December 8, 2009
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
Theologians often make a distinction between "high" Christology, which emphasizes the divine nature of Jesus, and "low" Christology, which emphasizes his human nature. This distinction finds a parallel in the case of Mary. Today's feast would belong to "high" Mariology, because it celebrates a special privilege of Mary which flow from her status as Mother of God. Most New Testament references to Mary, however, belong to "low" Mariology because they begin with a very human Mary responding to the initiative of the angel Gabriel.
This does not in any way detract from the importance of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which celebrates the fact that she was without sin from the first moment of her conception. However, it does remind us that this wonderful privilege was granted to her by anticipation of her future status as mother of Jesus and, therefore, of God.
It is important to note that, as today's gospel makes clear, Mary's status as mother of God, presupposes her response to the angel Gabriel with that magnificent expression of love and trust and generosity: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). All the privileges of Mary derive from this moment of unconditional self-surrender to the plans of God. It should not surprise us, therefore, to see that the gospel of Luke devotes more attention to the Annunciation than to any other event of Mary's life.
The sinless condition of Mary, from the beginning to the end of her life, elicits our admiration and prompts us to be grateful to God for making this possible in one who shares our nature as human beings. Although we certainly cannot imitate her sinless condition, we can be greatly encouraged by this signal victory over evil. We live in a world of so much sin and violence that we are tempted to wonder whether the light really can overcome the darkness, as John's Prologue promises (1:5). But we are immensely reassured as we celebrate each year this victory of Mary, "our tainted nature's solitary boast" (William Wordsworth).
At the same time, we need to remember that this victory came directly from the willingness of Mary to accept a mysterious mission from God which, as she surely must have suspected, would lead to grievous suffering. We too need to make difficult choices that may demand much love and courage. And we too are aware that it may be very painful to remain faithful to the choices that God expects of us. In such situations, the generosity of Mary remains a wonderful model for us. Moreover, we can be sure that her maternal solicitude will accompany us as we try to live in accordance with our best instincts.
When we reflect upon the fact that sin is the worst kind of bondage, the sinless Mary is recognized also as the only one among us human beings who is truly free. Those who aspire to freedom solely through the acquisition of power should pause to consider that the ultimate freedom of Mary came through her resolute and loving obedience to the mission that God offered to her. She became a model of freedom through her loving generosity, and this will always be the only truly effective way to acquire human freedom and dignity.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.