One of the great Catholic “basics” is the notion of the “state of grace”. The phrase comes from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. For him it’s the positive relationship with God we’re brought into by the death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s being made righteous and at peace with God. For Christians, the “state of grace” is something we want to be in, live in, die in. It’s something we want to return to if we step outside it by mortal sin. I can ask myself, ‘am I well?’ or ‘am I happy’ or ‘how is my marriage, or my work?’ These are legitimate questions. But more important by far is, ‘Am I in the state of grace?’ What is it again? It is, as the New Testament says, friendship with God, enjoying his favour. It’s a live relationship with him. It’s being “in”, not outside, Christ, and therefore a son or daughter of God the Father. It’s being a branch of the Vine who is Christ. It’s being a living, not a dead, member of his Body, the Church. It’s being an inhabited house, lived in by Another, by the Three. Images and comparisons can help. If we think of ourselves as a PC or IPad, it’s being online, rather than off; being connected, having access to the all-encompassing web of God, able to receive messages and send them, being in touch. Or again, think of being, no longer single, but married. I’m not alone any more. I’m under the same roof as someone I love and who loves me. We can face life together. On my side, the relationship may not be perfect. I may be selfish and the rest. But there’s nothing seriously opposed to the relationship, no rupture, no separation, no divorce. We’re in this together. In the state of grace, we’re no longer naked, like Adam and Eve after their sin; we’re clothed, we’re wrapped in God’s holiness and justice. We’re lit up. We’re no longer a landscape on a driech, foggy day, gloomy under clouds. We’re bathed in God’s light. Or we’re not just loose stones by the roadside; we’re incorporated into a building, into a Temple, supported and supporting. And we have the hope of heaven.
This is what the redeeming mercy of God brings us, what the sacrament of Baptism begins, Confirmation confirms and the Eucharist feeds. It’s what so filled the early Christians with joy. And today we’re celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. The phrase is clunky, but it means simply this: that from the first moment of her existence in her mother’s womb, Mary was “in the state of grace”. The Entrance Antiphon gave her words from Isaiah: ‘He has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.’ In the Gospel, the angel calls her “highly favoured”; in Greek, “abundantly graced”. We can express this in terms of God freeing her from the stain of original sin, being ‘without spot or wrinkle’; negatively, in a sense. But the meaning is positive. Mary was “online” from the beginning, pre-consciously, by the pure grace of God. She was wedded, clothed, sunlit. She was this from the beginning – so, not as a result of her own doing or moral prowess, simply by God’s gift, by the retroactive effect of her Son’s self-sacrifice, by the imparting of the Holy Spirit. What is given us at our baptism, after the death and resurrection of Christ, after Pentecost, was given her in fuller measure at her conception, before. Given her as the predestined Mother of the Christ to come. It’s a beautiful mystery to contemplate. It includes us. ‘The Lord has remembered his truth and love, / for the house of Israel’, and for all of us, for us and for our salvation. We too, at our level and at a different pace, as it were, share in this mystery. We have hope that ‘through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence’, ‘holy and spotless, and living through love in his presence’, formed by the same predestining grace as her.
But let’s come back to Mary. If she was without sin, mightn’t that mean she was spared the struggles and sorrows of life? That she had it easy? Was swept through the city in a stretch-limo of grace, as it were, while the rest of us plod along in the rain on slippy pavements with leaky shoes? But turn the question round. What did being graced like this mean for Mary? What kind of person was she? The answer is in the Gospels. Mary was uniquely graced; therefore, she was uniquely sensitive. I don’t mean she jumped whenever a door banged in the wind or curled up at any angry remark. ‘Emotional intelligence’ might be closer, but that falls short too. I mean she sensed things: divine things, human things; sensed them intensely. She was uniquely receptive, open. To put it biblically, she listened; she heard. She wasn’t what the Bible calls hard of heart or stiff-necked or disobedient. She had a listening heart and an open ear. She was tuned in, if you like, to Channel God and to Channel Man.
So, she received the angel Gabriel. She listened to him, dialogued with him, and then gave her consent. She opened her door and the Word was made flesh. She sensed the needs of her cousin Elizabeth and went straightaway to help her. There’s the same sensitivity again and again. She treasures in her heart the words the shepherds bring her, the prophecy of Simeon and Anna, the strange remark of her 12 year old son, ‘Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ She took it all in. She let herself be evangelized. At Cana, she intuited the huge potential embarrassment of the wine running out, and then passed on to the servants her own wisdom: ‘Do whatever he – Jesus my son – tells you; be open to him’ Under the Cross, she let the sword go through her heart. She felt his Passion like no one else. And so, in the wide space of a pierced, still believing heart, she was able to receive a second son, the beloved disciple, and in him each and all of us. She grew to a still wider motherhood. And at Pentecost she was, with the Apostles, “filled with the Holy Spirit”, opening her to the life and mission of the Church for the whole of time.
Surely there’s a pattern here. Perhaps the grace of the Immaculate Conception was like an ointment that opened the pores, not of her skin, but of her heart. It must have made her joyfully, painfully alive. And isn’t it our sense too that she’s someone uniquely susceptible to our prayers, our needs, our sufferings, that she’s our mother and sister and friend, that she intuits what the Lord wants of us and nudges us towards a receptivity like hers?
No, grace didn’t exempt Mary from life or inoculate her against it. And it doesn’t us either. Even a drop of the holiness of God can expose us, I think, to all life’s beauty and terror. Grace led Mary into the heart of things. It opened her to the word and will of God. She felt his touch. She heard the cry of human hearts. Grace let her feel and absorb the whole divine-human mystery of her Son. And it enables her to sense us, our pains, our hopes, and to sensitize us to the Presence that so sensitized her. So, we can entrust ourselves, our present and future, to her, the woman so close to Christ and so close to us.
‘O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you’. Amen.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 8 December 2016)