Saturday, December 8, 2007
SOLEMNITY OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION (8-12-07)
Today's feast is one that places Advent in perspective – Mary is being prepared to be the mother of the Saviour and this is done by ensuring that from the first moment of her conception she is kept free from all sin – she is all-holy. In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”
For those of us who are part of the Salesian family this feast recalls the pivotal moment in the development of our charism. On 8th December 1841 Don Bosco encounters Bartholomew Garelli and this signifies his movement from intention to action. He now begins to make his dream - of serving the poor and abandoned - a reality.
I want to focus our attention this morning on the IC in the light of the recent encyclical of our Holy Father released 30th November entitled “Spe Salvi” on Christian Hope. It is my firm conviction that the entire life of Mary is a parable for us of Christian hope. At this moment I invite you to listen to all the readings of our liturgy today from the perspective of the hope that God offers us in sending us his son born of Mary.
It is always hard to preach on a Marian feast that is so well-known. It is harder still when this feast follows a triduum of sermons, and it becomes almost impossible when one has not had the opportunity to hear all that was said in the triduum. So you will pardon me if I repeat something said during the triduum.
Running through the readings of our liturgy today is the theme of hope. The IC stands as a symbol of Christian Hope. It is God’s sign that he has not given up on sinful humanity. Even after man and woman sin in the garden God promises to send the seed of the woman to crush sin and the devil (First Reading) He sends his Son to save us – a part of his eternal plan of salvation - and Mary is the instrument of the Incarnation (Second Reading). And God prepares Mary for this great mission by ensuring that she is sinless so that she can be a fit dwelling place for the Sinless Son of God. Mary’s Fiat is her acceptance of this mission which the Angel Gabriel announces to her (Gospel). Her presence on earth is therefore a harbinger of hope – a clear statement that God still loves the world.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the mass we make the focus of our reflection the recent encyclical of our Holy Father “Spe Salvi” on Christian Hope (19,000-word encyclical). It is my firm conviction that the entire life of Mary is a parable for us of Christian hope. In fact the last two articles of the encyclical are subtitled – Mary, Star of Hope. Allow me to share with you some of the key contents of this section before we move to some of the practical ways proposed in the encyclical to build up hope.
Allow me to cite the words of our Holy Father himself, they are so beautiful and poetic I would hesitate to paraphrase them for fear of destroying their meaning...
Mary, Star of Hope
49. With a hymn composed in the eighth or ninth century, thus for over a thousand years, the Church has greeted Mary, the Mother of God, as “Star of the Sea”: Ave maris stella. Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her “yes” she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14).
50. So we cry to her: Holy Mary, you belonged to the humble and great souls of Israel who, like Simeon, were “looking for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25) and hoping, like Anna, “for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38). Your life was thoroughly imbued with the sacred scriptures of Israel which spoke of hope, of the promise made to Abraham and his descendants (cf. Lk 1:55). In this way we can appreciate the holy fear that overcame you when the angel of the Lord appeared to you and told you that you would give birth to the One who was the hope of Israel, the One awaited by the world. Through you, through your “yes”, the hope of the ages became reality, entering this world and its history. You bowed low before the greatness of this task and gave your consent: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). When you hastened with holy joy across the mountains of Judea to see your cousin Elizabeth, you became the image of the Church to come, which carries the hope of the world in her womb across the mountains of history. But alongside the joy which, with your Magnificat you proclaimed in word and song for all the centuries to hear, you also knew the dark sayings of the prophets about the suffering of the servant of God in this world. Shining over his birth in the stable at Bethlehem, there were angels in splendour who brought the good news to the shepherds, but at the same time the lowliness of God in this world was all too palpable. The old man Simeon spoke to you of the sword which would pierce your soul (cf. Lk 2:35), of the sign of contradiction that your Son would be in this world. Then, when Jesus began his public ministry, you had to step aside, so that a new family could grow, the family which it was his mission to establish and which would be made up of those who heard his word and kept it (cf. Lk 11:27f). Notwithstanding the great joy that marked the beginning of Jesus's ministry, in the synagogue of Nazareth you must already have experienced the truth of the saying about the “sign of contradiction” (cf. Lk 4:28ff). In this way you saw the growing power of hostility and rejection which built up around Jesus until the hour of the Cross, when you had to look upon the Saviour of the world, the heir of David, the Son of God dying like a failure, exposed to mockery, between criminals. Then you received the word of Jesus: “Woman, behold, your Son!” (Jn 19:26). From the Cross you received a new mission. From the Cross you became a mother in a new way: the mother of all those who believe in your Son Jesus and wish to follow him. The sword of sorrow pierced your heart. Did hope die? Did the world remain definitively without light, and life without purpose? At that moment, deep down, you probably listened again to the word spoken by the angel in answer to your fear at the time of the Annunciation: “Do not be afraid, Mary!” (Lk 1:30). How many times had the Lord, your Son, said the same thing to his disciples: do not be afraid! In your heart, you heard this word again during the night of Golgotha. Before the hour of his betrayal he had said to his disciples: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). “Do not be afraid, Mary!” In that hour at Nazareth the angel had also said to you: “Of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:33). Could it have ended before it began? No, at the foot of the Cross, on the strength of Jesus's own word, you became the mother of believers. In this faith, which even in the darkness of Holy Saturday bore the certitude of hope, you made your way towards Easter morning. The joy of the Resurrection touched your heart and united you in a new way to the disciples, destined to become the family of Jesus through faith. In this way you were in the midst of the community of believers, who in the days following the Ascension prayed with one voice for the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:14) and then received that gift on the day of Pentecost. The “Kingdom” of Jesus was not as might have been imagined. It began in that hour, and of this “Kingdom” there will be no end. Thus you remain in the midst of the disciples as their Mother, as the Mother of hope. Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to his Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!
The encyclical gives us 3 settings for learning and practicing this Christian theological virtue of hope – prayer, the acceptance of suffering and the Last Judgement. I would like to comment on the first two as practical means we have to build up hope.
1. A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer. When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God. When there is no longer anyone to help me deal with a need or expectation that goes beyond the human capacity for hope, he can help me. Prayer opens me continually to God and to his assurance of hope. Mary is a model of prayer. She meditates on the key events that she cannot understand and in time she sees that they are all part of God’s ways of leading her deeper into the mystery of the incarnation.
2. Suffering is an essential part of our day to day lives. We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. In the tradition of the church there is the idea of “offering up” the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating “jabs”, thereby giving them a meaning. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves. Mary was a woman of suffering – a sword pierces her heart many a time. It is her firm faith and hope that enables her to transform these painful moments into the joyful awareness that Easter follows Good Friday.
As we continue with our Eucharistic sacrifice on this beautiful feast of hope, we pray that Mary the star of our hope may continue to lead us in times of discouragement and despair. May prayer and our acceptance of suffering enable us to experience God’s closeness and love to us in our daily lives.
And a Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception to all of you!!!