The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today the Archangel Gabriel – whose name means “God’s strength” – greets the Virgin not with her name, but with a title. It is the only instance in all the Scriptures when a person is greeted in this way by an angel. Already in this fact we see something unique and singular in Mary.
She is greeted with these words by the heavenly messenger: “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:28)! It is a curious phrase packed with a profound meaning.
The English translation is good, but does not quite grasp the totality of the Greek in which Saint Luke wrote his Gospel. To say, “full of grace,” in Greek he could have rightly said pleres charitos, as he did to describe Saint Stephen (cf. Acts 6:8). But these are not the words with which the Archangel greeted the Virgin.
Instead, Gabriel greeted her with the word kecharitomene. It is a word that, because it says a lot, is not easy to translate simply into English. In effect, the word used by the angel says that Mary “has been” and “is now being” graced by God. It is not a matter of a simple present grace, but rather of a past and ongoing grace; for this reason she is “full of grace.” Why would the Lord grace this young virgin in such a way?
Mary received this singular and unique grace of being preserved from the stain of original sin and, hence, the inclination to sin, not because of her own merits, but because of the merits of the Son she was to bear, Jesus Christ .
Because she “was to be a worthy mother” of the Word of God no stain of Adam’s sin was allowed to touch her, that she might give to the only Son of God a pure flesh.
Although this dogma was only recently defined in 1854 by Blessed Pope Pius IX, it has been part of the Christian faith for centuries, going at least as far back as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, who died about the year 202 after spending his life in the defence of the true faith against the various heresies of his day.
It was Irenaeus who noted that God created Adam from the pure, virgin earth before the rains fell and before man tilled the ground (cf. Genesis 2:5). He – and other Church Fathers - compares the pure virgin soil of the earth from which Adam was drawn to the pure virginity of Mary who gave flesh to the Word of God.
As the earth was pure from which Adam came, so, too, was Mary pure because the Lord – out of love for his Son - had preserved her for so great an privilege. From the moment of her conception the Lord wrapped her “in the garment of salvation and robed [her] in the cloak of justice” (Isaiah 61:10). As the first Eve was created pure and “became the mother of all the living,” so, too, was the second Eve, Mary, created pure and she has become the Mother of the Church (Genesis 3:20; cf. John 19:27).
Thus we rightly call her the Immaculate Conception, a title she used of herself at Lourdes when she said to Saint Bernadette, “I am the Immaculate Conception” just four years after Pope Pius IX proclaimed this dogma.
By receiving his flesh from Mary’s pure body, the Son of God re-established in himself the original purity of creation and redirected it to the eternal glory for which it was first made.
For this reason Saint Paul reminds us that the Lord has chosen us for himself “to be holy and without blemish before him” (Ephesians 1:4). In Mary, we see the one who so fully trusted in the Lord’s will for her that she was preserved from sin. She is, then, the model and perfect disciple of her Son and the image of what we are to be.
By entrusting ourselves to the maternal and loving prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Lord’s grace can be strengthened within each of us so that we might grow in faith, hope and love.
Some might think that holiness is beyond them, too far beyond their reach or strength, but this is not so. As Gabriel said to Mary so he says to us, “nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37). He will not force us to grow in holiness and grace, but if we cooperate with his will for us – which is holiness – he will bring it about in us and will attain the eternal glory for which we were created.
If we follow Mary’s example we, too, will find favor with God and be brought into God’s presence, knowing there the fullness of lasting joy and peace.
On this day on which the Lord truly “has done wondrous deeds” for Mary and for the entire human race, let us “sing joyfully to the Lord” as we see in the Immaculate Conception the perfection promised of the Church (Psalm 98:1, 4). Let us ask her to wrap us in her mantle that we, too, will be clothed by the Lord in salvation and wrapped in justice. Amen.