Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Immaculate Conception

Fitting in was always important, perhaps too important. And if you grew up too different in any way, not strong enough, not big enough, too soft, too dark, too tall, too big, too little, too whatever for whatever reason…your course was set early on, you didn’t measure up, you desperately wanted to blend in, but you were an outsider, you sensed it, and so, you learned how topass,” how to be nondescript. Fitting in was worth it. Passing, as something you were not - as anything else that would fit in with what was supposed to be - was often the norm with all of the self-abasement and shame that it might entail.*

God too, the One who is completely Other, had longed for endless ages - to pass so he could fit in. And so, he comes up with plan at once scandalous and achingly beautiful. Only his love and desperate yearning for us can explain it. God wanted to be ordinary. He will take on human flesh and become one of his own creatures, so that he can sneak in to rescue us from sin and pain and death. Mary, a poor young virgin, with nothing to recommend her but her very nothingness, will be his accomplice in this loving subterfuge. God will hide himself in the lovely darkness of her most chaste womb. This is surely God’s most artful and outlandish maneuver, and Mary by her fiat will become his great coconspirator. No wonder Saint Bernard will say that all of heaven, patriarchs and prophets, all of creation, waited for her response to Gabriel with bated breath. Then at last, Mary surrenders herself to God’s desire with serenity and dazzling availability: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."

Truth is God is the one who is always, always searching for us. And this morning we heard his very first recorded question. God says to Adam: “Where are you? Where are you, Man?” Embarrassed at his lost innocence, naked and vulnerable and sinful, Adam is hiding in the underbrush. “Where are you?” Mary’s reply, centuries later, is the healing antidote to Adam’s fearfulness and furtiveness. She is utterly present. Mary stands right in the middle of the garden, small, delicate, defenseless, unlikely. She comes forward, unembarrassed by her nothingness and says simply, “Here I am, you called me. Behold, I am all yours.” We can well imagine God’s joy, for through Mary, in Mary, with Mary God can finally be what God could not be without her - real flesh and blood. God’s dream of having a body is now possible. God’s heart is ravished by the beauty of Mary’s humility. She has nothing to hide. And amazingly, Mary’s smallness is room enough for God’s immensity.


If sin is resistance to God, resistance to grace, resistance to love, Mary’s privilege, her Immaculate Conception, points to her predisposition through God’s grace from the moment of her conception to receive as much grace as the Father desires to bestow, to love without measure, to be entirely available to embrace the Mercy and Compassion that Christ Jesus will become in her. She allows this intimate communion of two solitudes – God’s and our own. Mary gets caught up in God’s dream for our flesh. And the anguished plea of the psalmist, “How long will you hide your face?” is no longer an unrequited cry into the darkness.  Mary’s yes allows God to be visible.

Clothed in the lovely flesh that he has received from Mary, Jesus comes down to the very low and lonely place where we are. Jesus the ultimate Outsider arrives to reverse things, taking on our flesh so that he can take our part against all the forces that would keep us isolated and trapped. Then finally, in his passion, death and resurrection, he will dupe Satan who has always been looking for ways to convince us that we losers, outsiders, damned in our isolation and trapped in our sins. But in Jesus’ kingdom there will be no longer be insiders and outsiders; everyone will matter; everyone fits in. Differences will not be erased but enhanced. Because of his passing into us, no one will ever have to “pass” again; all will belong, for all will be made one in the blood and water gushing from his pierced heart, all divisions washed away. A Church is born from his wounded side and Mary is its mother. Giving her flesh to be God’s own, Mary has allowed all of this, allowed God to be vulnerable, woundable, and that is all he ever wanted.

Mary’s fiat is not some bland passivity, but the active engagement of one who is in love and so eager to follow the Other, ready to immerse herself in the project the Beloved has been dreaming of for ages. This is the truth of Mary’s “let it be done to me.” The immeasurable enormity of God’s love for us, for our flesh demanded a vast loving heart. Mary gives this to God. And so, she becomes once and forever the great conduit for Jesus, she the graced enabler – making all his compassionate presence endlessly available to us. She is forever pregnant with the Mercy that is God in Christ.

My brothers, in our own lives here in the monastery there are countless annunciations, incessant invitations from God to each of us, “Will you? Could you? Would you be open to receiving me, and bearing me to the world? Open to the joy and pain this will inevitably bring? Will you surrender to me, give me everything?” Once again, this morning hidden, quiet and small in a bit of Bread, in the relentlessness of his loving condescension, Jesus comes, desiring with great desire to pass simply into our flesh, as he did into Mary’s womb. How will we respond?

* See Harry Belafonte, in an New York Times article of November 8, 2016: What Do We Have to Lose? Everything.