As I was reflecting and praying about how to write yet another homily on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception I had to chuckle a little to myself. Why would this feast make me chuckle? The answer is because in my 18 years of ordination this will be my 11th homily on this gospel. As a preacher, I have strived to never recycle a homily I have done before. But it gets difficult to not repeat yourself when we are talking about the Mother of God.
I do not wish to rehash the history of how this feast came about but instead try to help us see what God is saying to us through the scriptures. However, there are more than the scriptures to consider in this feast. We must take tradition into consideration for Catholic tradition is woven into the lessons God desires us to learn today.
We hold Mary in such honor that it is difficult for us to look beyond her to discover God’s message to us. It is particularly difficult to talk about anything else other than Mary and her chosen role in the plan of salvation, especially on a day dedicated to her. It seems almost sacrilegious to do anything other than offer her praise and give her the honor due her. Yet if we are going to learn the lessons of scripture we must look beyond the obvious to hear God speak to our hearts.
We unfortunately do not know much about her parents Sts. Joachim and Anne. What we do know is from oral tradition and from a piece of apocryphal (uninspired) writing titled the Gospel of James. Joachim and Anne were strong in their faith and tradition tells us they were a wealthy couple. Unfortunately they were childless despite their desire to have children. Joachim still held a belief that God would bless them with a child and he began a 40 day and night fast in hopes that God would hear their pleas.
God responded to his prayers and sent an angel to them announcing the conception of Mary. We do not know anything about that announcement. Was it like the conception of John the Baptist where a prophecy accompanied his conception (Lk. 7:12ff)? Was it anything like Mary’s encounter with the angel announcing her conception?
We know we have oral tradition stories from the past and a piece of uninspired Christian writing that could be false or could be accurate. The story tells us that Anne conceived Mary and she and her husband consecrated her to God and at the age of three Mary was living in the temple.
Is this true of false again we do not know but we know from the scriptures that another couple (Hannah & Elkanah) prayed for a child and God responded by giving them a son. That son was Samuel and after his dedication to the Lord he went to live in the temple (1Sam. 1:28). The fact legend says Mary lived in the temple from the age of three is not improbable. In fact it could explain her great faith and trust in God.
Therein lies the lesson for us as we celebrate this feast. Mary said yes to something that was improbable and impossible. Yet she readily and with seeming ease said yes to God. I believe we easily pass off her yes because it flowed out of her holiness and seems natural for her. I believe we all to easily overlook the trust in God and the human courage it took for her to say yes. I do not believe anything truly prepares anyone for the ultimate choice to follow God’s will for your life. It does not matter how prepared you are or how much you pray or how much you sacrifice it is not easy to respond to God’s call.
Mary was not supernatural; she was very human and she had to wrestle with all the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy. Her pregnancy would have brought great shame to the family name. Her pregnancy would have caused Joseph to break off the plan to marry her leaving her exposed to the law. The best outcome would be the shame and gossip about her “sin” with Joseph. The worst outcome would be the penalty of her being stoned to death.
All of the consequences of saying yes had to go through her mind. It had to be frightening but she still said yes.
We should look to her for inspiration in order to say yes to our call and to God’s plan for our lives. She overcame all human reasoning to protect herself by saying no. She trusted God would overcome all obstacles and she said yes. We can learn from her and from the scriptures in order to say yes to God’s desire that we bring his Son to the world just as Mary did.
Here is the lesson we learn from the way God prepared her- it is not unlike the way he had prepared us from the moment of our birth.
God is clear about us being prepared from birth when he said this to us: “for by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10).
God has overcome our imperfections and sins and has made us perfect in him not so we can boast but so that we can go out and do what he as prepared us for – just as he did Mary.