One of the opportunities I have as Assistant Director of Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), is to record video reflections on the readings of the Scriptures proclaimed at daily Mass. I do so as part of larger group of colleagues at the Conference, along with lay and ordained leaders from around the country. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the readings for the life of faith today and to share them here, along with the written text of the reflections. To view these video reflections for past and upcoming celebrations of the Eucharist, visit the USCCB website.

Reflections on the Word | Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary | December 8, 2018

If you have gone to a movie in a theater these days, you often see ‘previews’ of coming movies. This has always been the case but it seems that there are more of them than ever. Sometimes you wonder when you will get to see the main feature movie you paid for instead of all the previews! In the case of the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, we see a divine ‘preview’ of coming attractions – a special grace given to Mary that reminds us of the grace we are called to embrace with her.

This beautiful solemnity – celebrated especially here in the United States as the feast of our country’s patroness – refers to the dogma of the Catholic faith that Mary herself, from the moment of her conception in the womb of her own mother, St. Anne, was granted,  a special ‘preview’ experience of the grace of God which Jesus, her Son, would bring to all through his life, death and resurrection. Because of this special grace, Catholic teaching holds that Mary from the moment of her conception – not only physically in the womb of her mother, but her being ‘conceived’ in the very mind of God – was kept from experiencing the spiritual ravages of original sin.

That sin – depicted in the mythical story of our first reading which tells of the fall of Adam and Eve as stand-ins for each one of us – is recognized by its effects in our lives from the moment we come into this world. We are assaulted by the realities of personal and social brokenness, sin and evil from our earliest days and we, and the whole human race, carry that wound with us always. We are unable to heal it without God’s help – the God who in love comes to our rescue in the person of Jesus Christ who, in turn, was first accepted by our Blessed Mother Mary when she accepted the word of the angel Gabriel – and thereby the Word of God – into her heart and womb, as we hear in today’s Gospel.

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the pathway by which God has chosen to enter our history as one of us, and brings us the overflowing love and grace that is God’s own self poured out for us. It is the mystery of God becoming flesh which we prepare to celebrate at Christmas.

But prior to that, was Mary’s “yes,” and even prior to that, there was God’s special “yes” to Mary, who, the church, teaches was given a special gift to experience the overflowing love, mercy, and salvation of Christ at the moment of her conception and throughout her life.

This dogma is a challenging one for many Catholic to understand. Indeed, it was not defined as dogma of the faith until Pope Piux IX did so in 1854 – one of the very few instances of a pope formally teaching that an article of faith is infallibly defined as part of the living tradition of the Church, or to put it another way, that the Holy Spirit discloses this truth which the whole Catholic Church believes, and it is affirmed as an unshakable aspect of faith through this special teaching ministry of the Bishop of Rome. 

Unfortunately, the teaching about the Immaculate Conception of Mary remains a source of some division between Catholics and our Protestant and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, even as we agree on so much more about our common Christian faith. However, Protestants do acknowledge Mary’s important role in salvation history and the early church which is rooted in the Scriptures. The Eastern Orthodox tradition especially honors here as she is recognized under the title of “Theotokos” – a revered title from the Greek language, meaning “Bearer of God.”

And even while it remains a point of disunity among Christians, this teaching should always be remembered – not only as a special grace given to Mary, but as God’s ever gentle reminder that the saving love which graced Mary’s whole earthly life – even from its very beginnings – is the same divine love which seeks entry into our own hearts; a love which seeks to conform us into the redeemed image of God set free from sin. Mary’s ‘preview’ of that love is what we are invited to experience by the God who called Mary and calls all of us.

The celebration of the Immaculate Conception is a reminder that Mary, Theotokos; Mary, the Bearer of God; the Mother of God, also accompanied the believing Christian community after Christ’s resurrection and lived a life founded on the promises God made to her. In doing so, she models for us what it means to spiritually bear Christ in our hearts, bring him into the world anew through our love and care and faithful witness. God’s ‘yes’ to her preceded and made possible her ‘yes’ back to God – a divine call and response that we hope and pray is the pattern of our own lives.

It is a timely reminder – a ‘preview’ – on our Advent journey to Christmas, of the joy that awaits us – not just on Christmas, but for our whole lives both now and in the life to come.  Let us give thanks for the love of God that is active in all our lives and, in a special way today, entrust our prayers and the needs of our nation to our Patroness – Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.

God give you peace!