The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

[Scripture Readings: Gen 3:9-15, 20; Eph 1:3-6, 11-12; Lk 1:26-38]

Fr. BrendanWhen the deacon was reading the Gospel yesterday for the Second Sunday of Advent, I couldn’t help contrasting it with today’s Gospel. Both are stories of the Word of God coming to individuals — John the Baptist and Mary. Both have a mission. But how different they are! John the Baptist almost becomes violent. He thunders forth as a voice crying in the wilderness. He calls those presenting themselves for Baptism a “brood of vipers!” Not a very warm welcome!

There are other instances of this type in the Bible. God comes to Moses in a tremendous storm, so terrible that the people don’t dare go near the mountain. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is not led into the desert, he is driven there by the Holy Spirit. The coming of the Word of God causes a violent upheaval—something dramatic takes place and life does not go on as usual. A radical demand to change is our only response. But there is another type of divine visitation—quiet as a whispering wind, gentle as an Angel approaching a maiden as in today’s Gospel. Listen to how the Word came to Mary. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.Lk 1:35. There are no thunderclaps here or cosmic upheavals. The power of God is as soothing as the wings of a dove, a cooling shadow cast by the bright cloud of God’s presence. Jesus is conceived in this tender moment when the Holy Spirit comes upon her and the power of the Most High covers her in its shade.

The Immaculate Conception: O, Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.Today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception flows out of today’s Gospel. The Angel declares Mary full of grace. We interpret that to mean not just at the moment of speaking, but from the moment of her conception. She is full of grace. What the Eastern Fathers call “all holy,” Pan-agia, completely holy. We apply the words of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to Mary: “Chosen in Christ before the world was made to be holy and spotless before Him in love,Eph 1:4.How can this be?” —the exact works of Mary, several times in the Gospels. “How can this be,” I don’t understand. But this did not stop her. Not to understand and yet consent is the example Mary gives us. It is what faith is all about. Eve is called the “mother of those who live,Gen 3:20. Mary is the mother of all who live by faith. The mysteries of her life from her Immaculate Conception to her Assumption are like a many faceted diamond reflecting Jesus to us. Let us look deeply into this diamond—at once we will see her prerogatives as the “theotokos,” the Mother of God, Then again we see her as the Sorrowful Mother. Look again and we see her not understanding, saying, “How can this be?” And we can go there, we can identify with this question and yet we do not stop there. Like Mary, we give our consent and believe in order to understand.

And so, the Word comes to us as it did two thousand years ago to Mary. Her silence speaks louder than the thundering John the Baptist. The favor of God rests upon her like a shadow—a cool shade in the hot desert—for she is “earth’s sweetness at its beginning,” (Hopkins).

Thanks to Hermanoleon Clipart.

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

[Scripture Readings: Gen 3:9-15, 20; Eph 1:3-6, 11-12; Lk 1:26-38]

Fr. BrendanMany priests who have to preach every Sunday subscribe to a thing called homily hints. Since priests in the monastery take turns preaching we don’t, as far as I know, have a subscription to homily hints. But most of us start scrounging around a few hours, or days, or weeks before a homily looking at whatever we read for “homily hints.” Once I was helped by the Loretto Magazine. Today I got an idea from a little newspaper called The Catholic Agitator. I love that name. Even if you never read a word of it, it grabs your attention, it agitates you. It sets out to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The format and the name alone do that, even if you never read a word, you walk away angry. It did its job.

But I always look at it. This issue had an article entitled The Rock of Jesus. It states that we are selling out to the god of materialism, the god of measurement, the god of quantification and the god of technique. This is nothing new. Our scientific world view has been around for a long time. It is the foundation to the way we think. It makes it difficult for us to believe in anything we cannot see or measure or quantify. Many changes in the church have subtly been influenced by this scientific revelation. For instance, the typical hagiography of the saints can leave us unmoved, what appeals to us is the humanness of the saints. We want to know that they were like us, not remote and distant.

Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us sinners who have recourse to thee.Yet, as soon as we say this we almost have to retract it. What church can you enter and find statues of the saints at eye level. I think it would be disconcerting. You would feel there was something wrong if you walked up to a St. Francis or a St. Therese meeting you eye to eye. It’s too familiar. We want our saints on a pedestal, their feet about five feet off the ground, so we can look up at them. For all our claim to be modern we know instinctively that we don’t want the saints standing on the floor. They belong on a pedestal.

This tells us they are remote, untouchable, unattainable, approachable only on our knees. Again, by instinct we know this is something sacred about their lives. Something we cannot touch. A hidden quality that we can only approach on our knees.

If this is true of the saints few much more true of Mary the Mother of God. How much more true of her under the title The Immaculate Conception. That Mary was conceived without sin is something we would never know unless it was revealed. Follow her life through the Sacred Scriptures. She is a real mother, pondering things in her heart, perplexed at the absence of her son, sorrowful at the foot of the cross. Her Immaculate Conception did not shield her from life, but it was the hidden holiness of her life. It comes from the grace of her Son’s Redemption. It is a grace we all share. There is in each of our lives a remoteness, a hidden grace, a redemption being played out daily as we respond to the Lord. We are not immaculately conceived, but we are conceived in grace at our Baptism.

Br. Felix LejaToday we celebrate Mary and we also honor one of our monks. Br. Felix is celebrating his 50th year of profession. There is nothing in his life to bedazzle us. Yet from 1952 to 2002 there is the sacredness of his life, hidden in God, remote, untouchable even by himself, yet present, waiting to be revealed.

I was struck by a phrase Sr. Kitty Lawlor used about St. Mary Francis Clarke, founder of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She said, “She knew in her heart what was right.” This applies eminently to Mary, because from the moment of her conception her heart was right. In every event of her life she was guided by her heart, her Immaculate Heart. In her deepest joys and sufferings she knew in her heart what was right.

After fifty years I’m sure Br. Felix knows in his heart what is right. He can look back on more than fifty years and see that his heart always guided him to what is true and right.

Thanks to Hermanoleon Clipart.

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

[Scripture Readings: Gen 3:9-15,20; Eph 1:3-6.11-12; Lk 1:26-38 ]Fr. Brendan

I think all of us could say we know more now than the day we entered the monastery. We know more about life, about the monastery, about our faith, our personal relationships, about ourselves. As we grow in age we build up a reservoir of knowledge that comes from life’s experience and which then is our personal fund of wisdom.

What we don’t have, however, as we grow older and wiser, is the thrill of beginning —the enthusiasm of youth, the excitement of beginning a new relationship, a new vocation, a new career. A wedding service is a good example, —the beginning of a family with the arrival of the first child. Beginnings usually lack the wisdom of experience but they have the joy and enthusiasm of newness, of youth, of innocence.

There is nothing so beautiful as an infant child. Everything about them seems to sparkle with the freshness of life’s beginning. I’m reminded of the opening words of the hymn we sang at Vigils this morning: “O what a light is this glowing around you.”

Statue of Mary: gift presented to the Abbey by Shin Seongwook of the Korean Broadcasting SystemWe don’t usually see many infants here in the monastery, but there is a family who brings their children to Mass here occasionally. They have several children. Anika, when I saw her, was about six months old, a real poster child, picture perfect. Last Fall when Holy Family Parish was celebrating their 150th anniversary, we all gathered in front of the monastery for a long procession to Holy Family. While we were milling about, Anika’s sister Megan — who must be 11 or 12 — carried her over to me. I said, “What a beautiful child!” Her big sister then said, “Yeah, Father, but she has a temper.” Megan was speaking out of her storehouse of wisdom. She was learning something we all know. There is a difference between how things look and how they really are. In a very simple way Megan is learning about the wound of life, –the division that runs through the heart. Every place we turn, we run into this fracture.

Today we are celebrating Mary’s Immaculate Conception, –the first redeemed, totally holy person. The Greek Fathers say Panagia, “the All-Holy” when referring to Mary.[1] Mary’s Immaculate Conception is not something we can verify like we can verify that it’s a cold day by walking outside. We know that by feeling the cold on our face. No. We know this only by faith. Faith is more like wisdom; it is not based on appearances. Faith tells us that no matter how sin abounds in our world, grace super-abounds. Mary is the first instance of the super-abundance of grace.

Our scientific knowledge can tell us human life began so many thousands or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Our faith tells us that at the beginning God infused his Spirit unto that life, –His Image right from the moment of conception. Faith also tells us that at the second instance of life there was a fracture — a sin. We pick up on that in today’s first reading, the curse of our first parents. But note: this reading is chosen for today’s feast day because right in the heart of the curse is a promise of redemption. By making this connection, the Church is teaching us that at the very beginning of sin there is a beginning of redemption. Mary is the firstborn of this redemption. Her life is a prophecy of what is hidden in all life.

In a poem entitled “Spring,” Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “What is all this juice and all this joy?/ A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning/ in Eden garden.” Elsewhere he says, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”[2] Someone is singing to us and Mary is the first note struck — strong, pure and clear. There is no uncertain trumpet sound here, no confusion of sin and grace. No matter how discordant the song of life becomes, there is always the sound of this first note — Mary, our ‘earth’s sweetest being in the beginning.’