It’s probably not great form for a Catholic blogger to admit this, but for many years, I harbored a bit of a grudge against Mary.
Or perhaps more precisely: I tended to resent one of the teachings that the Church affirms about the mother of Jesus – namely, her immaculate conception.
It wasn’t such a big deal for me as I was growing up, because I more or less assumed (like many, many misguided Catholics) that the title referred to Mary’s offspring. It wasn’t so hard to believe that Jesus was / is ‘immaculate’ (i.e., sinless). He is, after all, divine. The son of God.
But then as young adult, I learned the truth of the matter: We’re talking about Mary when we refer to the Immaculate Conception. We’re taught that she too escaped the taint of Original Sin, from the moment of her conception.
Frankly, that didn’t seem fair to me – the idea that another human being would be singled out for this prevenient grace. It gave Mary quite a head start on sanctity, I used to think. Who wouldn’t be good at loving God…under the unique circumstances that blessed Mary’s life?
These days, I’ve come to see the Immaculate Conception in a whole new light. I was thinking about that earlier today, as I listened to the opening lines of the first “holy day” reading at Mass. It’s a familiar passage from Genesis:
After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree,
the LORD God called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden;
but I was afraid, because I was naked,
so I hid myself.” (Gen. 3:9)
A rather touching scene, isn’t it?
God…initiating the search for the human being.
The Holy One…seeking to soothe (and cover) Adam’s self-inflicted wound.
And what we don’t hear in the lectionary reading is a pretty important part of the story, too: Before Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he and God had been having some great times together. Indeed, Adam and Eve were living large…in paradise. The Genesis story seems to suggest that’s how God intended things to be. Read the whole tale from the Garden of Eden, and you come to understand (as the theologian Elizabeth Johnson once cogently observed) that ‘grace is more original than sin.’
Grace is God’s first gift to us – just as it was to Adam…and to Mary.
This feast day, then, is not so much a celebration of the special grace bestowed on Mary…as it is a reminder that God created us for relationship. All of us.
Sure, God kept Mary free from Original Sin. But it’s not because he was playing favorites. Rather, it’s because God desires to repair the relationship with humankind – in and through the person of Jesus, whom Mary brings into the world.
That’s the great grace – the gift – we Catholics are celebrating today. We rejoice in Mary…and in the Wisdom she bears…that God is still seeking us today.
In other words, this feast is not so much about Mary’s head start…as it is about the invitation she shares with each of us…to find the Way to a really big finish.