Homilies - December 2008

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The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary: December 8, 2008 by Fr. Hilary

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

  • December 8, 2008
  • by Fr. Hilary
  • Genesis 3:9-15, 20
  • Ephesians 1:3-6, 12
  • Luke 1:26-38


“O see in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived”, sings King David, the humblest of monarchs, drenched in sin. The passing on of sin through generation was not something invented by St. Augustine; it was already the subject of the most profound lament among all those who shared the woeful tale of Adam and Eve. The recognition that someone had actually been conceived without sin, that is, the Messiah, Jesus, came as an ecstatic deduction from the early church’s realization and proclamation that the man Jesus Christ was also the Son of God; the same one who took away the sin of the world came from a sinless source. Only after many further centuries of study and devotion did the Church come to see that this sinless source was not only on the paternal side but also on the maternal and that her very own mother, Mary, was conceived without sin.

Jesus was the son of Jesse via his foster father, Joseph. Of his mother’s lineage we know nothing beyond the tradition of her parents being Joachim and Anne. It is said that they were probably anawim, ‘the little people’, those who sought sinlessness but who did not pretend to have it, those who were already unconscious models of the eight beatitudes even before Jesus preached his sermon on the mount. Did he indeed derive his text from them? With their purity of spirit they would certainly have recognized sin wherever it reared its monstrous head, and first and foremost in themselves. Surely none of them would have been so bold as not to sing psalm 51 and to apply it to themselves. Not even Mary would have thought of herself as not having been conceived a sinner like the rest of us. They all were; we all are. Heaven knows what would have been the crude teenage natter in the streets and squares of Nazareth on that subject. Not a lot, I wouldn’t have thought. You had sex, you got what you wanted – thanks be to God – and from then on the little monster shared in all the pain and suffering you did, and there was no way out.

Conception, any conception would have been a physical wonder, a gift from God – though doubtless even then there would have been a few around who would not have considered it so, who could not cope or who had too many already. How many might have considered it even a curse imposed upon them by God, as effectively so many do today in the interest of personal choice. But I think we can safely consider that Mary’s world, that of her play mates, would have been a world looking for divine procreation, a world open to the new generation, a world open even to the Messiah. Whose will He be? But not much talk about immaculate conceptions around the alleyways of first century Nazareth.

“The Most High has made holy the place where you dwell”, runs one of the antiphons for this feast (not sung here). That antiphon says it all. I have to admit to a certain lifelong discomfort with the term ‘immaculate conception’. It is unpoetic and rings of Latin technical complexity like a term from a manual, which it so often is. It just doesn’t sound like a divine operation, whereas the angel’s promise does. No newly arrived angel would have used such a technical term! The angel promises the Holy Spirit as the source of the child’s being, and promises the personal overshadowing of the Most High.

“Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (savior). He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end”.

Wow, was Mary to take all this seriously? What was she to say to the other kids in her street? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”, the angel continues, “Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God”. Our dogma promises a negative, un-stainedness; the Most High promises holiness, what he most wants to share with us: “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy”.

Yet, insofar as this dogma has had a rough ride through history, perhaps there is some native wisdom in the church’s keeping definition to a minimum. Much encouraged by his friend and biographer Eadmer and by contemporary Anglo-Saxon piety, the devotion, though not new in the eleventh century, certainly came to new prominence via the writings of St. Anselm, whose glorious treatise we heard this morning at Matins. It would be difficult to find another sermon which shows so clearly the truth of God’s consent to share the fullness of his creative power with mankind. In that sense, the Father too “humbled himself”: in the sending forth of his Son he shared that power with one of us, and her name just happened to be Mary of Nazareth.

Anselm conveys his message by the sheer power of his poetry, ultimate reality in the language of myth. “God himself who made all things, made himself through Mary”. Who needs technical terms like “immaculate conception” ? “God is the Father of all created things and Mary is the mother of all recreated things.” Incredible, isn’t it? This is little Mary of Nazareth, the daughter of Joachim and Anne, down the street, “though we didn’t realize it at the time, of course. I hear she’s gone away for a break, gone to see her cousin Elizabeth. Not surprising, she must have a lot on her mind.” “Yeah, the whole world, if you ask me; yet I’ve never seen her look so happy as when she left. “Our rabbi told us all to pray for the Messiah. I know Miriam down at number nun is really upset; she’s been praying ever so hard and yet no angel came to her.

“He who was able to make all things out of nothing, when they had been defaced would not remake them without Mary’s help”, continues St. Anselm. It’s an incredible testament to Mary’s place with God even before the angel came. She was quite literally, as we say so often, “full of grace”. We are on the way to holiness, if we so wish; Mary is holy from the beginning before the creation began.

Really it is all too much. Certainly it is for me but it points to the smallness of our vision of God. We have him in a box, like everyone else, like Mary, and yet he even made the box and we don’t see that. Mary is to be his Mother and that seems absurd; so too must seem the immaculate conception – to us but not to God, and that’s where it happens, that’s where it begins.

“Oh see in guilt I was born. A sinner was I conceived”. Yes, Mary would often have sung that psalm – but it would have been her only error, because she was still human after all.

Fr. Hilary Hayden
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