2008-2009 Christian Liturgical Year: The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

The Church has told us that the Blessed Virgin Mary was born sinless, though I think it better to say she was born in a state of grace. The major reason is that grace is of primary importance in our relationship to our Savior. A second reason, important also, is that we’re at a time in history when we don’t have a rational understanding of sin. Indeed, we have a compromised understanding of Creation since we’ve not yet made peace with modern empirical knowledge and many of our ways of speaking of God’s revealed truths are drawn from pre-modern understandings of living creatures and of stars, understandings now known to be wrong. In particular, there’s some serious divergence between the man who is the subject of Christian theological and philosophical discussions and the man who is being revealed by modern scientists, historians, and other explorers of the empirical realm. If our ideas of man, in fact, our ideas of life and of Creation as a whole, are being revised, what chance is there that our ideas of sin remain valid? What chance is there that our beliefs provide a coherent description of God’s Creation?

But sin was never the main issue, nor was sinlessness. Grace was the main issue. “Hail Mary, full of grace.” “Hello Mary, how is it that you already share the life of God?” To emphasize sin or sinlessness is to return to the forms of Law rejected by Christ and, in greater detail, by St. Paul. Mary’s sinlessness followed from her fullness of grace. The grace didn’t come as a result of the sinlessness.

Mary was born full of grace. From her conception, she was in a special communion with God, a communion at least similar to that enjoyed by the resurrected if not exactly the same. The obsession with sin and the possibility or impossibility of sinlessness in our mortal lives can often hide God and His Creation from us rather than bringing us closer to Him. We should instead realize that we are bound to obey not only the moral laws which arise from our biological natures but also the more demanding versions of those laws given to us by Moses and by Jesus of Nazareth. We should also realize that perfect obedience of these laws doesn’t save us; it merely brings us to a more perfect state of humanity. Some Medieval Scholastics discussed limbo as a way of dealing with the supposed problem of the nature of life after death for ungodly but virtuous men. Perhaps this is an important problem but one that is a side-issue when we discuss salvation.

We are saved when God is truly with us. We speak truly when we speak along with God. We do God’s work when we act with God.

God wasn’t hidden to Mary. From conception, she had a relationship to her Creator more intimate than that enjoyed by others after a life devoted to learning the craft of sainthood. Mary gave her flesh to the Son of God and suckled Him at her breasts. She responded properly and without hesitation to God’s direct guidance in matters small or large. The rest of us often feel that guidance, or at least suspect it, but have trouble responding properly, trouble even discerning if that’s really God nudging us to eliminate a bad habit or even to explore the possibility of a religious vocation. Those who move freely with the will of God don’t have conversations with God to discuss the details nor do they get their instructions through angels. Those who wait for God to speak directly to them will waste their opportunities to serve God and His children.

Mary was already aware of the presence of Her Creator and was responsive to Her Creator without reserving any part of herself. From the moment of her otherwise normal conception, she was in that state, already saved but aware of her Lord’s presence and waiting for His guidance.

And now we should contemplate the meaning of this part of the story which the Church tells as we travel with Her through the liturgical year:

Mary bears the Son of God in her holy womb and God prepared her for this maternal task by forming her from conception to be fully aware of His presence and responsive without hesitation to His will.

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