Tuesday, December 8th, 2020

‘Si igitur voluit, fecit’: a Homily for the Immaculate Conception

‘Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum’ (Luke 1, 28)!

Has another human being ever been greeted like that? No, indeed: no angel ever called any man or woman ‘full of grace,’ except in this moment which St Luke has faithfully recorded. Do we know what a unique truth we utter each time we say the Hail Mary? Imagine what a remarkable thing it is to say: ‘Ave, gratia plena!’

Today, in order to help us to see what a unique privilege Our Lady received, the Church places her side-by-side with Eve.[1] And, in point of fact, it is meant to be a story of contrasts. Eve is visited by temptation; Mary is receives a mission. Eve in her pride is deceived; Mary in her humility remains faithful. Eve takes what is not hers; Mary receives an unlooked for gift. Eve hides for shame; Mary is clothed in dignity.

And the Scriptures tell us that Eve became the mother of all the living; yet all her children—from Cain and Abel down to you and me—all her children would live under the burden of her sin. That original sin is the lasting effect and echo of the disobedience of Adam and Eve; a stain—macula—which lingers on the souls of every man and woman conceived. Except for one: Ave, gratia plena: Dominus tecum.

But how can this be? Fathers and theologians of the Church have long asked the question. If we say that Our Lady was conceived without original sin, does this somehow imply that she did not need to be redeemed by the Cross of her Son? No one ever doubted her unique holiness; but it is a mystery so bright and shining that it is difficult for us to see and consider.

One of the Church’s teachers uses a homely image, taken from nature. Eadmer of Canterbury (1060-1124) thinks of the chestnut. It grows inside a casing that is covered in rough spines; but the nut itself has all the beauty and smoothness of porcelain. He writes,

If God allows the chestnut to be conceived, to grow, and to be formed amid spines without being punctured by them, could he not grant to a human, which he prepared for himself as a temple in which he might dwell bodily and from which he would come forth . . . that though this body be conceived among the spines of sins, it would nevertheless be completely unharmed by their sharp points? He certainly could do it, and he wanted to do it. Therefore, if he wanted to do it, he did it.[2]

Potuit plane et voluit; si igitur voluit, fecit. Simple but mighty words indeed.

As the collect for today indicates, it was in view of the consummated Passion of Jesus Christ that Mary was preserved for original sin: in-maculata, stainless. Like the chestnut that is protected from the spines that surround it, Our Lady was protected by the grace of her Son. Grace went ahead of her, as it were, and it is this forerunning grace that we celebrate today. And the more bold and mysterious his works, the more we should love the good God who does them.

Think of the sinless purity of our Lady the next time you see the chestnuts fall in September. And may it never be true of us that we take the power of the Hail Mary for granted.


{Art Credit: Winslow Homer (1836-1910), The Chestnut Tree (1878); private collection}

[1] The Roman Breviary reads Genesis 3, 1-15 at the first nocturne of Matins. Whereas the reformed liturgy reads the same passage, with the addition of verse 20, for the first lesson at the Mass.

[2] Quoted in Mary in the Middle Ages: the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Thought of Medieval Latin Theologians, Luigi Gambero, trans Thomas Buffer, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), p 119.

Homilies & Sermons, Our Lady