Easter next year falls on 1 April, and the new liturgical year having begun we’re already on our way to it. We are in Advent, and so most immediately we’re on our way to Christmas. And on that way, on our way to Bethlehem, we pause at this feast, the solemnity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. If we were actually on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, we could pause today at the church of St. Anne in Jerusalem, the traditional site of Mary’s family’s home, and then press on the short, but difficult, way to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The Liturgy is a pilgrimage too, a pilgrimage through time, and a many-layered one. And every Advent, in a sense, we relive the passage from what the Catechism carefully calls the “time of promises and preparation” to the “fulness of time”. We relive the long journey St. Matthew retells every Christmas night, from Abraham to David, from David to the deportation to Babylon, and thence to the birth of Jesus, who is called the Christ. We pass from the word of prophecy to the Word made flesh solemnly proclaimed at the Mass on Christmas day. We relive the spiritual journey of Israel. And on this journey we come to today’s feast, to the mystery of her immaculate conception – the first of the four great truths the Church confesses about her: her conception in grace, her divine motherhood, her perpetual virginity, her bodily assumption into heaven. And coming to Mary, conceived without sin, we come to a threshold. We cross with Israel from the time of promises to the fulness of time. It’s a blessed moment.
What is it, then, we come to when we come today, to Mary’s Immaculate Conception? We come to the fulness of time under the heading, as it were, of holiness. We come to the fulness of grace, embodied uniquely, yes, in Mary, but not restricted to her; concentrated, so to speak, in her, but refracted in us, in every member of the body of Christ as well; given her from the moment she came into existence, given us in our measure at our rebirth in baptism; given her in the beginning, but waiting for us at the end when we stand before God, with all the saints, holy and spotless. We can cry out today: Easter is already coming. Its light is shining. The power of the risen Christ is already at work!
Ever since the Exile at least, six centuries before, Israel had been longing to be cleansed. She had felt the grip that sin can have, and she longed to be freed from it. She longed to be pure, to have a new heart, to know a new covenant. The prophets had taught her this hope. Even earlier Isaiah had said: “And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, every one who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem” (Is 4: 3–4). “I will put my law within them, said the Lord through Jeremiah, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people…I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” ((Jer 31: 33, 34).
And through Ezekiel too, “And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes” (Ez 11: 19-20). And again, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ez 36: 25-26). “There shall be nothing unclean before our God in the nation he has chosen for himself,” said a Jewish writer in the century Mary was born. And suddenly today, in secret, in the night, no one knowing, not even Mary as she grew, the fulfilment of these hopes is realized. Suddenly today, in secret, no one knowing, in the person of Mary, daughter of Israel, Israel is cleansed, Jerusalem renewed, a new Temple begun. Suddenly, in a human spirit, there is nothing unclean before our God, the Spirit of God is at rest.
What is it we come to, on this year’s pilgrimage, today? It is, once again, the fulness of time under the name, as it were, of holiness and grace, embodied in Mary and open to us. It is, then, even more than fulfilment of Israel’s longing, or rather it’s that fulfilment in depth. It’s an answer to the longing of all humanity. Today, as the Genesis reading implies, is the undoing of humanity’s original sin, the clothing of our nakedness, our heel finally crushing the ancient serpent. It is the deepest possible ‘righting’ of the human soul, the untying of the most tangled knots at the bottom of our devious hearts, redemption redeeming everything. It’s the cleansing of the mirror of the heart, so that at last, unstained, it can give back the light of God. For “the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (Rom 5:15). What we come to today is Mary, the new Eve, the one who embodies, after her Son and thanks to her Son, the new world, the new creation, the new Spirit-filled order of things, which, sin atoned for on the Cross, rose from the grave with him.
Today we are crossing the threshold into the fulness of time, into its holiness. And it isn’t by accident, it’s by the wisdom of God, that this holiness is focussed, so radiantly, in Mary. That it’s set up first of all, like an icon, in her, where we can see where the call of holiness leads. Mary was conceived immaculate so that she could conceive and bear Jesus, the Son of the Most High. At the moment of the Annunciation, the temple of her body and soul was filled with the Glory of God. At the moment of conversion, at the moment of baptism, at the moment of forgiveness of grave post-baptismal sin, the same, in a spiritual sense, holds for us. We become a place where the Glory dwells.
We become by the gift of the Holy Spirit, a bearer of God, a bearer of Christ. “Three things, said Tertullian, make the Christian: body, soul, and the Holy Spirit.” Further still, holiness took Mary. It took her to standing by the Cross and hearing the words of Jesus, “Woman, behold your son,” says Jesus on Good Friday. It took her to a second motherhood, a motherhood in pain, of all the children of God. If we are carrying God, if we have God within us, we must carry others too and let them carry us, and, not without suffering, not apart from the Cross, not without the crucifixion of our selfishness, our hearts must be widened to them, to everyone, to all the children of God. And then Easter will be ours, the fulness of time, as fully, in our measure, as it’s Mary’s
What have we come to today, this feast of the Immaculate Conception? We have, in a sense, come to Easter already. We have come to the power of the Spirit of holiness that raised our Lord from the dead. Let us today put our hand in Mary’s and ask her to take us, with her, fully over the threshold into the fulness of time and of grace.