Immaculate Conception Sermon
Here is the sermon preached by Fr John Flynn, lecturer at St Mary's College, Oscott, for the Immaculate Conception last Monday.
The solemnity of the immaculate Conception perplexes many people, Catholics included. I am not simply talking about the common confusion with the Virgin birth. The perplexity arises because the immaculate Conception seems to make no sense: no sense that God would need Mary to remain sinless in order to carry out his work of redemption.
The other evening in a Birmingham car park, the window of my car was smashed in by someone wanting the radio. Three hours later the Autoglass man had completed his wonderful work and was about to leave when he noticed a scratch on the new pane. It was only a little scratch, but it was certainly there. He is going to come back with a replacement.
It struck me that the car would have worked fine with the scratched window, but for it to be made like new, the work is going to be re-done.
God does not need the immaculate Conception to carry out his redemptive plan. But it was what he chose to do, so as to make humanity like new.
The immaculate Conception was not necessary in the sense of God’s being obliged to preserve Mary from sin right from the start. As a loving Father he simply sees it fitting that Mary should receive this grace. She is a fitting recipient of this gift, just as a crystal glass is better for receiving a fine wine than a plastic cup.
So, the human race is made like new at Our Lady’s immaculate Conception. St Anselm proclaims to the Mother of God, “Through you sky, stars, earth, rivers, day, night, and all things what are meant to serve man have in a way come back to life, enriched with a new grace that words cannot describe” (cfr St Anselm, Discourses).
“Full of grace” implies just that: an overflowing of grace in his chosen vessel. There is simply no lack of goodness in her. St Ephrem the Syrian says in his Poem to Christ, “You, and your Mother are alone in this. You are wholly beautiful in every respect. There is in you Lord, no stain, nor any spot in your Mother”.
The Church has always had a sense of this. We know that there was a fifth-century feast called the “immaculate Conception” celebrated in the Syrian church on 9th December, withdrawn because of the rise of the Monophysites, who could not countenance the idea of Mary’s complete sinlessness from the beginning.
Of course the question about Our Lady’s sinlessness from the moment of her conception has caused consternation even among the saints. Hence St Bernard, one of the greatest Marian apologists, said, “This sanctification, if it annihilates sin, makes holy her birth but not her conception” (Epistle 174). Aquinas speaks in a similar fashion.
Whatever may be the details of the theological question, the fact is that the Church came out in favour: it was Blessed John Duns Scotus who argued decisively that it was fitting for Christ’s exalted relationship with Mary that his mother should be preserved even from the moment of conception. And that is what the Church officially promulgated in 1854.
So the Church teaches that a prevenient grace is given to Mary. This means that Mary receives a gift in anticipation of Christ’s redeeming death on the Cross for the rest of us. What we receive thanks to the merits of Christ’s death on the Cross, Mary has received, also thanks to those merits, but before the event. That is what is prevenient: an anticipation of what was to happen on Calvary.
So much for the theology. But why is it important that Mary is immaculately conceived?
With the co-operation of the one who is full of grace, God has found a fitting vessel which has become like new, no scratches, “holy and spotless … according to his own kind purposes” (Ephesians 1: 4,5).
And what are his purposes? To bring each of us into communion with him and with one another.
If Our Lady is made into the new man, then we surely, as fellow members of the human race, can follow that path, sharing in something that the Mother of God has already received.
The moment of the immaculate Conception is the moment of meeting between God and man. It is the space for God to come to us. So it is not just a special celebration of Mary’s hotline to the Almighty. This is important, because one of the tragedies besetting today’s Christians – as Mother Teresa said – is that we live in isolation, surrounded by each other, but basically lonely.
This is the secret of today’s feast: the immaculate Conception is our antidote to isolation.
When the angel says “full of grace”, he is pledging that we are no longer alone. The angel is hailing the sinless one, not simply the one who is “highly favoured” (as some poor translations would have it). Pope Francis at the weekend got the crowds to repeat three times “full of grace”. There is something in this expression for all of us. Mary, closest to God of all our race thanks to this grace, still remains part of our race. She is in communion with each one of us.
She was kept free from sin for the sake of her Son, but also for our sakes. Through her sinlessness we are given help in our struggle against the poison of sin that whispers in our ear, “there is no way out of your situation”; “stay where you are”. God of course could speak directly to us, and does. Of course he does not need Our Lady. But in choosing Mary as a go-between, God is giving us a great gift for those within and those apparently without the Church.
Our Lady’s sinlessness keeps her “entirely focused”, we might say today. This focus took her right to the Cross. As the one who was prophesied to crush the head of the serpent (cfr Gen. 3: 9-15,20), she fulfils that prophecy by staying close to her Son on Calvary. There remains a strength in the heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is supernatural. And she shares that strength with us if we would turn to her.
So on this wonderful Solemnity, we should do two things as we wish well the Fathers on this their second patronal feast day: first, remember Syria, in a way the liturgical birth-place of this feast, suffering so appallingly as she is. Second, recognise how much we need communion with Mary, the spotless one, the one with no scratches; let us pray to her that she obtain for us whatever we need to become saints, and be saved for eternal life.