Solemnity - Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary
Friday, December 8, 2023
by Fr. David M. Knight
View readings for 1st Friday of Advent: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings
Lectionary no. 689 (Gn 3: 9-15, 20; Ps 98: 1, 2-3, 3-4; Eph 1: 3-6, 11-12; Lk 1: 26-38),
Mary’s Immaculate Conception is a key to understanding God’s mercy to us. To “have mercy” is not just to help someone; it is to come to the aid of another out of a sense of relationship. To give aid to panhandlers on the street, for example, while seeing them as "winos," or simply as "them" rather than as "us," is not mercy; it is condescension -- especially if we write them off as hopeless wrecks from whom nothing can really be expected. If a recovering alcoholic who used to beg on the street -- someone who has "been there" -- offers help to one who is still there, that is very different. That is to have mercy; it comes from a sense of relationship.
If God had saved us purely from above, without involving human nature in the work of redemption at all, that actually would have shown contempt for human nature. It would have been God's admission that the humanity he created was hopelessly flawed, and could only be saved as inert matter, by the unassisted action of God alone. And this was, as a matter of fact, an underlying theme in the Protestant reformers who taught that human nature is so corrupt that none of the good actions a person performs, even by the help of God’s grace, can truly be called the work of a human being. Martin Luther taught that we are saved “by the grace of God alone and the sole working of the Holy Spirit, without any human action.”
And we get echoes of this assumption still in those who insist that we are saved "by faith alone, without works." This position is rooted in the belief that no good work a human being does can be attributed to that person at all; the goodness of the action is due 100% to God alone. Those who think like this conclude quite naturally that to honor Mary, the Saints, or any human being for good deeds performed in grace is to rob God of glory by glorifying a creature.
Catholics, on the other hand, insist on the basic goodness of human nature. A modern Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, sees devotion to Mary as the key to this Catholic belief: “It is in Marian doctrine... that the heresy of the Roman Catholic Church is apparent... The “Mother of God” of... Catholic dogma is, quite simply, the principle, prototype, and summing-up of the human creature co-operating in its own salvation... Thus, that Church in which there is a cult of Mary must be itself understood as... that Church of man who, by virtue of grace, cooperates with grace.”
Catholics would say, “Yes, what is the problem?” This is because Catholics were never taught that human beings are so incapable of anything good that they can’t even cooperate with God by freely accepting the gift of grace. Catholics honor Mary for accepting to be the Mother of God and honor the Saints and all people for accepting and using the graces they are given to do the beautiful things they do. We say that when the Saints are the glory of God because they show the triumph of Christ's death over sin. The proof that Jesus really did win is that we are actually healed and restored, made holy by grace inside and out.
The Immaculate Conception requires us to believe that human beings have a part to play in redeeming the world. God became a man by taking real human flesh from a real human being. That is why Jesus is truly one of us. And that is the mystery of the way God "has mercy" on us: he comes to our aid as one of us. The Lord, the Christ we ask to “have mercy,” comes to our aid out of a sense of relationship based on sharing our humanity.
And this is the reason why Mary, from the first instant of her conception in her mother's womb, had to be preserved from all sin: it was so that the flesh she gave to be the flesh of God, the flesh which would save the world from sin, would never itself have been under the power of sin. Because of the Immaculate Conception, God could take pure flesh from Mary and “have mercy” on us as one of our own race. Every time we pray “Lord, have mercy,” we thank God for the gift of the Immaculate Conception which is a sign to us of what that mercy is.
Catholics are shocked by Luther’s teaching that “the redeemed soul is like a dunghill covered with snow.” Catholics do not believe that after baptism or confession we are still guilty and ugly in God’s sight, and that God just over-looks our ugliness because we are “covered by the blood” of Jesus. We believe that by his death Jesus took away (not just covered over) the sins of all who would become members of his body through baptism. We believe the sacrament of Reconciliation leaves us clean and purified of sin, beautiful to God inside as well as out.
The Immaculate Conception is a sign of the overwhelming power of God’s mercy to free us totally from sin. The fact that God was able to preserve Mary from absolutely all the guilt and ugliness of sin is a sign that God is able to purify us absolutely. The Immaculate Conception of Mary promises an “immaculate conclusion” to all of us. By the time we enter heaven we will be “without spot or wrinkle... holy and without blemish, like a bride adorned for her husband”, as free from sin as if we had never sinned at all.
And, the Immaculate Conception tells us God did not want to save us all by himself, without any human action, as if we were hopelessly helpless to cooperate in any way with his saving act. That would not be mercy but contempt. God sent his Son as one like ourselves, so that in Christ man restores to man the gift of everlasting life. The reason why Jesus had to take flesh from Mary was so that he would truly be a human being, one of us. God wanted us to know that the Lord, the Christ we ask to have mercy, comes to our aid out of a sense of relationship based on sharing our humanity.
Mary had to be conceived without sin so that the flesh she gave to be the flesh of God, the flesh which would save the world from sin, would never itself have been under the power of sin. Because of the Immaculate Conception, God could take pure flesh from Mary and have mercy on us as one of our own race. Every time we pray “Lord, have mercy,” we thank God for the gift of the Immaculate Conception which is a sign to us of what that mercy is.
Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry