saved by grace. But she was redeemed ahead of time, at the moment she was conceived. (2) This “singular grace and privilege” was for the sake of her singular vocation: only one among all the human race is the mother of the Savior of the world, the Mother of God. And how could the Eternal Word come into the world through a human vessel tarnished by Sin? How could Mary help to form the human life of the Eternal Word-made-flesh (with the utterly unique influence that a mother has in the life of her son) if she were not uniquely “full of grace”. (3) Christ alone is perfect with the perfection of his eternal procession from the Father. Mary is perfect with the perfection of the human creature perfectly redeemed. You and I will one day, by God's infinite mercy, be “perfectly redeemed” from sin. But our redemption is a process of repentance and conversion, starting with our baptism. Mary was redeemed in the first moment of her being.
Sinlessness, Perfection? . . .
One of the difficulties for comprehending this mystery is that we have no experience of sinlessness, and we do not yet know what perfection is. Holy Scripture tells us that, in sharing our humanity, Jesus knew severe temptation “from the inside”. Yet he remained sinless (Hebrews 4:15). But what does that mean? Our problem is that we tend to think of “sin” entirely in moral or ethical terms – sin as a morally wrong action. True enough. But Jesus spoke harshly to people, even acted violently (John 2:15ff). Jesus at age twelve caused his parents great worry (Luke 2:41ff). In any of us would not such actions be sinful? But in Holy Scripture, sin is first of all a relational concept. “Sin” means a broken relationship with God. And “perfection” in a biblical sense means, first of all, right relationship with God. The source of the sinlessness of Jesus is his personal union with his eternal Father – his complete abandonment in faith to the Father's will (Mark 14:36). The opposite of sin is faith, utter trust in God (Romans 14:23).
This thought at least opens a door to contemplating Mary's “perfection”. The first word we hear her speak is her fiat: “Let it be done to me according to your Word.” She hears the promise and in the moment of hearing believes. She abandons herself to the promise of God, and in that moment the eternal word is conceived in her body and in her heart, as the Catechism says. There is hardly a word in scripture about Mary's good deeds (which no doubt were many). Scripture bears witness that Mary's life was not free of spiritual struggle and hardship. Her faith was tested. As John Paul II taught, Mary had to slowly grow into her vocation, finally giving up here natural maternal claims in order to receive the fullness of her spiritual motherhood (Mother of the Redeemer). But spiritual struggle, the need to grow into one's mission from God, is not a sin.
Scriptural Starting Point . . .
There are many places in Holy Scripture to begin contemplating the mystery of Mary's unique fullness of grace. I will mention here only one aspect of Mary's biblical portrait: with Mary there is no conversion story, no moment of repentance. Think about it. St. Paul was perfected for his apostolic vocation, but through repentance and conversion. St. Peter would eventually give all for Christ, but only after denying him and being restored by Jesus. So it was with all the apostles. But with Mary, the first moment of her appearance in Holy Scriptures is the moment of her fiat, her absolute yes to God. Mary shows up on the stage of salvation history already fully prepared. And so the Angel Gabriel may address her intimately, “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you . . .” (see Luke 1:28).
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