In her Magnificat, Mary sings, “For he has done great things for me and holy is his name.” At that moment, she is thinking of the “great thing” that she, a simple lass from Nazareth, has been chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah and conceive him by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Liturgy, moving forward, the Magnificat is read on the feast of her Assumption. There, it takes on another reference: the “great thing” is now Mary’s being taken up body and soul into heaven and becoming our intercessor before the Lord. Today – though the Magnificat is not as such quoted – we can think of it again. We can apply it to the uterine beginning of her life, moving backwards now, remembering the “great thing” of her original gracing by God.
Mary, whose face and hands were those of any poor country woman of her time, marked by hard work, the drawing of water and the kneading of bread, weaving and helping with the harvest; Mary who thought of herself as nothing: Mary nonetheless is someone whose whole life was marked from beginning to end by the “great things” of God. Immaculate Conception, Divine Motherhood, Bodily Assumption, we call them in somewhat unwieldy phrases. We could use lines from today’s Psalm: “He has wrought wonders…He has made known his salvation…He has remembered his truth and love.” That’s what’s going on.
But the Church too sings the Magnificat, every day at Evening Prayer. This means that what is true of Mary is not untrue of us, believers in our successive generations. The song is one and we can sing it after her.
The graces that fill Mary’s life, the great things the Lord did for her, were all in service to Christ and to us. Her holiness – unique in its timing and reach and purpose as it is – is the same holiness as that given us at our baptism and geared to unfold during our lives.
In one long sentence, today’s Collect looks back at the “great thing” of her being preserved from all sin and looks forward to the “great thing” of us being cleansed and admitted to God’s presence. There is one great overarching, all-embracing work of God. He creates, he redeems, he glorifies. His incarnate Son, with his Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Pentecost, is at the heart of it, is the root of it. His mother stands the closest to that centre and experiences God’s action in its fullness, but we are drawn within its radius too. And the Church, which begins immaculate in her, will end “holy and spotless” in all the redeemed – to the praise of the glory of his grace.
What the Immaculate Conception conveys especially, I think, is that this one and manifold “great thing”, singular and plural, is so often and so much a hidden thing. God’s work goes forward “under the radar”. It breaks ground now and then, but prefers to keep a low profile. It prefers the virginal womb of an unknown girl or the night and an animals’ stable-cave at the back of a pub, or an empty tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem, or the souls of children being baptised. God’s work moves usually beyond our consciousness. It goes forward under a veil. It’s like an underground river. It likes to conceal itself under signs and symbols. If it does break cover – which it does, neither Christ nor the Church are invisible – still most of it, the substance of it, like an iceberg, is underwater. Only faith can glimpse it, sense it.
What we call, in our ungainly way, the Immaculate Conception is the prime example of this. The first person to be vaccinated today – and what a good day for this to happen – is prominent on the news. Why not indeed? But another vaccination countering a more ancient and embedded and destructive virus took place “today”, when Mary began to exist in her mother’s womb. Something more radical, a greater reversal, a hope with a wider horizon. And under God only the angels knew.
Mary’s Conception evokes God’s hiddenness. It reminds us how a hidden spring of divine life flows under the surface. We are invited not to spend all our time on superficialities. “There is a murmur of living water within me, said a saint of the 2nd century, and it says, ‘Come to the Father”’. “For the most part, said one of the 20th century, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible.” Only St John must have heard the heartbeat of Christ at the Last Supper. I learned recently that an elephant can smell water from more than 15 miles away. How wonderful it would be for us to have a similarly acute sense of God’s “great things” of God, of the flow of grace in and around us, in the hidden places. How that would calm and carry us! Today that grace, in a world as chaotic and as randomly brutal as ours, flowed into Mary. May we sense it and “smell” it and run with its perfume. May we be sensors and singers of God’s “great thing”, the work of his grace, silently filling everything.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 8 December 2020)