Feast of the Immaculate Conception

This feast always makes me think of St. Bernadette Soubirous. 

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As you’ll remember, the Virgin Mary appeared to her in one of the last apparitions at Lourdes, and said, in the local patois, "I am the Immaculate Conception."  This was in 1858, four years after Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the Marian doctrine. And when she heard Mary say this, Bernadette ran to the local priest, to tell him.  The priest had asked for the vision to give a name, and this was the answer.  But Bernadette had no idea what it meant and so had to repeat it over and over, on her way, lest she forget.

Sometimes I feel that way about this doctrine.  I believe it, but find it hard to understand, and worry if I’ll be able to explain it in the right way, so that others will understand it.

The Gospel, though, seems somewhat clearer.  For one thing, the Annunciation, at least to me, perfectly describes the arc of a spiritual relationship with God. 
 
As in our own lives, the first step is God taking the initiative.  In any spiritual experience, it is God who makes the first step, with his grace.  Second, it can be frightening to experience God directly, to have the "Creator deal directly with the creature," as St. Ignatius Loyola said.  And we may be afraid, and need reassurance, like Mary.  "Do not be afraid," says the angel, for good reason.  Third, we may wonder how we will be able to accept what God asks of us.  And so we question like Mary does, in perfect honesty.  Fourth, in response we are often reminded--through prayer, through conversations with friends, through spiritual direction--to cast our mind backwards and look at what God has already done.  That’s what the Angel says to Mary, "Look at your cousin Elizabeth."  If you’re wondering what God can do, look at what God has already accomplished in your life. Fifth, we say yes, as Mary does, in perfect freedom.  Finally, God brings something new to life within us, for our good and the good of the world.

But what happens before and after the story, I think, also can speak to us as Christians.  Mary’s ability to hear the word of God in the first place depended upon her having a listening heart.  She had to be attentive, aware, awake.  Patient, even.  She had to have the stance that characterizes the contemplative, and which characterizes the saints.  That’s one reason that saints are often pictured with shells over their heads.  They listen to our prayers.  But they hear God’s voice first.

And what happens in the story’s final line?  The angel leaves her.  That particular encounter with God, at that moment, ends.  Who knows how long it was before Mary had as profound an experience with God?  When the angel leaves, Mary is left to do the hardest part of all, to be faithful to her call, as we are.  Even after a powerful experience in prayer or on retreat, we must carry it out.  This is the time for faith.

So like the Blessed Mother, and like St. Bernadette, we’re called to be attentive, to listen and to act, even if we may not entirely understand where things will lead or how we might accomplish them, trusting that God will lead us and God will bring every yes to fulfillment.

James Martin, SJ

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8 years 11 months ago
Thanks for what you have written. It has helped me to understand the dogma of Immaculate Conception and Mary's relationship to the Lord. In the story of the Annunciation we learn that initially Mary felt fear. In my life I have learned that our fears often point us in the direction we need to go in and these fears often provide us with the energy we need to go in that direction. God uses our fear. Being reminded of Mary's initial fear makes me feel close to her. Also if Mary can ask for help and reassurance, so can I. This is helpful. Scripture constantly tells us to pay attention and to stay awake. Mary paid attention. Like Mary it is hoped that on our journey, resolve will replace ambition so that we can continue to say yes to the next step. I have learned from Thomas Merton that Christian saints are often caricatured as extremists. Sanctity is beyond all extremes. Self-giving annihilates all extremes and is the center of humility. The life of saints are considered inhumanely hard because they are superhumanly simple. Their simplicity presents an obstacle to our nature that wants to hide itself from God in a labyrinth of mental complexities, like Adam and Eve. This is now how I think of Mary. It is good to know that Mary accompanies us on this path. Things have changed for me knowing this.
8 years 11 months ago
Thank you Fr Martin. I read your book. During last night's homily, I remembered what you wrote in your book about Mary.
8 years 11 months ago
Thanks for the insights. I appreciate you candor is saying how the feast can be confusing b/c it is to me. I only wish I had read them before I went to Mass. The homily I heard made me more confused than enlightened.

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