On Thursday, March 25, 1858, standing in the Grotto of Massabielle, Lourdes, Our Lady identified herself as the Immaculate Conception. This self-revelation, four years after the proclamation of the dogma of this mystery of our faith, belongs to the core of her message to St. Bernadette and is unique compared to other apparitions. As the Immaculate Conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary resembles and proclaims God’s authentic, i.e. immaculate, concept of the human person created in his image and likeness. To say it differently: in Mary’s person radiates forth the authentic blueprint that God designed for each of his children. It follows that she is the ideal exception and we are the unfortunate rule of God’s wish for us!
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception celebrated on December 8 honors Our Lady as the personification of the re-created order in Christ. Having been pre-redeemed and fully redeemed, Mary’s spiritual wealth constitutes that dimension of her being which is veiled to the outside and transcends time and matter. In its depth it is fully known only to God. St. John Paul II emphasized that, while Mary’s earthly pilgrimage can be compared to that of all human persons bound to “the concrete circumstances of history” (Redemptoris Mater, §8), the extraordinary gift of her Immaculate Conception highlights that “Mary is wholly exceptional and unique,” which refers above all to “the singularity and uniqueness of her place in the mystery of Christ” (RM §9). Long before she had reached the state of consciousness, the interior disposition of her personhood was “fashioned by grace and the object of divine favor to the point that she can be defined by this special predilection.”
Contrary to some who opine that Mary’s privilege compromised her freedom, Catholic doctrine argues that Mary is supremely free for God and thus with every fiber of her being receptive to his call. The interpersonal dialogue between the handmaid of the Lord and the angel underscores the effect of grace in her life and action. Since grace does not destroy nature but leads to nature’s true nobility, Mary’s fiat—“let it be done” (Lk 1:38)—is an expression of the integrity of her person in action, leading her to self-fulfillment and self-transcendence. Thus, in virtue of her Immaculate Conception, Mary is the first to share in the “new self-giving of God” (RM §36), thereby assuming her mission to cooperate in the salvation of the human race like no other human person.
Each one of us has encountered God’s grace working in and through us. We are also at times painfully aware of our flaws and sins, which weaken or even prevent the effects of grace to unfold. The Immaculate Conception reminds us dramatically of the true meaning of sin. The Greek word for sin is harmatia, which translates “to miss the target.” Thus, each time we freely and consciously give in to sin, we fail to stay on target and fall below our possibilities of being and becoming fully human. The Catechism attributes three lacks to the person who is off target: a lack of harmony of the soul over the body, a lack of harmony between men and women, and a lack of harmony with creation (cf. CCC §400). This threefold harmony, lost through original sin and its effects, remained intact in Our Lady.
Father Joseph Kentenich, the founder of the International Schoenstatt Family, emphasizes that the Immaculate Conception draws attention to the dignity and value of the human person. Thanks to her preservation from original sin and her intimate union with Christ, Mary possesses the fullness of natural and supernatural life. Owing to her receptivity to the gift of integrity—donum integritatis—“there is at least one human being who walked upon this earth completely pure and untouched.” Schoenstatt’s founder was convinced that our desire “for the perfect harmony between our animal nature and our spiritual nature, and between our spiritual nature and our supernatural nature, is like the eagle’s cry of the soul for . . . the Immaculata ideal.”
The second reading on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (Eph 1:3–6, 11–12) confirms that we are all chosen and called “to be holy and blameless in his sight and to be full of love.” Mary Immaculate is not only the archetype of this universal calling of God’s children, but she is also our Mother in the order of grace who cooperates in the work of our salvation through faith and obedience (cf. Lumen Gentium, §56). Let us ponder some lessons the dogma teaches us in order to stay spiritually on target:
- The Immaculate Conception conveys to us God’s pure and unconditional desire to share his love with us. True love is not utilitarian! It involves risking rejection and disappointment: will she live up to her calling and election? At our Baptism, we received the gift of baptismal innocence, “a rich reality that includes forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, birth into the new life by which man becomes an adoptive son of the Father, member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit” (CCC1279). While invisible to the natural eye, the indelible baptismal seal is God’s loving invitation to eternal communion with him. Is my life an expression of integrity leading me closer to God?
- The Immaculate Conception emphasizes the true grandeur and nobility of Mary. She is full of grace from the first instant of her existence, i.e., without personal merit. Embracing God’s salvific will with a full heart, unimpeded by sin, she devoted herself totally as the handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, and thus was “exalted by the Lord as Queen of the universe” (LG59). Does my life reflect the state of royal freedom proper to Christ’s disciples where to serve means to reign (cf. RM §41)?
- The Immaculate Conception reveals the original unity of our relationship to God, self, others, and creation. Challenged by this immaculate concept we are led to discover the wealth of our human and religious identity. At the same time, the Immaculate Conception is also our spiritual Mother who forms the likeness of Jesus Christ in us. Christ’s perfecting love, however, always leads to Golgotha, where our conformity to Christ is perfected. Will I follow Christ to the Cross and stand firm beside his Mother there?
- The Immaculate Conception is our champion and challenge to attain the natural and supernatural harmony of a child of God. Mary’s privilege helps us to understand more profoundly the gift of redemption as a gift of God’s free and gratuitous love. God’s gift beckons for our gift of self in return. As we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child, who is at the same time our Redeemer, what will my gift to him be? Can I consciously try to stay more faithfully on target? We live in a competitive culture. Striving for holiness in a somewhat ‘competitive’ manner can help us not only to stay well balanced but also to reach out for God’s concept of who he created us to be. Let us turn to Our Lady, asking for her intercession to live in God’s presence without sin.
Blessed feast day!
Featured Image: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), The Immaculate Conception, detail (1767–68); courtesy Wikimedia Commons.