The readings for the feast of the Immaculate Conception are rich in meaning, but frequently misunderstood when viewed through the lens of the feast itself. First, contrary to some artistic depictions of the Immaculate Conception, the Genesis account states that it is the woman’s offspring rather than the woman herself who will strike the serpent’s head. Furthermore, the Gospel reading recounts the annunciation and miraculous conception of Jesus, not the immaculate conception of Mary. It is no wonder there is confusion. Nonetheless, the feast really does hold significance for us today.
All of the readings speak of God’s tender mercy and saving action on behalf of sinners. Despite the constant hostility between the serpent and the woman, between the various manifestations of temptation and her children (Gen 3:15), God has given sinful people chance after chance to start again. The psalm response acclaims God’s kindness and faithfulness in offering salvation. Paul makes this very clear as well in his letter. We are not chosen because we are holy and blameless, but we are chosen so that we might become holy and blameless. Salvation is the cause of holiness, not its reward. And Christ is the one through whom all of this is accomplished (Eph 1:3). The Gospel account, though it concentrates on Mary, is really the prelude to the story of God’s saving action through Christ, the offspring who will crush the head of evil.
This feast shows that, like the rest of us, Mary was chosen not because she was holy, but she was made holy because she was chosen. And as with us, the source of her holiness was the generous love of God acting through the Holy Spirit. All the privileges that Mary enjoyed sprang from her participation in the work of God accomplished through Jesus. We may not be able to claim such extraordinary privileges for ourselves, but we too have been chosen, called to participate in God’s work of salvation; we too exist for the praise of God’s glory.
We must never forget that the extraordinary nature of Mary’s privilege did not exempt her from ordinary, perhaps even humdrum, life. She did not stand apart in the nature of her life, but rather in the quality of her living. In this, she can be a model for all of us, chosen by God and set apart to be holy while living faithfully within the particular circumstances of life.