Editor’s note: The following homily was delivered by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at Holy Innocents Church, Manhattan, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 2016.
This week In 2007, I was on a ten-day lecture tour in Mexico, and I was helicoptered up to a village which would have been about a five- hour drive from Monterey but which by helicopter was about forty-five minutes. We got up there (all I was supposed to do was concelebrate the Mass) and discovered there were about three thousand people at the pilgrimage site. The priest who was to be the celebrant was a very gracious man. We got started, a Sister did the first two readings and when we got to the Alleluia verse, he leaned over and said (in Spanish), “Would you like to read the Gospel?” Well, I don’t like reading the Gospel in my own language without preparing for it, but I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” After that, I went back to the chair; he went over to the pulpit (presumably to preach the homily) and said, “Folks, we have a visiting priest here today from the United States who is an editor and a theologian, etc. It would be ridiculous for me to try to preach today, so I’m going to ask him to come up and do it.” Well, a quick Hail Mary! The Immaculate Conception is difficult to preach on in your own language, let alone in a foreign language, and especially when you have not been prepared. I’ve done a bit more preparation today.
Let’s begin with talking about what the Immaculate Conception is not. It’s not what the average person thinks it is. When people talk about the Immaculate Conception, they generally think it means the virginal conception of Jesus. It is not that. Rather, it refers to the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother St. Anne, accomplished without the stain of original sin. It has nothing to do with virginity; it has everything to do with original sin. And so, it is what we might call a proximate preparation for the coming of Emmanuel – “God among us.” The sinless mother conceived in order to bear the sinless Son of God.
It took a long time in the history of the Church for this doctrine to be refined – it was only solemnly defined in 1854. Sometimes you’ll hear fundamentalist preachers say, “That just shows your religion keeps inventing new doctrines all the time.” Well, it wasn’t that it was invented or discovered in 1854. It was that the teaching had engaged with the Tradition of the Church sufficiently, that we were now in a position to say precisely what we understood and believed about it. But that was what we really had believed in a kind of intuitive way from the very beginning. It was all there in what we might call “seed form.”
In fact, Cardinal Newman shows how from the very earliest centuries, theologians like St. Irenaeus of Lyons believed this doctrine without having a name for it yet or a precise explanation. Irenaeus, for example, dubs Mary “the new or second Eve.” Just as St. Paul refers to Jesus as the “new or second Adam,” Mary is the counterpart and the co-operator in the realm of grace with her Divine Son. So, as Eve started the shipwreck of humanity, God used another woman to restore the God-man relationship. Mary, we could say, was God’s answer to Eve.
The Mediaevals were very fond of word games; they said that the greeting of Gabriel (which you heard in today’s Gospel reading, “Ave gratia plena: Hail full of grace.”),“Ave,” was the mirror image of “Eva” (Eve): A-V-E : E-V-A.
It was the Franciscans, like Duns Scotus or St. Bonaventure, who helped launch the Church on the road to a better understanding of what this dogma entails. It was a dilemma even for as brilliant a mind as that of St. Thomas Aquinas. The dilemma was not that Mary wasn’t sinless, but to explain how, since she was like every other creature in need of redemption, how she could be saved by Christ, which is the common lot of all human beings. But Jesus was not yet here! So how could she be immaculately conceived if He was not yet here? The solution came in discussing something called “prevenient grace.” The grace that, praevenit, comes before. The meaning is that the merits of Christ’s saving life, death and resurrection were applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary in advance of the actual events in history. Of course, as you know, with God there is no past, present or future. He lives in an eternal now. And so, in virtue of Mary’s future role as “the Mother of the Redeemer,” she is in fact redeemed in advance – in advance only from a human perspective, not from God’s.
The Immaculate Conception, we could say, is a clear example of preventive medicine. A doctor can heal someone once he has contracted a disease. Sometimes, though, a disease can be totally avoided by preventive medicine. We know, for example, that if they discover that a child in the womb today is carrying the gene for diabetes or blindness, that can be cured in advance. And so, the child is born without that defect. That’s precisely what the Father did for Mary. You and I, and the rest of humanity, inherit original sin and its effects, and we have to submit afterwards to the medicine called Baptism. God did something better for His Son’s Mother – she never had to suffer the deficiency, to begin with.
The Church, in honoring the saints, normally celebrates, not their birthdays, but their dates of death – their births into eternal, Heavenly glory. However, there are three exceptions to that: December 25 – the birth of Our Lord; September 8 – the birth of Our Lady; and June 24 – the birth of John the Baptist. And what do those three have in common? The first two, Our Lord and Our Lady, are conceived without original sin; John the Baptist is born without original sin. We presume that the moment of his sanctification is, not at his conception, but when Our Lady visits Elizabeth, and we’re told that the dialogue between the baby Jesus and the baby John results in John the Baptist leaping for joy. He’s sanctified in the womb of his mother.
All that, however, may lead us to take a little closer look at sin and, particularly, original sin. Sin is not something, like a black mark. Sometimes, in grammar school in the old days, the nuns would say, “If you sin, you’re going to have a black mark on your soul.” Well, that’s not a bad way to try to explain something to children, but it’s a little inaccurate. Sin is not something; it is a lack of something. It’s an absence – an absence of grace.
Adam and Eve were created in a state of original holiness, justification, righteousness. Their sin took that state away. And, you and I all inherit that deficiency.
When Cardinal Newman was trying to help Protestants understand who Mary as “the Immaculate One” is, he came up with a very clever title for Mary. He referred to her as “the daughter of Eve un-fallen.” You and I are the sons and daughters of Eve in her fallen state. Mary is the daughter of grace Eve had before she sinned. This reminds us, of course, that God’s original plan for us was that of holiness and grace, not sin and alienation. And, it’s important to regain that focus: to make that original plan our own personal plan.
Theologians call Genesis 3:15 the “Proto-evangelium” – the first proclamation of the Gospel. In the midst of that horrible tragedy of human rebellion against the Creator, God already foresees and promises a way of return, a way out of the mess that our first parents created. This drama would involve, the author of Genesis says, the interaction between a woman, her child and a serpent. Cardinal Newman, again, very astutely noticed that if the Bible opened with that scenario in Genesis, it likewise closed with the same scenario in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation, which depicts the final battle and victory of the woman and her child engaged in combat with the dragon. Mary’s Immaculate Conception, then, is a high-water point in the 4,000-year-long advent as the Chosen People waited for their Messiah.
Let’s, each of us, seek Our Lady’s intercession as we endeavor to make the Incarnation of her Son a reality once more in our own personal lives and in the world in which we live, invoking her with that favorite title which St. John Paul II created for her: Our Lady of the New Advent, pray for us that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.