‘O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son…’
So begins today’s Opening Prayer or Collect.
We all know that what we’re celebrating today is not Mary’s active conception of Jesus – something we remember on 25 March – but her own being conceived in the womb of her mother, Anne, wife of Joachim. And what we celebrate about this conception isn’t anything miraculous to how it happened – that was all quite normal. What we are feasting is that from the very moment of her conception Mary was preserved from ‘all stain of original sin’, from the principal effect of the Fall which is inherited gracelessness, dis-grace. Put positively, we’re praising God for blessing her with the fullness of grace from the very beginning of her life. It was a gift she would grow into more and more as her life unfolded. But it was there from the beginning, before sin could get a foothold. A parallel in our own lives is the grace of our baptism, given us – most usually – not long after birth. That is a work of God, a sign of how his merciful love is always there first. And, still more, Mary’s Immaculate Conception shows how much the Father loved her from all eternity, predestined her, chose her, blessed her, redeemed her, graced her. Today we’re standing before the Father to bless him for blessing Mary. ‘Sing a new song to the Lord / for he has worked wonders.’ This is one of them.
‘O God, who by the Immaculate Conception…prepared a dwelling for your Son…’ If God the Father is the source of Mary’s holiness, God the Son is its goal. Incarnation is the goal. That’s why, in the Gospel, we jump ahead to the annunciation: to the angel and his message, Mary’s consent and her conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. It’s for that she is prepared. And the prayer uses this beautiful word, a ‘dwelling’. It’s a word full of biblical echoes. Heaven is the dwelling-place of God, the Temple in Jerusalem his dwelling place on earth. Now Mary is the heaven and the Temple where Jesus, God made man, can find a place to stay. The best longing of Israel, at that time, was to be precisely that: a pure people, a living temple, where God would dwell. And, all unknown, it was happening: Mary of Nazareth, free of the impurity of sin, was being prepared as the dwelling place of God.
It’s all real and human. If God was to become man, he would need a home. Like any child, he would need a safe place. He would need sanctuary. He’d need trustworthiness. He’d need safe, warm, kind, dependable hands to care for him and a loving heart to cherish him. And Mary was all this. Mary was predestined to be this. Preserved from original sin precisely to be this good, sure, reliable place, a kind of paradise in person where Jesus could grow. Later in the Gospels there’s a terrible line. Jesus says: ‘The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men’ (Mk 9:31). That meant hands that would arrest him, slap him, flog him, press a crown of thorns on him and finally nail him to a cross. But first he was delivered, handed over, entrusted, by God the Father to the hands of a woman, his mother: someone incapable of harming him. Think of families where, say, the father has to work in different places. They’re always having to move. And often these families become very close. There isn’t a place they can ever call ‘home’ for long, and so they become home to each other. It must have been like that for the Holy Family when they were refugees in Egypt. It must be like that for many refugees today. We need homes. We need safe places, sanctuaries, shelters, warmth of heart. In many ways, it’s a cold cruel world we live in. And more than any building or house, it’s we who are called to be these things: to be dwelling places one for one another. Parents and teachers for children, priests for their people, husbands for wives, wives for husbands, friends for friends. And Mary was this for Jesus. She was prepared for this, graced for this, preserved from sin for this – so hers would be the very opposite of those “hands of men” into which Jesus would eventually fall. She wouldn’t be a source of death, but of life, the mother of the living par excellence. Given by the Father to his Son.
And so this feast opens out, I think, in marvellous ways. Jesus’ experience of Mary is something the Gospels assume, rather than publicise. But it’s there. And his experience of her as a place of safety and shelter and life prepared by the Father was so deep that he wanted to pass it on, for us to have as well. So from the Cross he entrusted mother to his beloved disciple and vice versa. And the disciple took her to his own – to his own home, one translation says. In other words, he, John, the friend of Jesus, made his home in Mary. He the disciple, the apostle, was given this safe, life-giving place as his home. And he stands for us. So in the Church there has sprung up the habit of individuals and communities entrusting themselves to Mary. This is done annually at Pluscarden on this day. It means making her – her presence, her prayer, her motherhood – our home.
But there’s more. We’re not just invited to entrust ourselves to Mary. We are called to be Mary. She was given by God to her Son, and so are we. We’re predestined too. The Incarnation goes on: Christ dwells in our hearts by faith, says St Paul. Are our hearts trustworthy places? Are they pure? And what Christ in turn gave Mary to be for the beloved disciple, we can be for others. It’s true, we have a genius for hurting each other, even in the Church. But our hearts, our homes, our parishes and schools, our Catholic societies, our religious communities and monasteries: they are meant to be Marian places. Places of warmth and welcome and wisdom. Places where, so far as possible in a fallen world, mutual damaging is limited. Places where the Body of Christ grows. Let’s purify our hearts then; let’s not close them. They are made to contain God. They’re made to carry everyone entrusted to us. The whole world is made to be Mary: a mother of Christ.