Today we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is not the virginal conception of Jesus by Mary, but the conception of Mary herself. It’s not Jesus’ beginning we’re marking today, but Mary’s. And we mark it, not because there was anything biologically unusual about her conception, but because of who she was from that moment on, in the sight of God: a human being untouched by original sin, graced. There is an Old Testament Psalm with the line, ‘Glorious things are said of you, O city of God’. The ‘city of God’ was Jerusalem, and the prophets did have ‘glorious things’ to say about her. The same line is often applied to Mary too. Our faith says many ‘glorious things’ of Mary, and one of them is what it says today. Our faith says that, from the very beginning of her human life, from her mother’s womb, she was freed from all stain of original sin and therefore ‘graced’, ‘redeemed’, ‘adopted’, a delight to the heart of God, all that human beings are meant to be. ‘Where are you?’ the Lord God asks Adam immediately after the first sin. It was a question that should never have needed asking. But Adam, as we know, had sinned, felt shame and was hiding, like a naughty child, in the bushes. He was off-line; he had lost the connection. He was not where he was meant to be: with God in every part of his being; at home; in the presence. But Mary was. Mary, this first century Jew, a village girl, a Galilean peasant woman, was always ‘in the presence’, always. And why? Because ‘before the world was made’, she was predestined to be the mother of the Saviour, God incarnate, the One who would restore the connection all of us had lost in Adam. She was the city who was to open her gates to the king. She was, pardon the image, the landing strip on which the divine plane, the Son of God, was to land. She was Israel now ready to welcome her God. She was the one fitted to utter the ‘yes’ on behalf of us all and so allow the Incarnation to occur. And she was the one who would do for Jesus – God made man, the Holy One – everything a mother does for her son. So, from the beginning, she was prepared and equipped for her mission: properly dressed for the occasion, as it were, ‘highly favoured’, ‘full of grace’. The angel did not have to go looking for her; she was ‘there’. By the Spirit of the Son who redeems us all, she was already ‘connected’, ‘online’. She had oil in her lamp. She was awake and watching. She was the Advent that, on the human side, made Christmas possible. ‘Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God’.
Another Psalm line can help us too: ‘Sing a new song to the Lord.’ We have just been singing it. Sing with your lips, sing with your lives, says St Augustine somewhere. And here’s another metaphor. God, says an old tradition, sang creation into being. Creation is itself a song and we are to sing it. But we have lost the note, lost our sense of pitch. Or, if there is a musical score for us to perform, the instrument we are is out of tune. Mary’s ear, though, or the instrument she is, was always perfectly attuned. And so through her God’s music can enter the world. When we are baptised we in turn are re-tuned, as it were. We become capable of hearing and catching and taking up the Lord’s new song. The Church is the choir of us all, and we are called to join to it the voice of our own unique life. Mary was the first to join the choir, the ‘beginning of the Church’ (Preface of the Mass), just as Miriam was the first to take up the Song of Moses as the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea. And so, with her, all humanity and the whole universe becomes an Oratorio for God, an Ode to Joy. ‘Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless’ – to be in tune – ‘and to live through love in his presence’, singing the song of the Lord, making music to his Name.
When we bishops of Scotland met the Pope at the end of September, one of us asked what holiness is. ‘Closeness’, said the Pope: closeness to God in prayer, closeness to each other and our clergy as brothers and fathers, closeness to our people as shepherds. It’s a challenge! I mention it because Mary’s holiness might seem to distance her from us. We’re shy of perfection. But, as the Pope said, ‘holiness is closeness’. Sin, by contrast, is selfishness. And selfishness means such a focus on ourselves that we are ‘closed’ to others and to God. Sin is being closed; holiness is being close. A holy person is a sensitive person. So Mary ‘most holy’ is the human being closest to Christ, closest to us. She’s our sister, our fellow-traveller, our mother. If we open our hand, she will take it, and lead us to Jesus. She’s not lost in herself; she’s turned to us. She’s ‘online’. She always responds, however unexpectedly, to the ‘emails’ of our prayers.
How easily the serpent slips into things and spoils them! But isn’t it a beautiful thought and a great comfort that, some two thousand years ago, hidden in Israel, hidden even from herself, there was this child, this girl, this woman who was pure openness, giving such joy to God? And isn’t it a beautiful thought and a very great comfort that this woman, now ‘hidden with Christ in God’, is close to us, ‘connected’ to us, an ‘advocate of grace and a model of holiness’ (Preface of the Mass), coaxing us on, bringing us ever closer to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 8 December 2018