We’re celebrating a profound and rather delicate mystery today, one that proceeds both from God’s eternal plan and power, and from the intimacy of a childless couple who begged God to make their love fruitful, for his glory and for their blessing and joy. The conception of Mary, who would become the Mother of God, in the womb of St Anne is indeed for the glory of God, and it is for the blessing and joy not only of her parents but of the whole world.
The Gospel (Lk. 8:16-21) speaks of hidden mysteries that become manifest, of secret things that eventually become known. The beginning of the life of Mary in the womb of St Anne is one of these hidden mysteries that have been revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Church. It was a secret, so to speak, kept in the Heart of God, but made known according to his good pleasure when the fullness of time had come.
This divine mystery is known as the Immaculate Conception, the extraordinary preparation of the unique vessel of the Incarnation of God, a sinless body and soul which alone could be worthy to bring our Savior, the all-holy Son of God, into this world as man.
God has made Our Lady essential to his plan for our salvation. He wasn’t compelled by some ontological necessity to do so, for Christ could simply have appeared in this world as a full-grown man without taking the trouble to be conceived and born of woman. But God chose to do it this way, because God always does the most loving thing, and He always prefers to engage human persons in whatever He is doing, because He is a personal God. It pleases Him to involve in his mighty and mysterious works those whom He has created in his image.
So God has foreseen from all eternity Mary of Nazareth, the girl that He would choose to become the Mother of his only-begotten Son, when the time had come for Him to begin his mission in our world as our Teacher, Healer, and especially our Savior through his sacrificial death and bodily resurrection.
As this mystery was foreseen from all eternity, the mission and the relationships that are the fruit of this mystery are perpetual and permanent. For example, the very fact that God chose Mary to be the means by which the Son would come into the world means that He was establishing her as a mediatrix. This role is not a disposable one; it is an essential part of who she is. Thus Mary has been constituted “she by whom God came into this world as man.” Therefore she remains mediatrix for all time, not only bringing God’s grace to us, but since she was the way Christ came to us, she is also the preferred way for us to come to Christ. The Church’s spiritual traditions have made this increasingly clear, and they have borne immeasurable fruit for the sanctification and salvation of souls, and will continue to do so, for no one can undo what God has done.
There has been some controversy at times concerning the proper way to understand or speak of this precious mystery of Our Lady. Theologians of East and West have different approaches or emphases, and sometimes it seems that they go out of their way to make sure that their approach is different from that of those they consider their opponents. But such attitudes should have no place in the hearts and minds of those who say they are servants of God and disciples of Christ. So the Lord Jesus, perhaps weary of the bickering here below, resolved the issue in an extraordinary way: He sent his Mother to earth to tell us the truth!
He did this in 1858, and the answer was given to an illiterate teenage girl who was probably about the same age Mary was when the Angel Gabriel came from Heaven with his own stunning revelation. Well, Our Lady came to little Bernadette (who knew nothing of theological controversies), and she revealed to the girl her identity. This is what she said: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” As far as I’m concerned, all arguments cease when the answer comes straight from Heaven, straight from the lips of the one over whom the controversy began in the first place.
Through the way the apparition and revelation are recounted, we can see that Our Lady herself is in awe of what the Almighty had done for her. Bernadette had asked the Lady her name, and in the sixteenth apparition, the girl recounted: “[The Lady] lifted up her eyes to heaven, joined her hands as though in prayer, which had been held out and open towards the ground, and said to me: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’” The content of this vision testifies to the awesome wonder of this unique gift of God. Before she would even speak the words, Mary brought her hands together in prayer, looked up to Heaven in adoration of the One who lovingly bestowed this ineffable grace upon her, and only then said: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
The early fathers of the Church wrote of Mary as the New Eve, for she gave birth to the New Adam, stood with Him at the Cross, and in her glory represents the whole Church, which is Bride to the Divine Bridegroom, as the words and imagery of the Book of Revelation express. From a similar perspective that relates to the original paradise, Mary is called the paradise of the New Adam, for it was from her very physical substance that the body of the Incarnate God was formed—as God formed the body of the first Adam from the physical substance of the original earthly paradise.
But Mary is the New Eve for another reason. The fathers compare her faithfulness to God with the unfaithfulness of the first Eve. The first Eve was created sinless, yet she wasn’t omniscient or omnipotent. She still had freedom of choice, so she was capable of obeying or disobeying God’s commandments. She chose to disobey and so brought a curse upon the whole of mankind. But God was not content to let his creation be damned forever, so immediately after Adam and Eve’s sin, He spoke of a future redemption, a definitive crushing of the satanic serpent who led the first Eve into her tragic sin.
So, when the fullness of time came, God re-created, as it were, certain elements of the original paradise to prepare the coming of the New Adam, who would save the world. As the New Eve, Mary was created sinless, drawing uniquely from the redeeming grace of Christ which was not yet manifest in earthly time. But this Immaculate Conception, while freeing Mary from the pervasive and perverse proclivity to sin that burdens the rest of us, still left her with the freedom of choice. Like the first Eve, Mary was neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and it was within her power to choose for or against God’s will. But to our eternal joy, gratitude, and immense relief, Mary, unlike the first Eve, chose to say yes to God when the offer came to bear his divine Son as her own, as a human being.
Having canceled Eve’s disobedience with her own obedience, Mary, the New Eve, was then made the paradise of the New Adam, and his body was formed out of hers, and the doom of the infernal serpent was sealed.
In the Epistle (Gal. 4:22-31), St Paul speaks of the “Jerusalem above,” that “she is our mother.” The fathers of the Church, and especially the liturgical hymnographers, often connect any image of a dwelling place (tent, city, temple) with Our Lady, for she is par excellence the dwelling place of God. Now St Paul seems to be talking about Heaven when he says “Jerusalem above,” and this image takes us to the Book of Revelation, where we find a kaleidoscopic array of images concerning woman, mother, bride, city, and dwelling place of God.
I can’t go into detail about all that here, but we do find a striking image of the Mother of God, portrayed as a celestial Queen, robed with the sun, crowned with stars, and with the moon under her feet. Now this image can admit certain symbolic interpretations, but let’s not miss the obvious one: this Queen of Heaven is giving birth to a Son, the One who is taken up to the throne of God, there to rule all the nations. This can only be our Lord Jesus Christ, and the only woman ever to give birth to Him was Mary of Nazareth, Our Lady and Blessed Mother.
We also see in this image a reflection of the mystery of Mary as the New Eve. In the first paradise, the serpent sought out Eve to subtly deceive her and bring ruin upon the human race. But now that his cover is blown, he abandons all subtlety and appears as flaming dragon, filled with fury and hatred for this Woman who has resisted him at every step and who has succeeded in bringing the Savior into the world. So he pursues her and tries to destroy her, but, as it was from the first moment of Mary’s conception, the devil could not touch her.
The serpent-dragon then turns his rage upon—you guessed it—those who have allied themselves with the Woman, who are identified in the Bible as “the rest of her offspring” (Rev. 12:17). We are further identified as “those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.”
All of this is a revelation of what was formerly hidden, the secret that has come to light. The revelation of God is full of profound mysteries, and we’ll likely not get to the bottom of them all while we live on earth. But the Church has brought much to light for us, for the sake of our growth in faith and love, in understanding and in the practice of the Christian life. The Immaculate Conception is one of these mysteries that the Church has formally pronounced to be a revelation of God. So let us rejoice in this and receive the grace of this mystery, honoring Our Lady for her unique and unsurpassed holiness, beauty, and fidelity to the will of God. And let us give glory, thanks, and worship to God for what He has done in and through her, for it was all done out of love for us.
Jesus also says in the Gospel today: to the one who has, more will be given, but the one who doesn’t have, even what he thinks he has will be taken away. If we receive in faith and love the mystery we are celebrating today, God will take us deeper into his mysteries, and more will be given. We will become rich in the knowledge and love of God, of Our Lady and all the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven. So let us be among those who are given more and not among those who lose even what they think they have. And let us not fear to engage the serpent in battle, for we are fighting under the banner of the Immaculate Queen, whose divine Son reigns from the right hand of the Father. By his grace we shall conquer, so let us hear his words: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).