|This day a bud came forth out of the
root of Jesse: this day Mary was conceived without any
stain of sin; this day the head of the old serpent was
crushed by her, alleluia. (Magn. Ant.)
Today's feast emphasizes primarily the extraordinary fullness of grace granted to Mary in the first moment of her conception. We likewise celebrate her exalted prerogative of being the only person who through the merits of Jesus Christ was preserved from every stain of original sin.
In its origin and purpose today's feast has no relation to Advent. It was placed on December 8 simply to complete the needed nine month period before September 8, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, the feast readily lends itself to Advent themes. During the time when we are awaiting the Savior, when we are striving to arouse in ourselves a deep consciousness of the need for redemption, when we lovingly look up to Mary as our chiefest model, then indeed does this feast seem like the golden dawn before the rising sun of Christmas. December 8, therefore, is a genuine Advent feast. History of the Feast. The feast first appears during the sixth-seventh century in the Greek Church as a celebration in honor of the conception of St. Anne on December 9, and already in the tenth-eleventh century it had become a holyday. By way of Naples it came to the West, where it first took root in Ireland and Normandy. All through the Middle Ages the dogmatic foundation of the mystery was contested. Only through the Breviary reform of Pius V did the feast become universal; and it was not until 1854 that Pius IX raised it to the rank of a holy-day of obligation for the entire Church. The first Immaculate Conception Office was composed in 1855 by the Jesuit Passaglia, but when he lapsed from the faith, our present text was substituted in 1863 (its prototype is said to stem from Gavantus).
1. Divine Office. First Vespers (the evening before). The festive ringing of Vesper bells thrills our hearts and transports us to the dawning hour of redemption. God's eternal decree is being fulfilled; Mary's immaculate, grace-laden soul is being united with her holy body to form a dwelling-place for His Son among men. A resplendent model for the child of God, the Virgin Immaculate rises before us; joyously we repeat her song of praise, Magnificat, My soul magnifies the Lord!
Matins. The darkness of late evening descends and quiets the noise and cares of the day; a solemn silence begins to reign. Through her mystical members the Church lifts up her hands; it is Matins, the prayer-hour of the night. She appears today as Mary, the holy, spotless bride, the immaculate Mother of God. In holy thoughtfulness my eye turns back into eternity and beholds Mary as the firstborn before all creation and the reflection of the eternal Light, chosen by the Most Blessed Trinity as the immaculately conceived. Gradually a form rises out of the golden background of time and there appears in the heavens a woman, clothed with the sun and with the moon beneath her feet; it is the revelation of God's glory to the eyes of all nations. Again the scene is clarified and I behold Mary as the Bride of God, wrapped in the radiant brilliance of Christ the King; descending upon Lebanon in heavenly fairness, adorned with grace as with a crown, she appears among the children of men. The gates of a lost paradise may open and the dark stream of original sin may flood the world, but Mary crushes the serpent's head and becomes the bright star of solace to an accursed earth.
Lauds. The blessed day in dewy freshness breaks away from the darkness of night and spreads new life over nature and the human soul. The Mystical Christ is celebrating the hour of resurrection and calls upon all creatures to praise God. The spotless bride, the Church and the soul, adorns herself to receive her Bridegroom; in the Benedictus she hails Him as the Oriens ex alto.
Prime. Preparation for my journey through the day. I turn the divine light in my soul upon my duties, upon the happy and bitter hours of the day; it should be a bridal march, a via immaculata.
Terce. First pause on the way! The warmth of divine life and the power of the Holy Spirit pulsate through Church and soul: "Your garments are white as snow; and your face is as the sun! It is now time for holy Mass.
Sext. Second pause on the way. There is a dark side to every feast, the struggle against sin; yet from Golgotha there comes victory. May the grace of today's Mass transform the Eve within me more and more into Mary!
None. "Draw us, O Virgin Immaculate; we will run after you in the odor of your ointments!" It is turning toward evening; my soul is full of inner peace, ready to surrender itself to the Creator through Mary's hands, assured of a life of eternal glory at the Lord's return on the Last Day.
Second Vespers. The sun sets silently, solemnly, its last rays enveloping the day of redemption in transfigured splendor. In my soul all is quiet, holy; for today I was permitted to be a "bud from the root of Jesse." I was permitted to become a little image of Mary's grace, with the flame of sacrifice consuming all the stains in my soul. I gathered new strength to crush the head of the old serpent, to overcome the lower man in me, and to strive after spotless purity (Magn. Ant.). "My soul magnifies the Lord, for He has done great things to me!"
2. Holy Mass (Gaudens gaudebo). The climax of the feast comes with the holy Sacrifice in honor of Mary Immaculate. lntroit. As a song of triumph after the defeat sin had brought upon mankind, as a ray of light out of the dark, this song of rejoicing wells forth from the lips of God's spotless bride. One must indeed hear or sing the soaring melody to sense the ecstatic joy it radiates. It is a song that every newly-baptized could well sing, every child of God when it thinks of the garment of sanctifying grace received in baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist. For priests the lntroit has a very special message: the interior garment of grace finds an expressive symbol in the sacred vestments worn at the altar.
The Lesson throws open the past ages of eternity to reveal Mary in God's providential plan, and how she joyed in the divine presence. The reading concludes with an instruction calling those blessed who "daily watch at her gates." Her way God "made immaculate" by a divine privilege; but we must strive after spotlessness of life by "watching" daily. In the Epistle and the lntroit it is Mary who speaks. The remaining chants come from the lips of Mother Church. In the Gradual she voices her holy rapture, the melody of Tu gloria Jerusalem being expressive of her emotion deeper than words; she is lost in holy admiration as she contemplates the true Victor over Holofernes and hell.
More sober and majestic the Alleluia that follows. True, again there overflows unspeakable happiness, yet in the first minor cadence one senses a tremor as of the eternal Word that in the Gospel descends into the Virgin's womb. The angel's gratia plena is echoed in the words, "You are all fair!" But the greeting rings loud and clear at the Offertory as a full and triumphant song of joy. What we offer is not "full" measure; only she is "full of grace," blessed in all things. Mary's privilege of the Immaculate Conception is the primary object of praise in the Communion; but we may think of the wondrous graces given to the Church and to our souls, for "He who is mighty" has not restricted His blessings. Here again the Communion of Saints helps us: God looks benevolently upon us because He actually is gazing upon the Virgin Immaculate; Mary is supplying our spiritual deficiencies. Pray the Postcommunion slowly; the deathly wound of sin's sting and our Immaculate Mother stand at opposite poles; what she was from the beginning, that we should become through the Eucharist, spotless.
3. The Gospel. Why does the Gospel account break off so abruptly? The liturgy seems satisfied with the angel's greeting: "Ave, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus." In these few words heaven itself announced how great was the realm of grace that came to Mary. Observe, the angel speaks quite positively. He does not say as we perhaps would: You are free from original sin, free from all personal sin. Since grace or God's kingdom is something difficult to describe with earthly words and pictures, the angel points out a threefold relationship: the kingdom with reference to Mary herself, to God, and to mankind.
Gratia plena. Mary herself is "full of grace." Implicitly her soul is compared to a vessel filled to the brim. The kingdom of God came to Mary in the fullest possible measure. We too are vessels of grace; not full of grace, yet the kingdom of God is within us. That is our great treasure and we carry it through life in a "fragile vessel." Let us take heed lest we upset it. And let us strive to fill it, even to the brim.
Dominus tecum. God was with Mary! Yes, He even dwelt in her womb. Grace is a divine substance, a participation in divine life. To obtain grace is to become divine. Hence God is with one who has grace. See how this helps to understand the priest's greeting, Dominus vobiscum, which is, at the same time, a wish and a gift. The priest administers and transmits grace, hence also God. With every grace God Himself comes. Grace makes us like the Mother of God, makes us God-bearers, Christ-bearers.
Benedicta tu. Only God's kingdom elevates us above other men; grace alone gives nobility. True kingship is participation in Christ's kingship. However, this nobility here upon earth is hidden under poverty, lowliness, humility. As Mary led a hidden life amid external poverty, yes, as Christ in bonds said to Pilate, "I am a King," so with us too the nobility and richness of grace must be joined to external lowliness.
4. Four Phases in the Life of the Immaculate Virgin. In the Mass and Divine Office the liturgy unfolds the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, showing how it extends from eternity to eternity. Thus four phases may be distinguished:
5. God's Kingdom in All its Fullness. In the Advent season, when we are yearning for God's kingdom, Mary appears as its supreme expression. Her feast, therefore, is another inducement to give serious thought to the kingdom of God. When we pray in the Our Father "Thy kingdom come," we usually think of the geographical and temporal expansion of God's realm, viz., for more baptisms. Much less thought do we give to how this kingdom might flourish and expand unto fullness within us. Actually it is the interior approach that the feast of the Immaculate Conception would underscore.
In many ways we have a rather imperfect understanding of today's mystery. We consider its significance this: Mary was born without sin, indeed she was free from original sin from the first moment of her existence. We fail to see how purely negative this assertion is. Mary's sinlessness is not the main thing; it is but the smaller part of her greatness. Sinlessness would hardly make her much different from a newly-baptized infant. For us likewise to be sinless is the reverse aspect of our Christian ideal; a demented Christian can be sinless too. A Christian's greatness depends on grace, on the degree of fulness and thoroughness of God's kingdom in his soul. That sin be put more and more into the background and banished is, of course, important; but it is not the principal thing. The angel says to Mary: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women." He speaks very positively. He does not say: Thou art conceived without sin, thou didst remain unstained by original sin. He says, full of grace, i.e., the kingdom of God is in you with a fullness, a strength, a firmness that no other creature possesses.
Next we ask: Can God's kingdom grow and increase within us? Many think the less they sin the more holy they are. Surely we must avoid sin, must aim to become ever more pure in heart. Yet our holiness does not rest on this alone. A comparison. You have an old, dirty shirt; even after all the spots and stains are carefully removed, the shirt is not bright and new again. But we can become "bright and new" by receiving additional grace. One often hears Christians who strive after perfection utter the complaint: I am not making any progress; on the contrary, I am getting worse. That is a mistake. Perhaps they are confusing grace and holiness with the practice of the virtues. I readily grant that Christians who are zealous in the practice of virtues will also receive more grace; nevertheless, we must not confuse virtues with grace. There might be a Christian, for example, easily inclined to anger which he finds hard to control, yet with an abundance of grace in his soul; while another who by nature is very gentle may have less of the fullness of God's kingdom.
Finally, this too must be avoided, viz., confusing emotions and moods with grace. Some persons, when suffused with religious sentiments, think themselves rich in grace; but when they are tempted or when they feel a dryness or abandonment, they imagine that grace is withdrawn. Hold fast to this: the kingdom of God may not be confused with sinlessness, with the practice of virtue, or with pious sentiments. Can then the kingdom of God grow in us? Certainly. If the kingdom of God within us is life, then certainly such life can grow stronger or become weaker. In nature, plants, insects, animals, man each has a different type of life. If the kingdom of God is light, then this light can shine more brightly. An electric bulb may have 10, 100, 1000 candle-power. The kingdom of God can grow and increase within us.
What can we contribute to its growth? That, in the first place, is God's affair. Grace is a pure gift from God, we cannot merit it. God gave Mary the highest fullness of His kingdom; she was not conscious of it, however, and could contribute nothing to it. God determines the election to grace, also its degree. But naturally, our cooperation is necessary. What this implies is no secret. There must be self-surrender ("I am the handmaid of the Lord"); there must be prayer, the great means of grace; the sacraments, especially the Eucharist; a love of suffering; the fulfilling of one's duties; there is, finally, the growth of the soul through the liturgical year. Let us be docile and cooperative with God, and He will bestow that fullness of His kingdom destined to each in His eternal decree.