Genesis 3:9-15, 20 Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12 Luke 1:26-38
A shoeshine boy was plying his trade outside Grand Central Station in New York City. A silver medal danced at his neck as he slapped his shine cloth, again and again, across the shoes of a man.
After watching the medal for a while, the man said, curiously, “Sonny, what’s that hardware around your neck?”
“It’s a medal of the mother of Jesus,” the boy said.
“But why her medal?” asked the man. “She’s no different from your mother.”
“You could be right,” said the boy, “but there’s sure a big difference between her son and me.”
I am sure that young man was not a theologian, but his simple response is exactly right, and it captures some of what we are celebrating on this feast of the Immaculate Conception.
So what is it that we are celebrating today? A nun was trying to explain this teaching to her pupils, telling them that we are all washed clean of the STAIN of sin at baptism, but that Mary was kept free of this STAIN before she was born. When she asked them if they understood, one of her brightest students raised her hand and answered: “Sure, Sister. You mean she was pre-soaked.”
Were I to pose the question here, I wonder if our answers would be any better than that second-grader! The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to fathom. It certainly is not a biological feast—even though we use the word “conception.” Even the great St. Thomas Aquinas had his doubts about this concept. In addition, this notion of immaculate conception has no biblical roots. There is nothing in the Old Testament saying that the mother of the Messiah would be conceived immaculately. Yet, on December 8, 1854, [more than 150 years ago] Pope Pius IX called the whole church to believe that “The Virgin Mary, in the first moment of her conception … was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” Yet, eight years prior, the Bishops of the United States designated Mary as the patroness of the United States under the title of the Immaculate Conception.
I am not here to unpack all the theological reasoning behind this dogma proclaimed by the Pope. Rather, let’s see why the word of God causes us to celebrate the deep faith of this woman, and why she is a model for all of us.
For one thing, that man getting his shoes shined was right. She is no different from any of our mothers. It’s her response that makes the difference. Her response was different than Adam’s response from the first reading from Genesis. God calls out to Adam, “Where are you?” God calls out to us as well.
In our complex world and society, God is calling out to us: “Where are you when so many are hungry and homeless?” “Where are you when our economy favors the rich and the poor seem to be getting poorer?” “Where are you when young people are being trafficked for sex?” “Where are you when people are denied healthcare because our lawmakers cannot agree on an equitable solution?” The ‘where are you’ questions could go on and on. And like Adam, we make excuses. And at the root of all my excuses seems to be Adam’s response: “I was afraid, so I hid.”
In the gospel, Mary shows us a different way forward. While she is no different from us, she does not offer excuses, but displays an incredible and amazing openness. She offers a simple, single word—YES!
Isn’t that what happens, when two people commit themselves to one another for life, when religious commit themselves to live a poor, chaste and obedient life forever, when a young man or woman decides to give his or her life as a doctor, or lawyer, or police office or firefighter, or …., or, more close to home, when students give of their time and energy to feed the hungry at the Next Step Shelter weekly or to bring Christmas to the homeless at the Family Assessment Center?
We are all called, like Mary, to bring Jesus into our world, to bring his love, his compassion, his healing, his hope into our small corner of the world. Our annunciations may not be as dramatic or life-changing as hers, but they are there in many, many different ways. Like Mary we have to hear them. Like Mary, we have to respond. Like Mary, we have to say a yes that is total and committed, clear and determined, selfless and generous. Mary’s yes shows her complete faith and trust in God. In her yes to God, Mary models and inspires our own yes to God.
Today, in Rome, Pope Francis reflected on this Annunciation scene and on Mary’s yes. He said: By remaining with God, conversing with Him in every circumstance, Mary made her life beautiful. Not in appearance, not in what passes, but with a heart pointed to God is what makes life beautiful. Today we look joyfully at her who was “full of grace.”
Let us ask her to help us remain young, saying “no” to sin, and to live a beautiful life, saying “yes” to God.