Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

What does Mary say to us today?

A seminarian told me how he was instructed during preaching practice not to mention “grace” in homilies. We all know “don’t mention the war”; here was, “don’t mention grace”.  “It’s too technical and theological, and people won’t understand it.” What nonsense!

Grace is a word at the heart of our faith. We don’t need a 4-year course in theology to get it. Grace is a word we use every time we say the Hail Mary. In his 13 letters, St Paul used it 100 times. He wished it to his readers. Our Lord told him, “My grace is enough for you.”  He famously said that where sin abounded, grace abounded even more. And in today’s 2nd reading, he says, God has done what he has done so we can “praise the glory of his grace”.

So, what does Mary say to us today? Certainly not, “Don’t mention grace”, but rather, with St Paul: “let us praise the glory of his grace”. Are we so dumb we an’t understand this?

“Grace is favour”, says the Catechism, “the free and undeserved help God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adopted sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (CCC 1996). Grace was made visible in the person and story of Christ (cf. Jn 1:17) and from there, like Mary of Bethany’s broken jar of perfume, has filled the house of humanity. Grace is God’s kiss assuring us of his love. It’s the touch of the Holy Spirit, able to reach our depths. It overturns the un-grace we inherit from Adam and the dis-grace of our personal sins. It rescues us from ourselves. It beautifies us in the Father’s eyes. It’s the ultimate cosmetic. It’s the divine tattoo of our souls. It forms Christ in us and brings our nature to full flower: our common humanity, our masculinity or femininity, our unique individuality.

Today we praise the glory of the Father’s grace in Mary. Though she was born before Jesus, before the blood and water flowed from his wounded side, before the wind and fire of Pentecost, the grace of the Holy Spirit isn’t tied to time. From the first moment of her own conception, she was blessed, blessed by grace – gratia plena, all-beautiful – tota pulchra.

Today, surely then, Mary wants us to lift our eyes, like St Paul, to the Father’s everlasting, universal, irreversible, all-encompassing will to bring the fallen, fractured human family back to himself. Sin and failure are not the first things about us and needn’t be the last. God’s preceding, following, all-enwrapping love is what is first and most decisive about us. “Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and live though love in his presence.”

It’s an excellent spiritual exercise to recall how grace has come into our personal lives, rather like the angel Gabriel coming to Mary. If we have had Christian parents and been brought up in the faith, that is already a grace, or if we have found our way to faith later in life. To be baptised and to receive the other sacraments is to be graced by God or, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to be restored to grace after grave sin. How faithfully God helps us through life’s dark valleys! He inspires us to pray, gives us strength to overcome temptation, prompts us to better attitudes, to forgive and move on. He opens doors for us and binds us to others with whom we journey to God. This is all the work of grace.

Mary, as Mother of God-made-man and our mother too, has a unique mission in the history of salvation. In her grace is radiant, uneclipsed. We hear it in her when she says, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” or “they have no wine”, or when she sings her Magnificat. We see it at work in the key moments of her life: in the hope she had for Israel, in the welcome she gave her calling, in her closeness to Jesus, in being drawn to deeper understanding; when she stands under the Cross and later waits for Pentecost. We feel it in her presence to us, now she’s assumed into heaven. There’s a fulness here, but it’s the same grace of the same God as clothes and strengthens us and will in time make us all his, body, soul and spirit. So, we do mention grace. We hail it with the angel. We praise it with St Paul. We ask for it with the Collect. We know it’s the key to our life here and beyond. It’s grace we’re made for, like a candle to give light or a house to shelter.

Without it, we’re incomplete, truncated, diminished, missing the mark, falling short of our destiny. With it, we don’t lose anything of ourselves. Rather, we’re switched from “off” to “on”. With grace, we’re never a waste of space; we’re a gift to others.

So, today, let’s remember grace: Mary’s, ours, all the evidences of God’s healing, whole-making grace in the Saints, all the goodness in the Church and scattered through the world.

“Sing a new song to the Lord,” says the Psalm; the song of grace. Mary sang it from her very beginning, and now it’s ours to take up.

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 8 December 2022


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