Sermon: Immaculate Conception, 2004

Sermon: 8th December 2004, Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Text: Luke 1:26-38

“Hail Mary, Filled with Grace”

In the name of the +Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some years back, my own training incumbent, Fr Lewis laid down a challenge for me, when he reminded me and all those present that I am required by canon law to to teach from the pulpit only those doctrines which can be proved by Scripture. Certainly a challenge!

For today we celebrate one of the glorious mysteries of the Church, and one that has been the subject of much controversy over the centuries: the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I am not so sure that I have the necessary skills to prove by Scripture the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but I feel it can be adequately explored through Scripture, through Tradition and through Reason, the three pillars of Anglicanism.

It is a doctrine which causes some confusion and misunderstanding, but is one which I feel it is right for us to celebrate because it not only serves to underline the glory of Our Lady, but also serves to point the way towards the sublime glory of the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ; in this Advent season we need to use a feast such as this to prepare us for that Incarnation.

Now, to clear up some basic confusion: the Immaculate Conception is NOT the Annunciation and is NOT the Virgin Birth. These two things are both glorious mysteries of the Church, but are events in the lifecycle of Our Lord. The Immaculate Conception is concerned with the conception of Our Lady. The Church declared in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus on this day in 1854 that the Blessed Virgin Mary was

“from the first moment of her conception, by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the human race, she was preserved free from all stain of original sin”

If everyone understood that the first time, then we can skip the rest of this sermon and carry straight on to the Eucharist… but perhaps we had better understand this properly. (read again)

Unthinking reactionaries reject the Immaculate Conception as some kind of alternative annunciation, and suggest that it takes Mary and elevates her to the Godhead, it is a common criticism of Catholic Christians that we don’t have a trinity, but a quadinity, and unthinkingly they assume that this means that Mary herself was created supernaturally, just like our Lord. But no, the dogma does not say this: Our Lady is Our Lady because she is one of us, not a supernatural, heavenly being used as a receptacle for the Holy Spirit to bring God down to earth, but flesh and blood of our flesh and blood – a properly conceived daughter of Eve like the rest of us. She was the product of Anna and Joachim. The scripture refers to her as a  (parthenon) a virgin, not a superhuman, not removed from human experience, but one of us.

Mary is honoured by the Church and has been since the beginning, but not worshipped, asked for her prayers, but not prayed to, recognised as having a special relationship with Christ, but never taking his place. Mary’s role is to point the way to her Son: note that in statues of Our Lady of Walsingham, in our MU banner, it is not Mary alone that we see, but Mary presenting her Son to us; for that is what she does. It is not a perversity of Catholic or Anglocatholicism that we rightly honour the first follower of Christ, for both Luther and Calvin held very high Marian doctrines and the Ave Maria continued to be said in Geneva even whilst the icons were being destroyed. Mary is an important feature of the universal catholic Christian faith because of her humanity and her proximity to the divine.

Why do I need to place such great emphasis on the humanity of Mary? Without the humanity of Mary, the Incarnation becomes a sham, a mere pretence, as Our Lord and Saviour fails to come properly amongst us – deny the humanity of Mary and you deny the humanity of Jesus Christ, and his redemptive work is all for naught.

The doctrine teaches us that she was human like us, but free from one important complicating detail: Original Sin.

Original Sin is not very fashionable at the moment, and is felt by many to be an uncomfortable throwback to an age which was afraid of sex and sexuality, denied the sinless sexuality of Christ and the sexuality of Our Lady. Mary’s subsequent nature and title of Ever-Virgin does not rely on the lack of sexual intercourse, but is a description of her state of Grace, not her role as wife and mother. Original Sin is the state we are all in, a state of separation from God and which can be traced back to what Milton so eloquently describes as “Man’s First Disobedience”

Freed from the shackles of Original Sin, not by her own merits, but through the grace of God, it is right that we should identify with this; as it is a portent of the grace which is available to all of us. It happened to Mary in the womb and it will happen for us when we are united with Christ at the Parousia.

The Immaculate Conception is not a doctrine which can be explicitly proved by Scripture, but that alone is not a reason for rejecting it, or avoiding the teaching of this important doctrine from the pulpit, for many texts indirectly supporting it, such as the promised victory over the serpent, symbol of Original Sin in Genesis 3:15 and the Angel greeting Mary in today’s Gospel (Luke 1:28) as ‘one having received grace’ ((kech-arit-ow-men-ay) a much more accurate translation than the words of the angelus we use in our daily devotions. Elizabeth, the Mother of John the Baptist also recognised this state of grace and greeted her as “blesséd are you amongst women” (Luke 1:42), blesséd being a particular state of grace.

There has been much theological debate over the Immaculate Conception. Major figures in Catholic theology such as St. Anselm (d.1109), St. Bernard (d.1153), St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) and St. Bonaventure (d. 1274) objected to it as it removed Mary from the company of those needing salvation, as she was already redeemed of original sin, and thus detracting from the universality of Christ’s redemptive work. These theologians were willing to grant that Mary was sanctified in the womb, but argued that she had to be touched by original sin for at least an instant in order to be redeemed by Christ’s grace. There was a theological standoff between the Benedictines, who supported the Immaculate Conception and the Franciscans who objected on these grounds.

However, Blessed Duns Scotus (d.1308) resolved these problems with the insight that Christ can save in two ways. In one way, he rescues from sin those already fallen, such as you and I and in another he preserves someone from being touched by sin even for an instant. This is uniquely the case with Mary, whose being conceived without Original Sin demonstrates Christ’s redemptive power, and was the core theology behind the declaration of the dogma (a dogma is something which we are required to believe as a foundation of faith) of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

Mary is privileged to have been prevented from the contamination of Original Sin, which is what Our Baptism washes away. The mediator of this is her Son, Jesus Christ and it takes place at a point in time (her human conception) as a result of intervention out-of-time by God. This is why Christ can undertake his redemption of his Mother even before he stepped into time and into this world.

St Alphonsus Ligouri in The Glories of Mary suggested that a metaphor which may help us to understand the Immaculate Conception is the consecration of a Church or an Altar: Mary is consecrated by the Immaculate Conception to become a sanctuary fitting for the incarnate God. A stone table or an empty building becomes a holy place through sanctification.

In celebrating the feast, we do two things: firstly, we recognise God’s goodness towards Mary, his saving work of Grace on her life from the moment of her conception; signifying that Christ’s incarnation was not an accident of birth, but a planned, definitive intervention in humanity as Christ punches through into our existence to show us the path of salvation. Secondly, it is an example to us of God’s Grace intended for us, and which we will surely inherit because it was bought for us by the blood of the lamb.

St. Paschasius Radbertus (d.860) asserted that the affective outpouring of devotion to Mary does not detract from God, but is in itself praise of God. Let us be devoted, and through that devotion seek to praise God ever more for his excellent grace and goodness.

We need therefore to be attentive on that grace, and to wait in hope and prayer, as we see the model set before us, in Our Lady Mary, as she points to her Son and waits with us this Advent Season for the redemption of all humankind.