A Meditation of the Immaculate Conception
For the honour of the holy and undivided Trinity, for the honour and renown of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian religion, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the authority of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our own authority, We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine that maintains that the most Blessed Virgin Mary in th first moment of her conception, by a unique grace and privilege of the omnipotent God, and in consideration of the merits of Christ Jesus the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore must be firmly and constantly held by all the faithful. (Pius IX, 1854, Ineffabilis Deus)
There are many dimensions to what we call original sin, from which Our Lady was preserved. God the Father is still very neglected in much Catholic piety. However, when you read the gospels, Jesus is speaking mostly about his Father. The Father is the final goal of our return. I would like to concentrate, therefore, on Mary’s relationship with the Father. The Vatican II document on the Church calls her, beautifully, “beloved daughter of the Father.” The Jewish rabbis say there is only one sin: to forget we are sons and daughters of the King. Mary never forgot that.
What was the interior act in our first parents which was at the very heart of what we call original sin? Some say sensuality: Adam and Eve were overcome by their sensual appetites.. Or, disobedience: God gave them a command and they disobeyed him. But were they just attacked by a fit of disobedience, not wanting to submit their wills to their Creator -–like the devil? Some say the root was pride: they made their own desires the centre of the universe instead of God’s will. Yes, these are all dimensions of the original sin.
But what was the trigger, the deeper lie, at the root of the sensuality, the pride, and the disobedience? You can’t really sin without telling yourself a lie. What was the untruth at the root of original sin? Listen to Genesis 3:3-5: “The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat the fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”’ ‘You will not surely die, the serpent said to the woman. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”
What was sown in our first parents by the devil was this: God the Father, the Creator, is not to be trusted. He did not tell you the truth. He is really trying to withhold something precious from you. Don’t believe Him.
Try to imagine the enormity of this lie: “The One who created you is not to be trusted; he is deceiving you. Don’t believe him. The One ‘chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight’ (Eph. 1:4), is not to be trusted. He who is Love, who can only act out of love, is not to be trusted. The One who desired to create other intelligent persons who could also enjoy bliss and life in union with the Trinity, is not to be trusted.”
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it is precisely this lack of trust which is pointed out as the root of original sin: “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience towards God and lack of trust in his goodness” (#397) We could say, then, that disobedience, pride, sensuality occurred because Adam and Eve allowed trust in their Father to die in their hearts.
In the first book he published – God in the Dock – C. S. Lewis elaborated on the theme that moderns put God in the dock: God is on trial; God is the accused; God is causing all the problems. We are okay, it is God who is the criminal; God is responsible for all the evil; he is the one deceiving the human race. For many people, even some who believe in God, he is not to be trusted. (What God do they believe in?)
The Immaculate Conception is a special grace given by the Father to this daughter of Sion, in view of the merits of Christ, that she would never lose her relationship of a loving daughter of the Father. Never would trust in her loving Father die in her heart. Never for a moment would she mistrust the One who created her. Never for a moment would she entertain the thought that perhaps God was lying to her, deceiving her, not wanting her to have the fullness of life. Not for one moment would she think that she must find her own way, and use her freedom in whatever way she wished, in order to become like God. Her being “disturbed” (Lk.1:29) at the Annunciation, and her human anxiety at the loss of her child (Lk.3:48) are human reactions, and not incompatible with trust in the Father. (It’s because we’ve confused these purely human reactions with sin that Mary has often been presented as inhuman rather than truly human.)
Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception was an extraordinary moment in the history of the world. God decided, you might say, to start all over again, to create another Eve, a human person whose trusting relationship with Him would be virginal, pristine, innocent, unquestioned, perfectly trusting. A new Eve who would be perfectly open to his plan for the human race. (The genealogical formation of this perfect woman is one of the great gifts of Israel to the human race.)
Never, throughout all the events of her life – the disturbance at the Annunciation, the arduous, fearful journey to Bethlehem, the incomprehensible slaughter of the Innocents, the hidden, wondering years of Nazareth, her sddness at her Son’s leaving home, the painat warching his persecutions, sufferings, and the terrible death – never for one moment would she doubt her Father’s love for her. Never for one moment would she mistrust him.
Even if Satan had been allowed to whisper in her ear, “Why did God allow you to give birth to this Man, only to have him go through all these sufferings, and this terrible death,” she never doubted her Father’s love for her. She never thought that God was deceivng her, or playing games with her.
In the Preface of the Mass of the Immaculate Conception the Church says that in this grace she celebrates her beginning – “your sign of favour to the Church at its beginning.”. When blood and water flowed from Christ’s side, the sacraments were born. At Pentecost, the Church was made visible. But with the grace of the Immaculate Conception, the new creation begins. As Eve was the mother of the first creation Mary is the Mother of the second. There was present in the world then, the new Eve, the first member of the Church, God’s second creation.
And when we were baptized, this new creation began in us. We have been radically restored to our first innocence, reunited with the Father, essentially given the grace of absolute trust in the Father. But we suffer still from this inclination to evil which the Church calls “concupiscence”. Again, to quote the Catechism: “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.” (#405).
In this spiritual battle we are called to struggle especially against this mistrust of the Father which tends to keep rising in our hearts, and which was at the heart of original fall. I wonder how aware we are that herein lies the essence of the struggle? We ask Our Lady to obtain this grace for all of us – never, never doubt the Father’s love for us, no matter what happens, no matter what temptations come.
The late and great Jewish rabbi, Abraham Heschel, after giving a public address, was asked - rather sarcastically - how he could still believe in God after the holocaust. There was a long silence, and then he approached the microphone and, weeping, said, quoting Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” That is supreme faith!
Our Holy Father constantly points out that Our Lady’s greatness was her faith. Faith here does not mean her intellectual acceptance of religious truths! It means her absolute trust in the Father. She never allowed her trust in her heavenly Father to die in her heart. Even at the foot of the Cross, watching her Son die horribly, she said, “Though he slays my Son, yet will I trust him.”
We ask her to obtain this grace for us. The Incarnation is the ultimate refutation of the devil’s lie that God is not to be trusted, that he does not really care about us. In the Office for the feast of the Immaculate Conception we read, from St. Anselm:
Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night – everything that is subject to the power or use of man – rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary. God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life.
Mary is the Mediatrix of grace. One of the deepest graces she desires to mediate to us, the grace that is at the heart of our innocence, at the heart of what it means to be a child of God, is absolute trust in the Father.
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