Dec 8, 2018: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (ABC)

HALLENGE

Introduction

Today we celebrate the privilege that was bestowed on Mary, the mother of Jesus, by her being conceived in her mother’s womb without the stain of original sin and filled with sanctifying grace (which is normally conferred during baptism).  This privilege was bestowed on Mary in virtue of the inestimable character of her divine son. He is the ultimate sinless one, and so it is fitting that the flesh from which he sprang should also be “immaculate.”

Many people confuse this with the virgin birth of Jesus, which is understandable given that today’s gospel reading recounts the story of Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb, not Mary’s conception in St. Anne’s womb.

On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”

While the dogma was formally declared in 1854, Mary’s sinlessness had ancient roots in the Church.  In 1846, the U.S. bishops had chosen Mary as the patroness of this land under the title of the Immaculate Conception.

Like the dogma of the Trinity, there is no explicit biblical basis for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.  However, several biblical passages certainly point in this direction, some of which we will study today.

1st Reading – Genesis 3:9-15, 20

After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree,
the LORD God called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden;
but I was afraid, because I was naked,
so I hid myself.”
Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked?
You have eaten, then,
from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!”
The man replied, “The woman whom you put here with me–
she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.”
The LORD God then asked the woman,
“Why did you do such a thing?”
The woman answered, “The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.”

Then the LORD God said to the serpent:
“Because you have done this, you shall be banned
from all the animals
and from all the wild creatures;
on your belly shall you crawl,
and dirt shall you eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike at your head,
while you strike at his heel.”

The man called his wife Eve,
because she became the mother of all the living.

Today’s first reading features Eve, who like Mary, was also created without sin.  However, unlike Mary, Eve did not maintain her sinless state.

After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree,

The tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). It was probably a fig tree, especially in light of the reference in 3:7 to fashioning loincloths from fig leaves.

Medieval art often depicted the fruit as an apple, playing on the similarity between the Latin words mālum “an apple,” and mălum “an evil, a misfortune.”

The LORD God then called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?”

God knows where Adam is, of course.  He is announcing that he knows that something is wrong and initiating a conversation about it.

He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.”

Two different terms are used in Genesis to refer to the nakedness of the couple.  Immediately after their creation, the term is ârôm, which simply means “uncovered.”

The term used here is êrōm, meaning “exposed.” Adam is fully aware of their inability to hide their sin from God — they are exposed.

In verse 7 (which precedes this passage), they sewed together fig leaves to cover themselves, further indicating that a lack of clothing is not the issue.

Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked? You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!”

Adam thought that by eating of the tree he would be able to decide for himself what was good and what was evil — that he would become like God.  Instead, he gained the knowledge to discern between the two.  Sin is absolute; it is not relative to the situation and/or the participant.

The man replied, “The woman whom you put here with me – she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” The LORD God then asked the woman, “Why did you do such a thing?” The woman answered, “The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.”

The man and woman are not only spiritually naked, or “exposed,” they are also unwilling to take responsibility for their fault.  Each of them blames someone else.

The command not to eat of the tree was given to the man before the woman was created (Genesis 2:16); therefore, God questions him first.

For her part, the woman chose to listen to the serpent instead of the man. She admits that she was tricked, but the serpent had not really lied to her.  As is usually the case with temptation, she allowed herself to be misled.

Then the LORD God said to the serpent: “Because you have done this, you shall be banned from all the animals and from all the wild creatures; On your belly shall you crawl, and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life.

The serpent is banned and brought low, forced to eat dust, the very symbol of death and decay.

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.”

The limits of the serpent’s power are sketched in the final condition of its punishment. There will be constant hostility between the serpent and the woman, between the various manifestations of temptations and the children she will bear.

The masculine form in the Hebrew is not necessarily a direct reference to Christ, but rather refers to all the descendants of this first couple, all of humanity.  Throughout their lives, human beings will have to constantly battle temptation.

Many commentators do, however, see this as God’s first promise of a savior, noting that a descendant of the woman will strike at the head of evil, conveying a mortal wound; whereas evil will only strike his heel.  Within this perspective, Christ, the “new Adam,” entered a garden (Gesthemane) and took upon himself the curse and sin of the first Adam; his suffering and death on the wood of a tree transformed that tree into the new Tree of Life.  Jesus rejected the lies of evil and walked the path that Adam was intended to walk.

The man called his wife Eve, because she became the mother of all the living.

In Genesis 2:23, Adam (whose name simply means “man”) had named her Woman (“out of the womb of man”).  He now changes her name to Eve (Hawwa in Hebrew, meaning “living” or “to give life”).

Name changes in Scripture indicate a change in destiny; this is the first name change recorded.  The name change here is likely a profession of faith in God’s promise she would bear children, the offspring that would battle temptation.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12

Brothers and sisters:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
for the praise of the glory of his grace
that he granted us in the beloved.

In him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,
we who first hoped in Christ.

Our second reading comes from the beginning verses of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which has been called “the blessing.” Benedictions were a common way of beginning both prayers and letters of correspondence.

Brothers and sisters: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,

As is always the case in Christian theology, the blessings of God come to us through the agency of Christ.  This point is mentioned in every verse of the benediction, indicating its importance.

as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,

Salvation in Christ is not an afterthought; it was God’s plan from the very beginning, “before the foundation of the world.”

to be holy and without blemish before him.

The concepts of being chosen and “without blemish” clearly reflect Old Testament theology.  In the Old Testament, the victim offered to God had to be unblemished, blameless (Genesis 17:1).

Note that we are chosen not because we are holy and blameless, but in order to be holy and blameless.  In other words, salvation is the cause, not the consequence, of righteousness.

In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, 

Not individual predestination, but primordial predestination. God’s will for all mankind is salvation in Christ and everlasting life as his adopted (covenant) children.

“God in His love has predestined us to adoption through Christ. … We speak of ourselves as heirs of God the Father and heirs through Christ, being sons through adoption. Christ is His Son, through whom it is brought about that we become sons and fellow heirs in Christ.” [Marius Victorinus (A.D. 356), Against Arius 1,2]

in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.

This introduces a recurrent theme in Ephesians: mankind, understanding God’s plan, should praise him and give thanks.

“So that our love for Him may become more fervent, He desires nothing from us except our salvation. He does not need our service or anything else but does everything for this end. One who openly expresses praise and wonder at God’s grace will be more eager and zealous.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 1,1,6].

In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the one who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ.

Through Jesus, we can become God’s adopted children and co-heirs with Christ.  Adoption, redemption, forgiveness — all of these are grace, received from God through Jesus.  It is the reason for our praise of God.

Gospel – Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.

Today’s gospel reading is the annunciation to Mary, which is cast in a traditional pattern of angelic birth announcements (Genesis 16:7-16, Judges 13:2-7).

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.

Though this blessed event happened to a descendant of the great King David, it happened in an obscure town of about 150 people in Galilee.

Note that St. Luke twice stresses Mary’s virginity.

And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” 

The angelic greeting emphatically states Mary’s extraordinary dignity as a recipient of God’s favor and gracious love. It perfectly captures the meaning of today’s celebration.

The common Greek salutation “Hail!” carries the connotation “rejoice!”

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Mary has the typical reaction to an angelic vision: fear.

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

The appearance of the angel would have been fear-inducing on its own, but Mary was also certainly aware of the high price that was sometimes extracted from those who had found favor with God.  Examples: Noah (Genesis 6:8), Moses (Exodus 33:12), Gideon (Judges 6:17), Samuel (1 Samuel 2:26).

Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,

Note also the future tense: “will conceive.”

The parallel with Isaiah 7:14 was certainly not lost on Mary. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son…”

and you shall name him Jesus.

Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation” or “God saves.”

He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

This will fulfill the great covenant oath made to David that one of his line will rule forever and be God’s own Son (2 Samuel 7).  It also fulfills the covenant promise that Abraham’s name will be made great with a royal dynasty (Genesis 12:1-3, 17:6).

But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

The angel told her she will conceive a son at an unspecified time in the future.  She is betrothed to Joseph, so this would not be shocking.  Why then, would she question how this event could happen?

Mary’s question makes sense if she had taken a vow of perpetual virginity. The apocryphal Gospel of the Birth of Mary, tells us that she was brought up in the Temple as a consecrated virgin:

“When at length she arrived to her fourteenth year, as the wicked could not lay anything to her charge worthy of reproof, so all good persons, who were acquainted with her, admired her live and conversion. At that time the high priest made a public order. That all the virgins who had public settlements in the temple, and were come to this age, should return home, and, as they were now of a proper maturity, should, according to the custom of their country, endeavor to be married. To which command, though all the other virgins readily yielded obedience, Mary the Virgin of the Lord alone answered that she could not comply with it. Assigning these reasons: that both she and her parents had devoted her to the service of the Lord; and besides, that she had vowed virginity to the Lord, which vow she was resolved never to break through by lying with a man.” (Gospel of the Birth of Mary 5:3-6).

And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

This calls to mind the cloud coming down and overshadowing Mount Sinai when God gave
the commandments (Exodus 24:15) and the glory cloud which overshadowed and occupied the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34) and the Temple (1 Kings 8:10). Some commentators have seen this as a reference to Mary as the new ark of the covenant, which contained the Word of God (Jesus).

What Mary is being told is truly awesome: she is invited to be the vehicle of salvation for God’s people, a task that will surely demand great hardship.

And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; 

As a reassurance about the possibility of all this, Mary is given a concrete sign.  Mary’s relative Elizabeth, a woman past childbearing age, has also conceived a son.

for nothing will be impossible for God.”

This echoes God’s words to Abraham, when he assures him of the future birth of his son Isaac (Genesis 18:14).

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary does not turn away from God (Thomas Acquinas’s definition of sin).  She is totally open to God’s love.  This ‘yes’ of Mary is the culmination of the Immaculate Conception; it undoes the disobedience of Eden (first reading) and makes paradise a possibility once again for us.

Then the angel departed from her.

Note that Mary interacts directly with God’s messenger, without the mediation of her father or intended husband.  She is not only free of patriarchal restraints, her words suggest that hers is a completely free response to God.  She is a model of openness and receptivity, regardless of the apparently impossibility or corresponding hardships of her task.

Connections and Themes

  • Today’s readings all focus on some aspect of Mary’s Immaculate Conception:
    • First Reading: The story of the Fall sets up a contrast between Eve and Mary, while providing a ray of hope for a future redemption.  In Genesis, woman was created from man and sin entered the world.  In Luke, a man is born of a woman and forgiveness enters the world.
    • Second Reading: Paul reminds us that a graced and blessed life is also God’s plan for every Christian. Humankind was destined for adoption “for the praise of the glory of his grace,” and Mary was the first one chosen to be “holy and without blemish before him.”
    • Gospel Reading: Luke’s annunciation story demonstrates Mary’s unique status among humankind and holds up Mary as a model for our own acceptance of God’s will for our lives.
  • Today’s celebration is especially appropriate during Advent, when we recall the two great figures of expectation who prepared for the coming of Christ: John the Baptist and Mary.
  • The dogma of the Immaculate Conception acknowledges that the fullness of God’s grace and love embraced Mary from the first moment of her existence.  We rejoice because this saving grace of God is to touch every Christian.  We venerate Mary as a model and companion on our our pilgrim journey toward the total embrace of God’s love.
  • One of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin was that humankind would constantly struggle with temptation.  However, the scripture makes clear that all is not lost; we have not completely lost the battle against evil.  Today’s gospel reading assures us that a savior is coming to win this fight.  God is prepared to send a child who “will be called holy, the Son of God.” His name will be Jesus, a Hebrew name that means “savior.”  What did Mary, a simple Galilean girl, say to this plan?  She said yes, and it has made all the difference.
  • Unlike Eve who turned away from God’s will, Mary submits without hesitation. However, this submission came with huge risks. The punishment for an adulterous woman in Mary’s day was death by stoning — if Joseph were to denounce her (a very real possibility), she would lose her life.  By disobeying God, Eve lost everything.  By risking her life to obey, Mary played her part in God’s plan to gain eternal life for us all.

“Just suppose that you could have pre-existed your own mother, in much the same way that an artist pre-exists his painting. Furthermore, suppose that you had the infinite power to make your mother anything that you pleased, just as a great artist like Raphael has the power of realizing his artistic ideas. Suppose you had this double power, what kind of mother would you have made for yourself? Would you have made her of such a type that would make you blush because of her unwomanly and un-mother-like actions? Would you have made her exteriorly and interiorly of such a character as to make you ashamed of her? Or would you have made her, so far as human beauty goes; the most beautiful woman in the world; and so far as beauty of the soul goes, one who would radiate every virtue, every manner of kindness and charity and loveliness; one who by the purity of her life and her mind and her heart would be an inspiration not only to you but even to your fellow men, so that all would look up to her as the very incarnation of what is best in motherhood?

Now if you who are an imperfect being and who have not the most delicate conception of all that is fine in life would have wished for the loveliest of mothers, do you think that our Blessed Lord, who not only pre-existed His own mother but who had an infinite power to make her just what He chose, would in virtue of all the infinite delicacy of His spirit make her any less pure and loving and beautiful than you would have made your own mother? If you who hate selfishness would have made her selfless and you who hate ugliness would have made her beautiful, do you not think that the Son of God, who hates sin, would have made His own mother sinless and He who hates moral ugliness would have made her immaculately beautiful?” – Bishop Fulton Sheen

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