Yesterday we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception. I've always felt that this feast falls in Advent, not by accident, but because God wants it that way -- that He wants us to call to mind, at least briefly, the idea of original sin. While we tend to associate sin and redemption more with the seasons of Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas would be pretty meaningless without considering these two concepts. In fact, we might say that precisely what has gone wrong with the modern celebration of Christmas is that it has eliminated any thought of sin or redemption; the modern commercial world has done away with reflection on original sin, just as it has done away with every mention of the Redeemer-from-sin.
If there had not been original sin the Immaculate Conception would have had no meaning; and if the Birth of Christ had ever taken place, it would have had much less significance. So on the early hours of the morning of the Immaculate Conception, the very first lessons that the Church has us read in the Night Office are taken from that third chapter of Genesis.
In Genesis we read that the man and the woman had been given gifts beyond nature: They were free from physical discomfort and the need to toil, they literally walked and talked with God -- indeed God consulted them about the things of the earth; "You name the animals, Adam." Had they persevered they would have never tasted death; perhaps heaven would have been right here on earth.
But then we read of the deception of Satan (in the form of a serpent). The subtle temptation to disobedience through pride. "You can be like God," the serpent told Eve, "knowing good and evil."1 He appealed to her pride in the same way that Lucifer appealed to the fallen angels: "You don't have to have a "second rate" position --you can be like God -- you can be gods yourselves." "All you have to do," the devil went on, "is to do your own thing-- do as you see fit, rather than as God has told you to do."
That was, after all the sin of Lucifer and all who followed him. They were such perfect creatures that they became jealous of God's greater perfection. They wanted it have it all; they couldn't stand to be among the worshippers with the imperfect remainder of creation; they wanted instead to be worshipped. And for their pride and their disobedience they were cast into hell. The very name of Michael the Archangel is the battle cry of their perdition: It means "Who is like God?" -- a question asked with a very strong sense of irony.
Now the devil -- even in hell -- is a very great and powerful creature; still full of sinful pride. And the one thing that offends this pride the most is that lesser creatures than he, might not make the same mistake that he made. Every person that does God's will is a reproach to the devil -- so he goes about, actively, tempting us to sin.
He tempted Eve, and through Eve he tempted Adam, the father of the human race, so that all of us might lose that privileged position that God intended for us. And he tempts us in the same way, appealing to our pride and to the false gratification of our appetites. And all too often we yield to that temptation, so we have no right whatsoever blame Adam and Eve for our present condition -- we would have "botched the job" ourselves, at least as badly as Adam and Eve did.
But God in his infinite mercy promised the Race of Adam and Eve a way to repair at least some of the damage. In this very same third chapter of Genesis we hear God curse the devil in the form of the serpent, saying, "I will put hatred between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; she shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for her heel." In retrospect we know that God was promising to send the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the Mother of His Son and to "crush the head" of the devil.
God, of course, kept His promise, as he always does. Yet that did not put an end to things; there is still temptation and sin in the world. He gives us the graces to overcome sin, but still we must be on our guard, eager to cooperate with His graces. That is why it is so important that we recognize the twin realities of our sin and our redemption at Christmas and Easter and throughout the year.
The devil working through the institutions of the modern world would like us to think that nothing worse awaits us than the arrival of our Visa and Master Card bills the week after Christmas. He is very happy to have us celebrate with reindeers, and colored lights, and an impotent version of Saint Nicholas of Myra dressed in a red suit. He is even happy to see people go to church on Christmas, provided that they go there to show off their new clothes, and hold hands, and slap each other on the back, and hear sermons about how noble mankind is. The devil is just thrilled with the idea that modern men think they will all be saved.
Remember that the devil invariably appeals to our pride; to the desire to be self-sufficient without God. The thing that he doesn't want us to do is to consider the reality of our sins. So that is precisely what we must do and prepare to do during this brief season of Advent:
We must recognize the effects of original sin. Man has
fallen from grace, and we are fallen men and women; we are not little gods. We
must refuse to worship mankind and abstract notions of human dignity, for fallen
man has dignity only in relation to his Redeemer. We must worship and prepare to
celebrate the birth of our Redeemer, the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Son
of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. Genesis iii: 1-15.
1. Genesis iii: 1-15.