December 9, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

The feast of the Immaculate Conception
encourages us to say yes to God

The feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Dec. 8 is set like a jewel in the setting of Advent. Under this title, we honor Mary as the national patroness of the United States, and it is a holy day of obligation. Yet, the truth be told, this Marian mystery is misunderstood by many people.

What does this feast mean? It does not name the virginal conception of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This feast in Advent celebrates our belief that a woman named Mary, like no other human person, has been spared of our human sin from the moment of her own conception because of her singular union with God as the mother of Jesus Christ. Quite simply, Mary was born without the trace of original sin because of her closeness to God.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ” (#487).

As the mother of Jesus Christ, the handmaiden Mary became the only human person to be physically and intimately united with God. Indeed, she became the Mother of God. As the Mother of God, the woman of Nazareth is the only human person to be physically and so intimately involved in the salvation of the human family. Mary’s is the premiere, in fact, the unique human role in the mystery of our salvation. She represents all humanity for all time in the act that resulted in our salvation from sin and from death.

And so the feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates Mary’s unique relationship to God in the salvation of all the world. Because of her extraordinary closeness, indeed her union, as Mother of Jesus Christ, we say she was free of all sin from the moment she herself was conceived as a human person. Yet, when we celebrate the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, we do not celebrate some kind of abstract or theoretical closeness which the Woman of Galilee enjoyed with God. Indeed, we celebrate the beautiful closeness of a mother and her child.

Mary was honored with an extraordinary grace, but she cooperated with that grace. We do well to note that our human salvation hinges on a particular moment in her life. In an exercise of her human freedom, Mary said yes to God. She said, “Let it be according to your word” when the Angel Gabriel announced God’s plan for her. In complete human freedom, like us, Mary could have said no. In contrast to our first parents, Adam and Eve, Mary chose to obey the will of God. Our fate rested with her free choice.

Because she believed all things are possible with God, Mary could say an obedient yes to his invitation for her to represent all humanity in salvation history. This feast of the Immaculate Conception is a striking witness of the purifying force of God’s will in our life of faith as well. Her example motivates us to seek God’s will with confident faith.

When we celebrate our nation’s patronal feast, we celebrate the woman who honored all our human family by representing us in the mystery of redemption accomplished by the Son of God. When Mary is honored, we are honored as well. She is one of us. In the end, we celebrate the wonderful mystery of God’s grace alive in our human family. We are proud of Mary, who is our mother and our patroness as well.

We celebrate Mary, who in the face of God’s challenging request of her in his human mission, said an obedient and humble yes. We celebrate the courage and faith of a woman who was surely given to prayer in her heart. We honor her alertness of faith and pray for the same grace.

And so it is that the feast of the Immaculate Conception is appropriately a holy day of obligation. We owe incalculable thanks to the mother as we do to her divine son, for after all is said and done, our salvation is everything.

It is appropriate that, through Mary’s intercession, we ask that the miracle of God’s grace might strengthen us to be women and men of courageous faith as we say yes to the part God asks us to carry as salvation continues to unfold. Our role in the story of salvation will not be as awesome as that of the Mother of God, but in our respective vocations we are instruments of God’s grace, too.

Gratefully, we continue to say “Blessed art thou among women. Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.” †


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