Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception where we acknowledge the conception of Mary free of the stain (macula in Latin) of original sin. That is why Mary is sometimes called Immaculata (or the Immaculate One).
This is one of the four dogmas in the Roman Catholic Church and so this is a big deal.
While Mary had been honored from the very beginning of the Catholic Church this feast was not established as a universal feast until 1476 by Pope Sixtus IV. Even then it was not declared as dogma so Catholics were free to believe it or not. It was not until 1854 when Pope Pius IV defined it as dogma so this was not a decision lightly reached.
Dogma means that this belief is infallible so Catholics are not free to believe or not believe. To be Catholic means that we accept dogma as truth.
So what does this mean?
Our dogma says that from the first moment of her existence, Mary was preserved by God and filled with divine grace to prepare her to be the holy vessel to carry Jesus. Our belief is that because Mary was filled with divine grace that she lived a life completely free from sin.
She had been prepared her whole life for this purpose and yet when God sent the Archangel Gabriel to Mary – she still had a choice.
She could have said no but instead she choose to say “yes” and our savior was brought into the world.
A lot of people misunderstand this aspect of our faith. They accuse Catholics of worshiping Mary as a god when the fact is that we know that there is only one God and he sent his only son, Jesus, to die for our sins. We know Mary is not a god.
Instead what we have is great respect for Mary and look to her for inspiration and ask her to pray for us just as we ask our fellow Christian brothers and sisters to pray for us.
And it’s well deserved.
Mary is one of the most inspiring figures in the Bible. Here she is an unmarried teenager when she is approached by Gabriel to carry Jesus.
Mary knew that she was risking her life by saying yes. She could have been stoned to death for adultery since she was betrothed to Joseph but she took the leap of faith and said yes.
And it only got worse after that. She had to flee to her cousin Elizabeth’s for the first part of her pregnancy, and then she had to go on that uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem. And then she had to give birth to her first born in a stable! She had to labor among the stink and filth of livestock and then place her baby in a feeding trough. Then all these shepherds showed up and shepherds can be a pretty rough crew. They were gentle but that’s not exactly what a woman who has just given birth wants to see show up.
The three King’s visit was nice but that was immediately followed by a panic rush to Egypt to escape Herod’s attempt to murder Jesus. And she had to live in this foreign land until Herod died before she could return.
While we do not know much about Jesus’ childhood, we do know that Jesus did give Mary some fits. The most telling example was when Jesus visited the temple in Jerusalem when he was 12. As everyone left, Mary and Joseph thought that Jesus was visiting relatives and friends in the convoy when they suddenly realized after a days into the long trip back that Jesus was gone! Only a parent can truly understand the desperate fear of losing a child. Not only was this the Son of God – this was their baby (even if he was almost a teenager).
Finally, after 3 desperate days of searching they find Jesus - in the temple! And when Mary asks Jesus why he made them worry, they get a smart aleck answer!
"Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."
"Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
Yes, Jesus was the Son of God but he was no angel (especially in his teenage years)! But even when our children make us worry, we still love them and treasure our memories of them in our heart too.
Fast forward to the wedding at Cana, Mary (ever the Mom) realizes that the wedding party is about to run out of wine. The newly married couple were about to be humiliated because you just don’t run out of wine at a wedding. So, she turns to her son. “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”
What?! What kind of answer is that for your Mom?
But Mary knows exactly what to do. “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’” And Jesus changes the water to wine for his first miracle and the wedding party is saved.
Mary stays and helps Jesus when he starts his ministry. Even when he was snippy, she kept helping.
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Some might have been offended but Mary understood that Jesus was just trying to make a point and did not take it personally.
She stayed with Jesus all the way even after the other disciples fled. Even after he was turned over to the Romans, down that terrible walk to Golgotha even on to the foot of the cross where she saw her son die in the most terrible way possible.
Even after that, Mary stayed and helped the disciples and with the growing Church.
Our tradition holds that Mary was assumed (taken bodily) into heaven so she was spared death and corruption.
So, when you consider all that Mary did, why wouldn’t you respect her?
Sometimes today it seems that no one wants to be a woman. Society would have everyone be a man. Put your children in child care in order to pursue a career outside the home, compete in a “man’s world.” A stay at home Mom is almost viewed with derision by our media.
And yet, Mary shows that you can be a woman, a wife, and a mother and still change the world. Just like Moms do right now.