Readings: Genesis 3: 9-15, 20; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 11-12; Luke 1: 26-38.
In the spring of 1858, the Virgin Mary spoke to Bernadette Soubirous in a grotto in the small village of Lourdes, in France. Bernadette was fourteen years old. A total of eighteen times Bernadette saw “a lady wearing a lovely white dress with a bright belt.” On each of her feet, “the Lady” had “a pale-yellow rose, the same colour as her rosary beads.” Pilgrims started to come to Lourdes by the thousands.
Still, her pastor doubted the young teenager. Her pastor instructed Bernadette to ask “the Lady” her name. On March 25th, “the Lady” told the peasant girl in her native French dialect, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Until the Virgin Mary spoke the words “immaculate conception,” Bernadette had never heard those words. In her catechism classes, Bernadette had not yet been taught about the immaculate conception of Mary.
The Doctrine of Immaculate Conception
Pope Pius IX had defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary only four years before Bernadette saw “the Lady.” On December 8, 1854, the Pope declared it to be a belief of our Roman Catholic church that “The Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved pure from every stain of Original Sin in the first instance of her conception through a singular gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God in view of the merits of Christ, the redeemer of the world.”
Let’s understand the doctrine. By saying Mary was preserved from every stain of original sin, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception tells us from the very first instance of her conception, Mary was totally God-centred.
The first sin was by Adam and Eve. God told Adam and Eve not to eat “the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden” (Genesis 3:3). But, eat the apple they did. What God had directly forbidden, Adam and Eve did. By their act of disobedience, sin came into the world (Romans 5:12). We call it original sin, and every descendent of Adam and Eve exhibits that same tendency to pride and disobedience. Except the Virgin Mary.
For ourselves, we believe that Jesus Christ reconciled us with the Father, frees us from our slavery to sin, and gains for us eternal life. By baptism, our sins are washed away. Should we sin after being baptized, we are cleansed by a “second washing” through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At her conception, as a “singular gift,” these same benefits were given to Mary.
But, do not confuse what God did for Mary with what happens to us by the Sacrament of Baptism. When the waters of baptism are poured over us, we are washed clean of all of our sins. The stain of original sin is removed. By contrast, by her Immaculate Conception Mary was excluded from any stain of original sin. At the very beginning of her life, God place Mary in a state of sanctity, Mary began life holy and God-centred.
Knowing Mary would be the Mother of God, the human mother of God the Son, God the Father suspended the universal law. God applied to Mary the merits Christ would gain for us by his death and resurrection.
Pope Pius IX defined the doctrine. The Immaculate Conception proclaims our belief that Mary, as a singular grace from Almighty God, from the very first instant of her conception, was free from any stain of original sin.
“How Can This Be?”
But Mary’s extraordinary privilege did not exempt her from the ordinary humdrum of life. When the angel Gabriel announced she would bear a son and call him “Son of the Most High,” Mary said, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” A logical question from the alert mind of a faith-filled young girl.
At the time of the annunciation, Mary was perhaps fourteen, maybe fifteen. She was betrothed to Joseph. A formal exchange of consent had been made before witnesses. Although she continued to live at home with her parents, Mary was called the “wife” of Joseph. Any infringement on Joseph’s marital rights could be punished as adultery.
Mary knew getting pregnant involved a physical act, and Mary knew she had not engaged in that physical act. Besides, any adulterous affair would go against her faith as a pious Jew. So Mary asks, “How can this be?”
And, if Mary were pregnant, people would know. Something like 200 or 400 people lived in Nazareth. Like in any small village, in Nazareth everyone knew everyone else’s business. When villagers would see Mary at temple, if she were with child, eyes would stare. And, it would ruin her betrothal to Joseph.
God expects us to use our heads, to question if something out of the ordinary happens to us. When the angel Gabriel told Mary she would get pregnant out of wedlock, that didn’t make sense to Mary. So Mary asked, “How can this be?”
“May It Be Done To Me According To Your Word”
Which begins us to something Mary also knew: that all things are possible to God. Mary questioned, then accepted as true what the angel Gabriel told her. When the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” Mary responded, “According to your word.” She willingly did what God wanted.
Her deep faith prompted Mary to say “yes” even when she could not understand. Mary opted for God in faith, hope, and love. With complete trust in God. Obedient to God’s will.
How different the response of Zechariah (Luke 1:18-20). When told his wife Elizabeth would bear a child, Zechariah asked the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Zechariah is saying, prove it to me and then I’ll believe. Well, the angel silenced Zechariah until the child was born. When suddenly he could not utter a word, Zechariah believed!
When God told Abraham his wife Sarah would have a baby, they laughed (Genesis 17:15-17). Abraham asked God, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Abraham thought God was joking! Then, Isaac was born, just as God said he would be.
But Mary did not worry. Nothing in the Bible even hints that Mary worried about being pregnant and not yet married. Joseph is the one who worried. So much, he decided quietly to divorce Mary (Matthew :18-20).
Asked by God to do what seemed impossible, Mary said “yes.” With a “eyes wide open” faith, trusting a risky “yes” would have a good end result. With total faith, Mary took on the difficult task of being the Mother of God.
Conclusion. Every year, on 8th December, we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Our Roman Catholic belief that Mary, from the very first instant of her conception, was free from any stain of original sin.
Still, Mary had to face the humdrum realities of life. And, she did so with faith. She asked, “How can this be?” when asked to be the Mother of God. Then, she said, “Let it be according to your word.”
To each of us, when God says, “Greetings, favoured one,” God expects us to discern God’s will, and then, with faith, to trust God will accomplish in us what God wants done.