Av Dom Hugh Gilbert OSB, tidigare abbot av Pluscarden Abbey
Once one has been a good time in the monastery, one has plenty of things to be embarrassed about. I was once given a tree to plant. I chose a good spot, I thought. I dug a hole, as one does, and put the young tree in it. Time passed, and the tree showed no signs of growth. Indeed, it looked decidedly unhappy. Then along came another monk, as happens, kindly bent on rectifying my incompetence. It turned out I had successfully planted the tree on top of a large rock. Well, the Bible recommends rocks for building houses on, but they’re definitely not for trees.
It is a parable in reverse for today. God the Father is a much better gardener than I am. When he’s going to plant a tree, he prepares the earth properly. Mary is the earth, and Christ is the tree, the Tree of Life. And the rock is no bad image of original sin.
What is the ‘Immaculate Conception’? What does it mean? It means that Mary, from the first moment of her existence, was preserved from original sin. And what is original sin? It is the lack of sanctifying grace, of the indwelling Spirit of God giving us a share in God’s own life. In the beginning, humanity was conceived in grace; it began its existence beautiful before God. But sin entered the world; the treasure that should have been handed on generation after generation was lost; and, each one of us now begins his or her life deprived, lacking. That lack is what we mean by original sin. Even when we disobeyed, however, and lost God’s friendship, he did not abandon us to sin and death. In the fullness of time, the work of complete restoration begins. One name for its beginning is Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Mary, by the sheer unmerited grace of God, was preserved from privation. She lacked the lack. Suddenly, among the stony fields of middle earth, comes this patch of cleared soil: a daughter of Eve free from original sin, and by a further extension of grace, free from all personal sin as well, venial and mortal, even from the inclination to sin. Putting it positively, Mary is creation beginning again. She’s conceived, not naked and stripped like us, as it were, but beautifully dressed. She is the uncracked, unsmudged mirror giving back the glory of God without any hesitation or unclarity or distortion. She is, in the hallowed phrase, ‘full of grace’ (Lk 1:28). She is the most gracious, graceful, grateful person conceivable – grace entails all that. Catholic tradition calls her All-holy, All-beautiful, paradise restored, overflowingly lovely. When St. Bernadette remarked, ‘When you’ve seen her, you just want to die to see her again,’ she was only experiencing what this feast has been saying for a thousand years.
What is the Immaculate Conception? It is Mary herself in her God-given beauty, Mary the Holy Spirit’s masterpiece.
And why? Why was she conceived in this way? This is the other question. Why this grace of the Spirit given to Mary? So that the healing, life-giving tree might be planted and grow: Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Father, the Tree of Life. The ground was dug so deep, every stone and thorn and thistle removed, and the old roots of the tree of sin cleared away, so that this soil might receive the Holy Seed, and the stump of Jesse flower. God was beginning again – in the fullness of time – restoring paradise, re-opening the garden. The soil was prepared to welcome the seed of the Son. First comes Mary conceived immaculate and then, in due time, Jesus conceived by the Holy Spirit in her. ‘Faithfulness shall spring from the earth, / and justice look down from heaven. / The Lord will make us prosper / and our earth shall yield its fruit’ (Ps 84:12-13). The Gospel of the Annunciation is the seed falling on rich soil, the soil of a noble and generous heart (cf. Lk 8: 15): ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord; let what you have said be done to me’ (Lk 1:38). This is the seed that will multiply thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold. This is the tree that will grow so large that the birds of the air will nest in its branches. This is the tree of life, that will hang on wood at Calvary and rise from the tomb with fruit in its hands – fruit the Holy Spirit will pass to us from Pentecost on.
Today we’re praising Father, Son and Holy Spirit for all of this, in its beginning. The Spirit made Mary immaculate, so that she could welcome the Son, and the Son, through his life, death and resurrection, take us home to the Father’s house. How can we not want to be part of this, part of it from the beginning?
In fact, the beginning is in us already. What the Holy Spirit did for Mary in her conception, he does for us, at our level, through our baptism. The rock of the original lack is lifted from our hearts and the seed of grace is set within them. Our hearts, and lives, thus take on a Marian potential. They become a soil where the Tree of Life can take root. The work that remains is just picking out stones, toilsome though it be. It’s our free seconding of the cleansing, ploughing, watering action of the Spirit. Currently (2002), how busy the Spirit seems, clearing the soil of the Church, bringing our sins to the surface and a contemptuous public gaze! But always and only so that the soil of the Church and every member of it may be more Marian: a place where the Father can plant the tree of his Son, and this Son grow, flourish and bear fruit. And each of us too, in the Son, become ‘like a tree that is planted / beside the flowing waters, / that yields its fruit in due season / and whose leaves shall never fade’ (Ps 1:3); leaf-laden, fruit-bearing trees, ‘for the healing of the nations’ (Rev 2:22).
‘O Lord, you once favoured your land / and restored the fortunes of Jacob, / you forgave the guilt of your people / and covered all their sins. You averted all your rage, / you calmed the heat of your anger’ (Ps 84: 2-4). This is what begins today, pre-emptively in Mary. This is what begins again every Advent and Christmas. It is what begins with our baptism, and begins in our hearts plainly and humbly, day after day, in faith, hope and love. This is what is really going on in the world and in our lives: this work of the God of the garden, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May each of us yield to it with Mary and say, ‘Be it done to me according to your word.’