Thursday, December 8, 2011

Born free!

HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION of the BLESSED VIRGIN MARY, December 8, 2011:
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You may be familiar with the book or movie, The Song of Bernadette. It is the true story of 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858 reported having an apparition of the Blessed Virgin on a hillside outside of the village of Lourdes in France. At first, the authorities scoffed at her claims and even threatened to punish her if she did not stop speaking of the story. Then one day, the apparition told Bernadette to dig into the ground. She obeyed and a spring of water bubbled up. Soon miracles began to occur at this spring. A blind man washed in the waters and regained his sight. A mother washed her paralyzed baby in the waters and it became well within 24 hours. Years after Bernadette’s death, the same child, now an old man of 77, was an honored guest at her canonization in Rome. Today, literally thousands of cures are on file at the Medical Bureau in Lourdes.

One of the things that Mary said to Bernadette during an apparition was, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The 14 year old girl wasn’t too sure what these words meant, but every adult knew their meaning. Just four years earlier, on December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX, defined as Catholic doctrine the traditional teaching of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This teaching goes back to the early days of Christianity. It says simply that Mary was untouched by original sin from the very moment of her conception in the womb of her mother Ann, and she remained that way the rest of her life.

The teaching of the Immaculate Conception finds its support in Sacred Scripture. For example, in today’s second reading we heard , “he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.” And in today’s Gospel, the angels says to Mary, “Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!” It is not surprising that God preserved Mary from sin. After all, she was to be the mother of His Son. What is more fitting than for the Son of God to be born of a sinless mother.

There is a story that may help us appreciate better how Mary could be born without sin while everyone else is born a slave to sin. At one point in history, many Christians were captured in battle and sold as slaves to non-Christian countries. These enslaved Christians had children and because they were slaves, their children were also doomed to live as slaves. In time it became a practice among Christians to purchase the freedom of these children born of slave parents. And sometimes that purchase was arranged before the child was born – or even conceived. In other words, even though the child was conceived and born of slave parents, it was free. Its freedom had been purchased in advance.

We may look upon Mary’s birth in a similar way. Even though Mary was born of parents enslaved by original sin, she was born free. God’s grace, of which Mary was full of, had purchased her freedom in advance – even before her conception.

This freedom is not reserved to Mary alone. Unfortunately for us, we were not so graced as to be born without original sin. But, instead for us, what God gave Mary through birth, is offered to us through Grace and faith in Jesus Christ. As we prayed in our Opening Prayer, “as you preserved her” so too may we “be cleansed and admitted to your presence.” Mary’s grace can be ours through the Sacrifice of her Son, through our membership in His Church availing ourselves of the saving Sacraments He bestowed upon us and our imitation of Mary’s life, saying our own personal yes to God at every moment.

We American Catholics have always had a special devotion to Mary under this title of the Immaculate Conception. It was to Mary, under this title, that we dedicated our country in the early days of our nation’s history. And so today we celebrate the Solemnity with special joy and gratitude as it is in a special way “our” feast. And so let us conclude with a special prayer to Mary today. It is the prayer that was prayed daily by the sailors on board the ships of Christopher Colombus during the voyage that resulted in the discovery of our great country. Each night at sunset the crew would gather on deck for evening prayers. These prayers would always end in the singing, in Latin, of the Salve Regina. Many of us are familiar with the English translation of this prayer. Please say it along with me if you know it:

Hail, Holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn the, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us,
and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

May our Blessed Mother pray for us; and may the Lord give us peace.

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