St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
Tel: 028 7126 2302
I love that quotation from Pope Benedict XVI that the Bible tells of a love story between God and humankind. Thus, each part of the story is integral to the bigger picture and makes sense when we see beyond the individual details. And where does that story start and finish? The Bible story begins with creation and – as we heard in our first reading - the reality of the Fall, our capacity to sin by taking the fruit of the forbidden tree. Our second reading today summarises that story, namely that we should all become God's adopted children through Jesus. And the Bible finishes with the victory over sin and death for those who have washed themselves clean so that they have the right to feed on the tree of life. (Cf Rev 22:14) On our journey, we are nourished by the food that comes from the tree of the Cross, the sacramental presence of the Christ's victory over Adam and Eve's sin.
That is where the Catholic belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception fits in. If we take it out that of that big picture, we risk worshipping Mary rather that Jesus. And Mary is the first to praise God rather than taking glory for herself (Lk1:46).
If we want to understand what we believe, the Liturgy provides lots of pointers. In the Preface of every Mass, we list our reasons for calling God 'Holy, Holy, Holy'. The Preface today points out that Mary was the first to experience the rich fulness of God's grace. She was the first to experience Christ's victory over the damage done by Adam and Eve's original sin. Because of that, she is described as the beginning of the how St Paul describes the Church, Christ's beautiful bride without spot or wrinkle. (Eph 5:27) Catholic teaching has always seen Mary as an image of the Church since she is the first of Jesus' disciples. She answers the call to bear Jesus into the world, long before Peter and the apostles are told to go and make disciples of all nations, bringing Jesus to the ends of the earth. This enables us to move beyond the more male-dominated image of Church as built on the centrality of Peter's ministry and authority. The Church has a Marian dimension before it has a Petrine one. Thus, when we recognise the dignity of Mary in the love-story between God and humankind, we recognise first and foremost the power of God's grace made available to all of us who can say, 'I am the servant of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me.'
The Preface then goes on to say that, because of the unique role and privilege given to Mary and because of her intimacy with Jesus, she is for God's people 'an advocate of grace and a model of holiness'. Like all who have been saved by Christ, God chose her before the world was made (Eph 1:4). The Gospel of St John shows her as the one who whispers to Jesus that the wedding feast of Cana has run out of wine. And the same Gospel tells of Jesus commending Mary and the beloved disciple John to each other. In that sense, she can be seen as the new 'mother of all those who live' (Gen 3:20), the new Eve. And we know that she was at the heart of the early Church in Jerusalem after the Ascension (Acts 1:14), awaiting the coming the Holy Spirit. From the time of the Annunciation, she already knew what it meant for the Holy Spirit to come upon her so that she might bear the one who will be holy and be called the Son of God. (Lk 1:35 Cf Mt 1:20). As we so often say in the first half of the Hail Mary, the angel calls her 'highly favoured' and full of grace' (Lk 1:28) and Elizabeth calls her 'most blessed of all women' and that blessed is the fruit of her womb (Lk 1:42).
In our liturgical calendar, this feast of Mary being conceived without Original Sin comes nine months before the celebration of her birthday on September 8th, just as the Annunciation on March 25th comes nine months before Christmas Day. But it also fits in with the Advent message. We all wait, not just for Christmas but for the fulness of our liberation from the power of Original Sin. Advent is not just a season of the year but a core element of our journey in faith for here we still see 'as through a glass darkly' (Cf 1 Cor 13:12). Today we celebrate fulness of what will be revealed at the end of the love story between God and humankind. And we honour Mary as the trailblazer of what we all shall be when God's free gift to us in the Beloved will be seen in all its greatness.
+ Donal McKeown
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