As this month of October, which each year is dedicated to the Holy Rosary, comes to an end, I recall from my earliest years, the memories of my mother’s prayers to Our Blessed Mother and her praise and thanksgiving offered to Jesus, her Lord… they still travel across the decades of time and touch my heart. My mom would tell me over the years that Our Blessed Mother’s love for me was a love that I could always depend upon; that Mary was always there to guide me to her Son and keep me secure in the faith if I permitted Mary to wrap me in her mantle as she wrapped her Son in His swaddling clothes.
I did not always understand what a great gift God gave to us in Mary and there were times when my attention was diverted from her and her Son. In my adolescence and young adult years during times when I seemed far from the Lord, my attention would invariably return to this woman my mother told me I could trust to keep me safe and with the Lord. I would remember her telling me that when I found it most difficult to say yes to Jesus, I should pray to Mary; she would help me say yes as she had when visited by the Archangel Gabriel. And so at those times I would pray the prayers of the Rosary which my mom taught me; and I would pray the Memorare, afterwards thanking Jesus for the gift of His Mother.
Such a small thing, a simple thing, yet such a powerful lesson and prayer handed on to me by my mom.
Immaculate Mary – Our Tainted Nature’s Solitary Boast
Each December 8th, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As William Wordsworth wrote in his famous poem, The Virgin, Mary is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” We celebrate that special grace given to Mary and all that flows from it. The life and person of Mary is that greatest model for us to follow in our response to God’s call to us.
In celebrating this solemnity on our liturgical calendar, we acknowledge a great truth of the faith concerning Mary. Yet even today, many are uncertain of what that truth is. Some mistakenly believe that we are celebrating the conception of Jesus within Mary’s womb. What we really celebrate concerns the conception of Mary within her mother’s (Anne) womb. The doctrine is a dogma of the faith and it is a great blessing for mankind.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception defined
So let us turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and reflect on what this dogma teaches.
“Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
‘The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.’” [Ineffabilis Deus (1854): DS 2803] (CCC ¶ 491)
We all know the story of how Adam and Eve rejected God’s love and lost the original blessings and gifts given to mankind. Since they lost these graces and privileges, they could not pass them on to their descendents – therefore we lost them too. All mankind therefore fell short of God’s glory and favor, stained with the sin of Original Sin. But, God was not finished. Over the centuries, He fathered his people through ever-expanding covenants until the time was right for Him to send His Son to redeem us. His Son who would become true man while remaining true God. His Son, become man, would be incarnate of Mary, if only she would give her permission.
Those of us who were conceived under the New Covenant would be conceived in sin the same as those who were conceived under the Old Covenant, that is, we would be stained with Original Sin – cut off from the God Who loves us. But, in Baptism, that Original Sin and all our personal sins are cleansed; washed clear away and never to be remembered.
It is by this outpouring of love of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit… and as a result of Mary’s “yes”, that we are saved and therefore, call Jesus, Our Savior. But Mary also needed to be saved. As a member of the human race – a descendent of Adam and Eve – Mary would be in need of God’s saving grace. Where we receive that grace in Baptism, after we are born, Mary received it at the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb so that she was never stained with Original Sin. Nor was she ever guilty of any personal sin. By God’s grace, she surrendered totally and humbly to His will for her. In this, Mary was not forced, she surrendered freely. God’s love for us is always freely offered and must be freely accepted. She is indeed “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”
Faith Seeking Understanding
The prayers of a mother for her child are powerful; I can attest to that. But the prayers of a son for his mother are powerful too, especially when your son is the Son of God.
That I love the Lord today, I give thanks to God for my mom. And should I be saved in the end, I know that her continuing prayers for me from Heaven will have played a major role. There were times in my youth when I struggled with understanding this teaching on the Immaculate Conception. I thank God for the explanations given me by my father who, as a Southern Baptist, had come to understand what the Church teaches and had reconciled them with his beliefs. But it was the very simplicity of my mother’s answers to my questions that brought the light of reason to the light of faith she had previously planted in my heart.
Looking back, I recognize that much of what she said to me she may have learned from listening to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, but I suspect that she had learned these reasons to believe much earlier.
The following are my questions about the Immaculate Conception and my mom’s answers…
But, don’t we all need to be saved? How could it be that Mary did not need a savior?
(My mother answered in the same manner already addressed above.) Of course Mary needed a savior. Her savior was her Son. It was by the grace won on the cross that God preserved Mary from Original Sin. She explained that it was by that same grace that I was washed of Original Sin in Baptism.
Mom, I understand how that grace cleansed me – I was baptized after the Sacrifice of the Cross. You are saying that Mary was saved by that grace before Jesus died… even before He was conceived by Mary. How can this be?
Don’t over complicate it; God can do anything. The Church explains that those graces were anticipated and granted by God who is outside of time. In the same way, God has already anticipated all our prayers for one another even before we utter them. Nothing is impossible for God.
But why, mom? Why would He do that?
(Can’t you hear a child asking that?) Mike, why would He do otherwise? Just like a parent wants only the best for their child, Jesus wanted only the best for His mother. He was a good “Jewish” boy who loved His mother. He was the only natural born son who chose His mother before He was conceived in her womb.
What? I don’t follow that.
It is very simple. Before He was conceived in Mary and born in Bethlehem, He existed from all eternity as God – the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. He chose His mother – it is as simple as that. But don’t forget, she chose Him also.
But doesn’t that make her unlike every other person? How did she have a choice if He made her that way?
She definitely had a choice. When the angel appeared to her and told her of God’s plan for her, all of creation in a sense, and certainly all of the heavenly hosts, waited with breath held for her answer. She could have said no, but she said yes. We call that her fiat. Adam and Eve also had a choice. They were not forced to say no… they chose freely. Their temptation was not so that they would choose sin, but so that their choice of God would be free. Where Eve said no, Mary said yes. Both existed without Original Sin at their moment of decision. No difference!
I did not understand all of this at the time my mother gave me her answers to my questions, but by her prayers, her patient teaching and the love of Mary, they stuck with me until that time when I would finally say yes. May both Anne (my mother) and Mary (Our Mother) continue to pray for me so that I not waiver in that choice.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
Into the deep…
Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.
He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.
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