First preached as a sermon at St Michael & All Angels, Croydon, with members of the Cells of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham in Croydon (St Alban’s, South Norwood, St Michael’s, Croydon & Croydon Minster). Readings: Genesis 3.9-15,20; Ephesians 1.3-6,11-12; Luke 1.26-38.
The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a great gift to the Church and, indeed, to all humanity. It is the most optimistic of dogmas, because it says that by God’s grace human beings can be freed from the grip of sin, through our sharing in the life of the Word Made Flesh: Jesus Christ - Son of God, Son of Mary - the incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended Lord. This possibility of God’s grace first moved as Mary was conceived and knit together in the womb of her mother St Anne.
Our gospel reading today is St Luke’s account of the Annunciation, which is not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of Mary, although it often is: the Annunciation is about Christ being incarnate within the womb of Mary, the unborn Saviour, the Word Made Flesh, resting in the immaculate shrine that is Mary’s body. And you will recall that when the pregnant Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy as the Mother of the Lord entered into her presence (Luke 1.39-45). That dance of the unborn John the Baptist echoes the unrestrained dance of David before the Ark of the Covenant in the Second Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 6, esp 6.14). David danced before the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant; John dances before the presence of God, in Christ, in the shrine of Mary’s body.
The Immaculate Conception of Mary is about preparing the shrine in which the Christ will gestate and from which he will be born; for which all generations will call her blessed (Luke 1.48)
For some the Immaculate Conception makes them queasy. Isn’t it too much about Mary? Doesn’t it make out that somehow she’s not quite human, just a bit too perfect? Isn’t all a bit Roman Catholic?
Too much about Mary? On one level it’s nothing to do with Mary! It’s about God’s grace, of which she is described as being full of: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’, the archangel’s greeting. On another level it is everything to do with Mary; she is the person, the woman, chosen to be the mother of the Saviour.
The initiative is with God in choosing this particular daughter of Zion. That is why Mary is an exemplar of being a Christian, one who is open to the movements of God’s grace, saying yes, not no. After all, Eve – the mother of all the living, as her name means (Genesis 3.20) - was created without sin, placed in the Garden of Eden and yet, with her husband, said ‘no’ to God and ‘yes’ to the serpent. As we see in statues of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, she tramples down the serpent, reversing the transgression of Eve and bearing in her womb the New Adam.
Doesn’t it make out that somehow Mary’s not quite human, just a bit too perfect? There have been aspects of Marian devotion that have seemed to disconnect Mary from being human. This is often seen in art, but not in the New Testament or in the dogmas of the Church. Jesus was ‘born of a woman, born under the Law’ (Galatians 4.4); scripture and dogma insist on the humanity of Mary (otherwise how would we claim Christ’s humanity as well as his divinity?) Mary was a woman living in a broken world, but one who was freed by grace to act in a different way from Eve so that the bitter reality of human sin could be reversed.
What is more, the Immaculate Conception is not about Mary being conceived in a way that had no human agency. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not saying that the act of physical love is wrong, dirty or deficient. Anne and Joachim, as husband and wife, conceived their daughter in the way that any one of us is conceived; they slept together, they procreated, or whatever nice way we want to put it. Mary was human in her DNA; a woman in her chromosomes; and a child of God by grace.
Too Roman Catholic? The understanding that Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, was immaculately conceived is long held in Christianity, drawing from the gospels, of which more anon, and wider early tradition. Orthodox Christians don’t like defining things, but they still celebrate Mary’s conception as marking out her unique vocation to be the Theotokos, translated literally God-bearer, or Mother of God. Similarly, for Anglicans The Book of Common Prayer (1662) may not use the word ‘Immaculate’ but it still marks in the Calendar the observance of the ‘Conception of the BV Mary’ on 8th December each year, and that predates the Marian Dogma of 1854 in which Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception.
So there is an ecumenical consensus that Mary matters and that she is a pattern for Grace and Hope in Christ, as the document of that name from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) put it in 2005. That document shows a remarkable convergence of Marian teaching - perhaps ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’ - between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. We shouldn’t ignore that not all Anglicans would assent to ARCIC, and, we shouldn’t gloss over differences, but we could all agree, I hope, with Pope St John XXIII, that ‘the Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son’. ARCIC acknowledges that there are deep and important roots to what we celebrate, today, in the Immaculate Conception of Mary:
In view of her vocation to be the mother of the Holy One (Luke 1.35), we can affirm together that Christ’s redeeming work reached ‘back’ in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings. This is not contrary to scripture, and can only be understood in the light of scripture. Roman Catholics can recognise this in what is affirmed by the dogma – namely ‘preserved from all stain of original sin’ and ‘from the first moment of her conception.’ (Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ: An Agreed Statement. ARCIC. p. 57-8)
So what? So this teaching is agreed by Anglicans, with Roman Catholics, to be consistent with scripture and understood in the light of scripture. Perhaps then we should ask, ‘so what’? What does this dogma of the Immaculate Conception mean for us today?
The Immaculate Conception of Mary is about salvation, preparation and the human body as the dwelling of the Most High. It tells us that the journey of holiness is precisely to restore in us the image and likeness of Christ.
Mary’s conception, without sin, points to us the possibility of the redemption of human flesh as the dwelling place of God. Indeed in the Mass we receive the Body of Christ into our bodies, such that they become shrines of God’s presence. We are, as it were, a monstrance, a vessel that carries Christ, reveals Christ to the world and imparts Christ’s blessing to all creation.
In this season of Advent may we be prepared to receive Christ afresh in his coming again in glory, as surely as he came into our midst born of Mary, Mother immaculate, Mother of the Saviour, Mother of God. Amen.