1st Friday of Advent
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you”. In the Gospel this morning the angel Gabriel greets Mary full of grace almost as if that were her last name: Mary Full-of-grace. And she is in fact filled with the grace of God, more than any other human being. What the angel said is truer of Mary than of any other creature: “You have found favor with God”
The Church, in meditating on these words throughout the centuries, has come to understand the full implications of what they mean: that Mary was immaculately conceived, from the first moment of her conception. The common sentiment of the Church is that Mary never committed the slightest fault; she is indeed the Panágia, the “all-holy woman”, as the Byzantine liturgy calls her.
With the words of the Gospel in mind, the Church looked at our first reading from the book of Genesis, and saw there God’s first word of salvation. The text speaks of a woman, one single woman, who would not be overcome by Satan: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.”
In the reading, this woman is Eve, and God promises that her offspring would crush the head of the serpent, that the Redeemer would be one of her descendants.
But the full implications of these words are seen in the one whom Eve foreshadowed, another “mother of all the living”, who herself would actually give birth to the Savior. “Already then”, says St Augustine, “Mary was included in Eve; yet it was only when Mary came, that we knew who Eve was”. Christ, the promised offspring of the woman, would conquer Satan, “and therefore” (Augustine continues) God put enmities between the serpent and the woman, until the promised seed came to crush its head, the seed of Mary”.
In the case of Mary, the enmity between the serpent and the woman existed from the first instant of her conception, in virtue of the redemptive death to come of her divine offspring. The God and Father of Jesus blessed Mary more than any other created person “with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, in Christ”.
“Before the foundation of the world”, he chose Mary, chose her in Christ, to be “holy and without blemish before him”.
The phrase “without blemish” can also be translated “immaculate”, as it is in the Latin Vulgate, and the author of Ephesians speaks not only of Mary being immaculate, but also of us: the Father chose us in Christ to be holy and immaculate, and thereby take after our mother Mary. And there is much in us and in the world that needs to become immaculate.
And the two are related. GK. Chesterton was once asked, “What’s wrong with the world?” He replied, “I am”. There’s a man who never lost a sense of sin, and knew that it affects the whole world. That is because every sin diminishes us, and is an impoverishment of our humanity.
Mary was never like that. She is the immaculate mother of all those who live a fully human life because they are in Christ, the true life, whose precious blood washes away our sins. As we receive Him this morning, let us pray that he may strengthen us in our struggle against sin and against the forces of death now at work in the world. In the words of the old postcommunion prayer for today’s feast: “O Lord our God, may the sacrament that we have received heal in us the wounds of that sin from which blessed Mary alone was preserved by her immaculate conception. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”