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Immaculate Conception

December 8, 2004

Blessed Solemnity!

Genesis 3:9-15, 20
Psalm 98:1-4 “Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous deeds”
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
+ Luke 1:26-38

“Because you have done this…I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel” (Genesis 3:14 & 15). Thus does God introduce the battle that has raged ever since, in which Eve (whose name means “mother of all the living”) and her children oppose the serpent, whose identifying mark is sin. What makes the battle even more difficult is that fact that we, the children of Eve, bear that identifying mark of sin ourselves, having inherited the wound of Adam’s fall (we call it original sin). The enemy has a stronghold within the very territory we are trying to defend! That would never do. One who is in any way in league with the devil cannot crush his head! God knew that, knew it fully even before He created Adam! He was not caught unprepared…

“As He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted in His sight in charity” (Ephesians 1:4)

God chose us in Christ before the beginning of the world! He chose us to be spotless, freed from the mark of sin. He accomplished that in time through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus, the ultimate “seed of the woman”, who made possible the cleansing waters of Baptism in which we die and are raised with Him. That mark of sin dies and is washed away when we are reborn (Romans 6:4-11).

But just as the first Adam had the help of a woman in our downfall, the new Adam (Jesus) had a new Eve who prepared the way for our salvation. She needed to be wholly free from the mark of sin, to have no allegiance to the enemy of souls. She needed the perfect freedom from the serpent’s tooth that the first Eve had enjoyed before she succumbed. If God could choose us before the foundation of the world, could He not choose His own mother? And if He knew before the foundation of the world that she would need this freedom (for our sake!), and that Jesus’ death would make it possible, would He withhold it from her? Time is no obstacle to the Eternal One. The Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), can apply His salvation at any moment He chooses.

The angel Gabriel confirms that God did indeed give Mary this freedom when he addresses Mary with the words, “Hail, Full of Grace” (Luke 1:28 –most newer translations say something like, “Rejoice highly favored one”, which isn’t as accurate a rendering of the Greek). Grace is a supernatural sharing in the divine life that can only be full where there is no sin. In giving Mary the title “Full of Grace”, Gabriel acknowledged the gifts God had given her, gifts of a sinless purity and of His own divine life. She was chosen, spotless, immaculate, and she always had been. That’s what we mean when we celebrate her “Immaculate Conception”. She was conceived within marriage in the normal way, except that she was protected against original sin from the very moment of her conception.

“[Mary] then was so excellently redeemed, that though when the time came,
the torrent of original iniquity rushed to pour its unhappy waves over her conception,
with as much impetuosity as it had done on that of other daughters of Adam;
yet when it reached there it passed not beyond, but stopped,
as did anciently Jordan in the time of Joshua, and for the same respect:
for this river held its stream in reverence for the passage of the Ark of Alliance;
and original sin drew back its waters,
revering and dreading the presence of the true Tabernacle of the eternal alliance.
In this way then God turned away all captivity from his glorious Mother,
giving her the blessing of both the states of human nature;
since she had the innocence which the first Adam had lost,
and enjoyed in an excellent sort the redemption acquired for her.”
Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales refers to a type (in theology, a “type” is a foreshadowing) of Mary in the Old Testament. The Ark of the Covenant (the Ark of Alliance) was the center of Hebrew worship because it was the focal point of the Presence of God among His people (Exodus 25:22). Mary is referred to as the new Ark of the Covenant (the original one was hidden for safekeeping around the time of the Babylonian exile–see 2 Maccabees 2: 4-8–and has been missing ever since) because she bore the Presence of God within her very womb. A correlation between Mary and the Ark can also be seen in Revelation 11:19-12:1, in which the appearance of the Ark in Heaven is followed immediately by a vision of a woman clothed with the sun with the moon beneath her feet.

St. Francis de Sales gives a mystical interpretation of a story told in Joshua 3. The people of Israel, having left Egypt and wandered in the desert for forty years, had finally arrived at the border of the Promised Land and were ready to enter and occupy their new homeland. To do that, they had to cross the Jordan River, which was at flood stage. God commanded the people to purify themselves, then commanded that the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant go first. As soon as these priests stepped into the water, the river stopped flowing, and backed up in a solid mass while the people marched across on dry ground. St. Francis de Sales sees the water as a representation of original sin, and the Ark as a foreshadowing of Mary. If natural water would stop flowing out of reverence for the Ark of the Covenant, surely the waters of original sin would be held back in the presence of the one who bore God Incarnate.

Mary, as the New Eve, is the new “mother of all the living”. The living are those who are no longer dead in sin, who have been made alive in Christ through the holy waters of Baptism (see Ephesians 2:4-7). This is to say that she is the Mother of the Church, and of each individual within the Church. One of her roles as Mother is to be our model, to hold before us a standard of spotless purity, and of a whole-hearted “yes” to God. She who has never been under the dominion of the serpent wants us to be free from his bondage as well. She doesn’t want us to be handicapped in our fight against the enemy of our souls, in our quest for eternal life. To that end, she has left us one very simple command: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). We must not only say “no” to sin. We must say “yes”, without reservation, to God.

May the beauty of the Immaculate Conception inspire us to new fervor in keeping our Baptismal robes unspotted until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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