Sermon for the Immaculate Conception
Fr Richard Biggerstaff, Director of the St Barnabas Society, came to preach at the Solemn Mass for the Immaculate Conception on Monday. Here are his words:
"People like me are fond of saying these days that there is a crisis:
We have swept away the notion of sin and anything goes and how dreadful it all is.
But perhaps the deeper crisis is that we play down play down genuine goodness.
And when we do celebrate goodness it is as if the latest celebrity campaigning to relieve Ebola or HIV or hunger has invented the idea!
‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’
Well yes, they do and they know its Advent and The Solemnity of Immaculate Conception too!
Against this cynical backdrop it is easier to buy a trivial and profane Christmas card than a beautiful image of the Mother of our Redeemer, Mary Immaculate. I could give you any number of examples, but most of them are unrepeatable in the parlour, let alone from the pulpit!
The feast and mystery of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary invites us to engage with the dogma.
There is ‘popular’ confusion.
This is not the virgin birth of Jesus.
This is concerned with the beginnings of the life of Our Blessed Lady - her Conception (and as everyone knows life begins at conception). At Mary’s conception, at that moment, that ‘Immaculate moment’ there is a complete absence of sin and stain.
And this singular privilege of grace, in consideration of the merits of Jesus the saviour of mankind….
But also, in propounding this teaching the Catholic Church invites us to understand that Grace is more original than sin.
Goodness comes before the Fall.
As our first parents come to live in deathly disobedience -they fall because they fail to listen to God and death comes about - so Jesus (the new Adam, the divine Son of God) is brought into this world through the lively obedience of Mary, the new Eve and life is restored.
Is all this simply the stuff of which nice Christmas cards are made?
Certainly Catholic theology cannot understand the Immaculate Conception as simply an honour done to Mary, a nice devotional belief about her.
Whilst the Immaculate Conception inspires great devotion - Bernadette at Lourdes,
St Catherine Laboure in Paris - the devotion is only credible because it is a part of an orthodox theology of the Incarnation and the Redemption. But it goes both ways - Orthodoxy on such matters is not orthodoxy without the Immaculate Conception.
In the mystery of the Incarnation the response of Mary is crucial but so is her preparedness. She is that pure vessel in which God dwells, so she is preserved from sin because God will dwell in her womb.
So God in Christ is immersed in human existence taking His humanity from humanity but never compromised by it, never sullied by humanity’s fallen state. He is the man like us in all things, but sin. And Mary then is the sinless vessel from which he is born. But she is only sinless because of Christ and the redemption he will bring.
Just as the crucified risen ascended and glorified Christ ‘for us men and for our salvation’ was incarnate, enfleshed to return flesh to God; that redemption is Mary’s from her first moment of life.
This principle is established in the letter to the Ephesians: ‘God chose us in Christ…to be holy and without sin in his presence. From all eternity he destined us in love’.
Mary is predestined, she who is not just highly favoured, she is ‘full of grace’ and is prepared in grace for The One who is the source of grace.
Furthermore, ‘full of grace’ she is more genuinely human, showing us the full potential of what the Creator intended when He created and pronounced what He had made ‘Good’.
The mysteries of Mary are never removed from all humanity. And those who search for the right sort of Christmas card are surely on the right track!
With Mary we celebrate the Good God’s choice of us.
With Mary we celebrate her Son’s redeeming love.
With Mary we celebrate His victory over sin and death.
And in Mary we see too that grace is more original than sin.
O Mary conceived without sin,
Pray for us who have recourse to thee"
Fr Biggerstaff mentioned the difficulty of finding decent Christmas cards. Our parishioners should be aware that no such problem exists for them. Cards in aid of the Oratory are on sale in the Porters' Lodge.