In many of the Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first reading is not taken from one of the Epistles, but rather from one of the books of the Old Testament; particularly from one of the Wisdom books, as it is taken today from the book of Proverbs. Clearly, Mary did not live in Old Testament times, and was not the original subject of the Wisdom books’ writers, but yet we find that their words are so descriptive of her unique relationship with God that we are able to use them by way of “accommodation.”
We know, of course, that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary-her conception by her parents Joachim and Anne, according to the normal method of human generation-took place only a dozen or so years before the birth of Christ. We know that at that moment in human history, almighty God created the human soul of the woman who would give flesh of her flesh to bear His only Son. In order for that flesh to be absolutely sinless, as befits the mother of God and her divine Offspring, God the Father allowed her to benefit in advance from the Redemption of mankind that would come about through the offering up of that flesh in the Sacrifice of the Cross, not many years distant. God, to be sure, is not bound by the constraints of time-for time is as much His creation as the other dimensions of the material world. Thus, from the first moment of her conception by Joachim and Anne, Mary was free from all stain of original sin.
For this reason, we are able to read the words of today’s Gospel, in which the Archangel Gabriel addresses the young Virgin with the words: “Hail, full of grace....” From the time of the fall of Adam and Eve, until that very moment, there had been no one at all on Earth to whom such words could be spoken truthfully-from the first instant of her being, Mary possessed the fullness of grace that had been given to our first parents, only to be lost by them in the Garden of Eden.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the solemn definition of this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of the Catholic Faith by Blessed Pope Pius IX. But even centuries before that definition, Christians knew in that, in some way, Mary had always been preserved in sanctifying grace. The detailed controversies between the Dominicans and the Franciscans that took place centuries before were not about her sinlessness-everyone knew she was sinless!-the controversies were about the difference between “immediately at conception” and “the first moment after conception.”
Again, the Immaculate Conception took place much less than two decades before the birth of Christ. But the Old Testament reading is still appropriate. While Mary was conceived in time and space-maybe 12 or 15 B.C., somewhere near Jerusalem-it is also correct to say that Mary was conceived before all eternity in the mind of God, truly “the firstborn of His ways.” God, who knows all things, knew that by creating mankind with free will, it would soon be in need of Redemption. He contemplated the mother of His Son, the Redeemer, even before creation. “The firstborn of His ways” would loving, and chaste, obedient, and certainly humble. She would be someone perfectly appropriate to exalting human nature by mingling it with the divine-and perfectly trustworthy of not degrading the divine with the baser qualities of the human. Mary, too, would be given free will, just as had Adam and Eve-but Mary would use that freedom only in union with the will of God. God knew that Mary would be the human creature who could sin, but would not.
Coming today, in the middle of Advent, this feast is an important lesson in our preparation for Christmas-one that should help us to understand the need and the nature of our salvation. Hopefully, it will also inspire us with the example of this most perfect of our humble human race-with the example of her love, her chastity, her obedience and humility. May it also inspire us with the understanding that, while none of us were conceived without original sin, we have been raised by Baptism and restored by Penance to the state of sanctifying grace. With our free will, we are capable of sin-but, perhaps, with Immaculate Mary’s intercession and good example, we will be able to say that “we could have sinned, but we did not.”
Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!