December 4, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Mary born without sin is sign of God’s mercy

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

Each year during Advent, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was infallibly proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854—nearly 1,900 years after the birth of the humble woman from Nazareth, who is the only person ever to receive this singularly important gift from God.

Catholics believe that, from the moment of her conception, God blessed Mary with the gift of his redeeming grace. Although she was a descendant of Adam and Eve, and therefore a member of our sinful human race, the mercy of God preserved her from the sinful inclinations that afflict every human being and from every personal sin.

Mary was sinless from her conception because she was called to give birth to God’s only Son, the new Adam, who represents a radical break from the guilt-ridden history of humankind. In Mary, we see fulfilled the promise of our redemption. She was not born sinless because of her own merits, but because God chose her to be the bearer of his Word incarnate.

Mary was the first person to be redeemed by Christ. This singular act of mercy came before she accepted the vocation that God intended for her. Mary’s immaculate conception made her a perfect steward of God’s gift of self. In her womb, the one who was destined to be our redeemer was nurtured and formed by God’s grace.

We hear a lot about mercy these days, especially in the teaching of Pope Francis. Mercy does not minimize the gravity of sin. It recognizes the weakness of our human condition, and allows for the possibility that we sinful human beings can—with the help of God’s grace—overcome even our most grievous sins and return to our rightful places in the one family of God.

Mary was granted this merciful redemption in advance, and therefore was strengthened by God’s grace in the face of every temptation. As a result, she was able to make the right choices in her daily life. Mary is, therefore, the supreme example of redeemed humanity. She is what each of us is called to be: holy, sinless and ready to follow Jesus—with the help of God’s grace.

It’s tempting to say that Mary had an unfair advantage over the rest of us. She was born without sin, whereas you and I have only our weakened human nature. But Mary’s life shows that she struggled mightily to accept situations she couldn’t possibly understand. The old man Simeon predicted that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. She needed the help of God’s grace—as we do—to handle life’s most challenging moments and to say “yes” to God’s will, even when it seemed to promise only pain and sorrow.

Mary was a woman of Israel. As we hear in the first reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, God leads his people “in joy by the light of his glory, with mercy and justice for company” (Bar 5:9). Mary believed this. She knew that the journey she was called to undertake would include much sorrow, but she also believed with all her heart that God’s justice and mercy would lead ultimately to everlasting joy.

Mary was the first Christian, the first disciple of her son. Throughout her life, God’s mercy guided her, and as her love increased she was able to reach out to others—especially the weak and fearful disciples who struggled to follow their Lord in the face of grave obstacles. The power of God’s grace allowed Mary to become what she has been throughout Christian history, a source of comfort, encouragement and strength for all who seek to avoid sin and live holy and blameless lives.

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is truly an Advent feast. It reminds us that Mary, our mother, is ready to help us prepare for the coming of her son. She is a clear and consistent advocate for the redeeming mercy of God who urges us to turn to her son for forgiveness of past sins and hope for a better life.

In her joyful exuberance, the Church assigns to Mary many exalted titles such as the Immaculate Conception, and all of these speak to some aspect of her singular place in the history of salvation. But we should never forget that this simple woman accomplished greatness with humility through her faith-filled acceptance of God’s will, and her willingness to allow God’s grace to sustain her in the face of every obstacle.

Immaculate Mary, pray for us sinners. Show us the way to your son, Jesus. Amen. †

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