Younger Than Sin
12/1/2013Father Frederick L. Miller
During Advent each year, on Dec. 8, Holy Mother Church invites us to reflect on the meaning of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God. Some of the faithful incorrectly think that the Immaculate Conception refers to the virginal conception of Christ in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead, this dogma refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne.
Mary’s conception was a wonderful moment originally known only to God and deeply enfolded into the matrix of divine revelation. It took the Church nearly two millennia to find the exact words to describe the mystery of Mary’s graced beginning.
Pope Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Incidentally, St. John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, held the book for Pius IX as he read the text. Bishop Neumann was chosen because he was the shortest bishop present in St. Peter’s Basilica that day. This is worth keeping in mind, because the Immaculate Conception, as we shall see, is all about littleness — not of stature, but of spirit.
A FLOOD OF MERCY
The words of the definition given in 1854 are simple and direct: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all of the faithful” (Ineffabilis Deus).
This definition of faith declares that God intervened at the moment of Mary’s conception, just as he intervenes in every human conception. He breathed the breath of life into Mary as she was conceived in the act of marital union of her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. At that moment, God created Mary’s immortal soul. The uniqueness of the Immaculate Conception is this: When God created Mary’s soul, he filled her, in the very act of her creation, with the Holy Spirit and his grace.
In human conception, the flood of original sin cascades from Adam, the father of our human family, and prevents us from receiving the indwelling grace of the Trinity. We are conceived and born stripped of the greatest gift that God had given to Adam, a gift that God intended to give to each of us: sanctifying grace.
In the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God, a flood of mercy flowing from the pierced heart of the Savior intervened and stopped the flood of sin and death flowing from Adam in its tracks. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary was created in the grace of Christ through the Father’s sovereign foreknowledge of his Son’s sacrifice. God, after all, is not bound by time. As Blessed John Paul II wrote, Jesus Christ stands at “the center of the universe and of history” (Redemptor Hominis, 1).
At the moment of Mary’s conception, God took the side of the human family against Satan. In a sense, he crushed the head of the serpent as promised in Genesis 3:15. He declared war on sin and death and, in reality, proclaimed victory.
At that moment, God initiated the new creation of grace. He made Mary as much like heaven as heaven itself, creating her to be a fit dwelling place for his Son and preparing her to be our Mother in the order of grace. He created in Mary an immaculate Church, the Bride of his Son-made-man; a Church that has the power to obliterate sin by the grace of Christ until the end of time.
POVERTY AND GRACE
What was the effect of this grace in Mary’s spiritual life? Unlike all of us, who tend by our fallen human nature to depend on self and feel sovereignly independent and self-sufficient, Mary was always aware of her littleness and her need to depend on God for everything. She experienced her Immaculate Conception precisely in her dependence on grace.
Reflecting on the Magnificat, the canticle of Mary recorded by St. Luke (1:46-55), John Paul II once said, “The grander the work to be accomplished, the poorer are the instruments chosen to collaborate in the divine plan. As it is true that the power of God’s arm is emphasized by the weakness of the means employed, so too, the smaller the human persons who are invited to serve, the greater the things that the Almighty, through us, is disposed to accomplish.”
The Immaculate Conception is all about grace and the spiritual littleness that is the first effect of grace. God was able to accomplish the salvation of the world through Mary’s “yes” because, created in grace, she was able to say with perfect sincerity: “All generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 1:48-49).
John Paul II observed that Mary “is fully aware of the greatness of her mission. However, at the same time, seeing herself and remaining a ‘lowly handmaid,’ she attributes all credit for it to God the Savior.”
On our own strength it is impossible to remain faithful; grace alone makes us capable of fidelity and fruitfulness. God fills us with his grace in baptism, and Mary, conceived without sin, helps us to cooperate with grace as she did. She teaches us true poverty of spirit, true spiritual littleness; she teaches us to rejoice in poverty of spirit so that God can do his mighty works in us; she teaches us to become like little children in Christ (cf. Mt 18:3).
In his Diary of a Country Priest, George Bernanos offers words of fitting praise for the Blessed Mother on this mysterious festival of the Immaculate Conception: “The eyes of Our Lady are the only real child-eyes that have ever been raised to our shame and sorrow. ... they are not indulgent — for there is no indulgence without something of bitter experience — they are eyes of gentle pity, wondering sadness, and with something more in them, never yet known or expressed, something that makes her younger than sin, younger than the race from which she sprang, and though a mother, by grace, Mother of all graces, our little youngest sister.”
FATHER FREDERICK L. MILLER, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and a member of Father Thomas F. Canty Council 3197 in Hillside, is a professor of systematic theology at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md.