Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

In about 1945, an American priest founded a group called the Christophers – the name means Christ-bearers. Its aim was to encourage positive action for the good of society. And its motto, often repeated, was a Chinese proverb. I’m sure we all know it: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.

Today we are remembering the Immaculate Conception of our Lady – the original Christ-bearer. Today God the Father, rather than cursing human darkness, himself lit a candle, a candle he had had in mind before the foundation of the world. In the soul of a newly-conceived child, hidden in the womb of her mother, he lit the candle of grace. If we want a good metaphor for grace, light will do.

We know darkness, don’t we? I’m not talking of December in the north of Scotland; I’m thinking of the darkness the Bible speaks of. When he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told his captors: “this is your hour and the power of darkness” (Lk 21:53). In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul wrote of how “we have been delivered from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13).  It’s strange that, however advanced and enlightened any society is, there is always a stain of darkness in its heart. Every one of us, every family, struggles with the power of darkness. And the Church, with far-seeing eyes, traces this darkness back, not to God, but to a mysterious first sin, a turning to the dark side. In today’s 1st reading, the man and his wife hide themselves, make themselves dark. And further back still, behind their sin, lies the influence, not of a literal snake, but of a spiritual power whose original name was Light-bearer, Lucifer and who had chosen in rebellion not to serve and so became what Scripture calls the “prince of darkness” (Eph 6:12).

God, though, the Father of all that is good, has not cursed this our darkness. Rather, says St Paul, he “has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence” (2nd reading). Man’s self-willed Plan B has not cancelled God’s Plan A. God has lit a candle. Last night, as we were saying 1st Vespers, Jews were beginning the feast of Hannukah, remembering the re-dedication of the desolate emple  in the time of Judas Maccabeus. The legend goes that, as they worked to restore the Temple, one small oil lamp burned steadily on, the oil not giving up.  Hannukah is the feast of light in darkness, and even more so is the feast of Mary, the Daughter of Zion. God has lit this candle.

And so the real Age of Enlightenment begins. It begins in an obscure Jewish girl-child, conceived outside the dark of sin. We remember the Easter vigil. In the car park burns a fire; in eternity is the blaze of God’s love. A deacon or acolyte holds the paschal candle, a symbol of Christ, the risen Light of the world. But first a lesser candle is used, perhaps just a taper, to carry the light of the fire to the great Paschal candle. Mary is that first candle.

When Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word”, she was speaking in perfect freedom out of the light that God had lit in her. Unlike Lucifer, she chose to serve. And from that small light, the greater Light was lit. By her word with a small w, the Word with a capital W became flesh. Small things often enable great things. From the candle of Mary, the eternal light, Light from Light, became the light of the nations, the Light of the world.  And Mary became a Christopher – a bearer, a carrier of Christ.

From then on, her small light became ever more part of the Great Light of her son. Even her suffering, the apparent separation, grew that united light, and now taken up in glory, she shines as a sign of sure hope and comfort for us on pilgrimage. We have been enlightened too. Pope Francis’ first encyclical was called the Light of Faith. It’s a light Christ gives to all the poor in spirit. Humanly speaking, Mary was not a significant person. And neither are we. She spoke of her own nothingness. Are we anything else? And yet, says St Paul, “you are all children of light, children of the day; we are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thess 5:5). It’s true that darkness still claws at us. But the light is stronger, and as it empowered Mary to be a Christopher, so it empowers us too. Our baptism lights the candle and we are enabled by its power to live a Christian life and reach its fulfilment in heaven. The light of our Confirmation guides us to our mission in the Church and the world. The light of the Sacrament of Matrimony equips men and women to be husband or wife, mother or father. If we are ordained, we are enabled too. And through the Eucharist we are all, like Mary, blended with the light of the risen Christ.  And if the light grows dim or is even blown out by gusts of passion, Christ rekindles it by his forgiveness. And like Mary’s light it blends into the light of Christ himself.

“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”; certainly better than cursing others. This may be old news now that things have intensified again, but many Christians in Gaza, who are insignificant in number, a thousand at most, decided to remain, they said, “to be a Noah’s Ark for anyone in this flood.” There will be hidden people in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, not cursing others, but lighting a candle, trying to reflect God. Mary has many children, often unknown, gathered invisibly round Christ. May we be among them! In the iconography of this feet, Mary is crushing the head of the serpent. And in our own battles, inner and outer,  with the dark, she is our radiant ally. “The light shines in the darkness, says St John, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That’s the Gospel of this feast.

St Mary’s Cathedral, 8 December 2023


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122