8 December 2008 Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
Gen 3, 9-15,20; Psalm 98; Eph 1, 3-12; Luke 1, 26-38
The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is indeed an extraordinary event. It tells us that God has ordained that Mary, who would be the Mother of Jesus, would be free from the stain of sin. Thus, Mary was given the grace of being conceived without sin because of her future role as the Mother of God. This grace is purely an unmerited gift of God.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception was established as a universal feast in 1476 by Pope Sixus IV, but it was defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854 in the document, Ineffabilis Deus. This dogma is supported by Scripture — the Gospel today — when the Angel Gabriel addressed her as “full of grace” as well as the writings of Church Fathers such as Ireneaus of Lyons and Ambrose of Milan. The devotion of Our Lady of Lourdes made the dogma ever more significant. In the apparition to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, she identified herself as “the Immaculate Conception”.
In addition, what made this event extraordinary is the realization that God has chosen an ordinary woman — not a beauty queen or a rich girl — to be the Mother of God. But this one great event of her birth acquired more ‘flesh’ in her daily life. She has lived this holiness every single day. So that what was once extraordinary became part and parcel of ordinary life. She carried out this holiness, which reached its peak when she said yes to the will of God, despite the threat to her life (Women caught to be pregnant without a husband were stoned to death). Furthermore, she followed through her promise to remain holy forever.
I believe that celebrating the Immaculate Conception is a celebration of a possibility: that ordinary people like us can live holy lives. There is a growing cultural pessimism about human nature. There is a belief that we cannot be holy thus we just have to be resigned to this view of human nature. No matter how hard we try, we will eventually sin. To me, having to be holy begins with a trust that our nature is good; that we can live holy lives. Often we become what we believe: if we believe we are forever sinful, then we become indeed sinful. Eventually, we become pessimistic of human nature. Many of those who do not believe in the goodness of persons have made a generalization. Because of their traumas and hurts, they think all of us are the same as their oppressors. For example, we know of those who have become bitter. Because they have been hurt by their boyfriends, they think all men are the same. Or because they have witnessed graft and corruption in government, they think all those who work in government are all dishonest and unprincipled.
But many saints precisely offered their lives in full service of humanity because they believe that every single human being is basically good. They believe that what God said in Genesis was true: everything He created is good. And thus, we are all worthy of His grace. Catholic theology teaches us that when Jesus rose from the dead, everything became new. Christ’s redemption freed us from original sin. We became God’s children, not merely God’s creatures. Do we not carry the Spirit of God with us? We are God’s temple and therefore we are holy. And if we respond to the Spirit of God in us, we, ordinary human beings, can live holy lives. John Brown defined holiness as “thinking as God thinks, willing as God wills”.
To think as God thinks and will as God wills can be applied to ordinary lives. There is a holy studying; a holy taking a bath; a holy talking to a friend. When we love someone as God loves, then we put forth who we really are.