Epistola: Is 7, 10-15
Evangelium: Lc 1, 26-38
Today, we celebrate the beginning of our salvation at the virginal conception of God the Son in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. The account of the event in the Gospel according to Saint Luke reveals the plan of God for our salvation from the moment of the sin of our First Parents. In accord with His plan, the Virgin Mary was to be the Mother of God, the Mother of the Divine Saviour.
The first words of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary reveal how God had preserved her from every stain of sin, in order that she might be the worthy tabernacle in which His only-begotten Son could be conceived: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed are thou among women.”(1) She who was to be the Mother of God was privileged by God, from the very moment of her conception, to share fully in the grace of the salvation to be won for all mankind by God the Son Incarnate in her womb.
From the moment of her Immaculate Conception, Mary was totally, in every fiber of her being, for Our Lord Jesus Christ Whom she conceived in her sinless womb. God the Son received a human heart under the Immaculate Heart of Mary. At the virginal conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb, God’s promise made through the Prophet Isaiah was fulfilled: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”(2)
Mary’s consecration as a virgin, after she had reached the age of reason, both expressed her total consecration to the Lord but also prepared her to be the worthy tabernacle of God the Son at His Incarnation. She who was to conceive God the Son in her womb by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit could not have any carnal relation with a man, for also in the conception of Jesus she remained totally for Him. She remained a virgin and would always remain so. In her expression of wonderment at what the Archangel Gabriel was announcing to her, Mary declared the truth of her consecration as a virgin: “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?”(3)
God also prepared the Virgin Mary for her vocation and mission of Mother of the Savior by her marriage to Saint Joseph. God led Joseph to espouse the Virgin Mary with full respect for her consecration as a virgin. The Gospel expresses the state of Mary as virgin and spouse: “Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.”(4) Not only was Mary prepared to conceive God the Son in her womb by her perpetual virginity but also by her marriage which provided the legitimate home, the family, into which God the Son could be fittingly born. Saint Joseph was the putative or foster-father of Jesus Who was known as the true Son of Mary and the putative son of the carpenter Joseph.(5)
What is more, by the conception of God the Son in her womb, the Virgin Mary became a queen. She was constituted among the highest spiritual royalty. After announcing the name of the Divine Son conceived in her womb, the Archangel Gabriel goes on to declare: “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he shall be king over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”(6) By His Redemptive Incarnation, Jesus was constituted the King of Heaven and Earth. His Mother, the privileged instrument of the Mystery of Faith, is, therefore, the Queen through whom the King comes to birth to reign in every human heart. She is first and best of the adorers of the Royal Heart of Jesus Christ High Priest.
In the economy of salvation, the Blessed Virgin Mary, crowned at her Assumption as Queen of Heaven and Earth, is the Mediatrix of All Grace. She, the first and best disciple of her Divine Son, in fact, cooperates fully in His Redemptive work from the moment of His conception to the moment of His death on the cross, when her Immaculate Heart was mystically pierced at the piercing of His Sacred Heart by the Roman soldier’s spear. Always one in her glorious Immaculate Heart with His Most Sacred Heart, she continues, with maternal love, to be the channel of the immeasurable and unceasing graces which pour forth from His glorious pierced Heart into the hearts of all the faithful.
How fitting to celebrate the vestition of religious Sisters on the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Truly, the Virgin Mary is the first woman to be totally consecrated to Christ. She is the model of the consecrated life for women. She is also the most powerful intercessor for those hearing the call to the consecrated life and for those who have already responded to the call.
The consecrated woman is called to unite her heart perfectly to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in order that she may give her heart completely to her Divine Spouse. Even as the Heart of Mary was preserved from all stain of sin, so that she might be totally for Christ, so, too, the religious Sister is called to be ever more pure in heart, so that her heart may belong totally to Christ. In his study of religious life, Dom Prosper Guéranger comments on the total gift of self to Christ with these words:
- There is no doubt that this imitation of the man-God, this being incorporated into Jesus Christ, is an arduous undertaking which costs our nature more than one sacrifice; but let us recall that we have no choice.(7)
In other words, the religious is called each day to give her heart totally to her Divine Spouse. While the daily conversion of life costs very much in terms of human sacrifice, of mortification of self, the religious recognizes that she can do no less in response to the call of her heavenly Spouse. In her sacrifices of love, in the mortification by which she purifies her heart of selfishness and impure love, she finds profound joy and peace.
Her obedient response is not a merely private matter, for it has to do with the salvation of many souls. Placing her heart totally and unceasingly into the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the religious Sister brings from His glorious pierced Heart the outpouring of His love for all her brothers and sisters. Even as the Virgin Mother of God is the Mother of Divine Grace, so, too, the religious Sister is a sign of divine grace at work in our midst for the conversion of souls and the transformation of the world. By her closer following of the Savior in His poverty, chastity and obedience, she is also the instrument of untold graces for those who are in most need. The life of the religious Sister is to be a sign of the outpouring of divine love from the glorious pierced Heart of Jesus. (…)
The vestition with the holy habit signifies the grace of God at work in the heart of the religious Sister. Saint Gregory the Great, in his life of Saint Benedict, commenting on the beginning of his life totally consecrated to Christ, when he left behind his family and his studies in Rome, states simply: “Desiring to please God alone, he asked for the habit of a holy life.”(8) Saint Benedict understood that the manner of his dress, the manner of his self-presentation, must reflect the reality that he belonged totally to Christ, that he was pursuing the daily conversion of life to Christ, and that Christ was alive in him. As Dom Paul Delatte relates, in his commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict, the holy monk understood the common wisdom of his time that a distinctive state in society should be marked by a distinctive form of dress.(9)
In the vestition of the religious Sister, the truth is made visible that she has indeed “put on Christ.”(10) Indeed, she has espoused Christ, and, therefore, she is clothed, as the newly-baptized is clothed, with a garment which reflects her state in life as a bride of Christ.(11) As her new vesture covers completely her body, so now she belongs totally to Christ, at all times and in every thought, word and deed. In the words of Dom Delatte:
- [The habit] reminds us, and that incessantly, of our supernatural state: by its austerity, by its form, by all its details, it warns us that we are no longer of the world and that there are a thousand worldly matters to which we have bidden farewell.(12)
The immediacy of the habit is a constant and most comforting reminder of the special grace given to the religious to live totally for Christ and, therefore, for all her brothers and sisters in His Mystical Body.
The habit is blessed. It is a sacramental which signifies the grace which the Divine Spouse unceasingly and immeasurably pours forth, from His glorious pierced Heart, into the hearts of His brides. In the words of Dom Delatte:
- Just because of this blessing, which makes it [a] sacramental, our habit guards us, is a part of our enclosure and completes it: it holds us in the sweet captivity of God… There is a real relation between our dress and our state; there are things which we feel to be impossible, conduct which we shall never attempt, just because we wear the livery of God.(13)
At the same time, the habit inspires in the religious Sister confidence in affronting the daily challenges of conversion of life in Christ, especially in a totally secularized culture. As Dom Delatte reminds us, the religious Sister never leaves the good order, peace and joy of the enclosure, even in confronting situations outside the enclosure, because she is clothed in the habit.
The cutting of the hair and the imposition of the veil point, in a particular way, to the distinctive gift of consecrated womanhood. In the rich tradition of the Church, the veil has been imposed upon women to reflect the particular manner of their consecration to Christ, whether in the married state, in the religious state at its various stages, or in the state of widowhood. From the earliest times, the veil for consecrated virgins and religious has been a particular sign of their espousal of Christ. In the words of Father Arthur Vermeersch, renowned scholar on the religious life:
- From the earliest times Christ was represented to the Christian virgin as a husband, the only One, according to St. Paul (I Cor., vii, 34), she had to please. It was natural that the bride of Christ should, as the vestal virgins had done, adopt that veil, which thus symbolized not so much the purity as the inviolable fidelity to Christ, which was to be reverenced in her. “There is here”, said St. Optatus, “a sort of spiritual marriage” (“De schismate Donatistarum”, VI; P. L. XI, 1074).(14)
Reflecting upon the wonderful gift of the religious vocation of the Sisters who receive today the habit of their religious congregation, I thank, in the name of the Church, their parents, their families and friends, the priests and Sisters who have inspired them, assisted them, and been charged with their formation as consecrated religious, and all who have helped them in any way to respond to Christ’s call in their lives. Please continue to be close to them, so that the good work which God has begun in them will find fulfillment in their daily living of the religious life.
Dear daughters in Christ, give your hearts totally, each day, to Christ your Bridegroom. Do not doubt or fear, for Christ receives the gift of your faithful and lifelong love. He receives your hearts into His glorious pierced Heart. In His Heart, He will never cease to purify your love and to strengthen it with the gift of His Divine Love. Let the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus purify your hearts of all distractions and disordered affections so that you can be a pure oblation for Christ and, in Christ, for your brothers and sisters. Seeing the purity and beauty of the Heart of Jesus in your heart, many will more readily, with the help of the Virgin Mary, give their hearts to the Heart of Jesus.
Entrust your religious vocation, consecration and mission to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She desires to enfold you in the mantle of her maternal love. Through your daily devotion to her Immaculate Heart, remain always close to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she will not fail to keep you always close to her Divine Son, our Eternal High Priest. (…)
May you so respond to your religious vocation and carry out your sacred mission as brides of Christ, that, when you have reached the end of your earthly pilgrimage, Christ the High Priest, your Bridegroom, will welcome you, His faithful and loving brides into the everlasting joy and peace of the Kingdom of Heaven which He has won for us by His Sacrifice on Calvary and of which we will now have the foretaste in His Eucharistic Sacrifice.
(1) Lk 1, 28.
(2) Is 7, 14.
(3) Lk 1, 34.
(4) Lk 1, 26-27.
(5) Cf. Mt 13, 55; and Mk 6, 3.
(6) Lk 1, 32-33.
(7) “Sans doute cette imitation de l’homme-Dieu, cette incorporation à Jésus-Christ est une œuvre ardue et qui coûte plus d’un sacrifice à la nature, mais souvenons-nous que nous n’avons pas le choix.” Prosper Guéranger, Notions sur la vie religieuse & monastique (Sablé-sur-Sarthe, France: Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, 1950), p. 98. English translation: Prosper Guéranger, On the Religious Life, tr. Jerome Veth (Farnborough, Hampshire: Saint Michael’s Abbey Press, 2006), p. 71.
(8) “… soli Deo placere desiderans, sanctae conversationis habitum quaesivit.” Grégoire le Grand, Dialogues, Tome II, Livre II, tr. Paul Antin (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1979), p. 126.
(9) Cf. Paul Delatte, Commentaire sur la Règle de Saint Benoît (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1913), p. 395.
(10) Gal 3, 27
(11) Cf. Delatte, p. 455.
(12) “[L’habit] nous rappelle aussi, et sans cesse, notre condition surnaturelle: par son austérité, par sa forme, par tous ses détails, il nous avertit que nous ne sommes plus du siècle, et qu’il est milles choses mondaines auxquelles nous avons dit adieu.” Delatte, p. 395. English translation: Paul Delatte, The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Commentary, tr. Justin McCann (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), p. 347.
(13) “A raison même de cette bénédiction qui l’a fait devenir un sacramental, notre habit nous protège, il fait partie de notre clôture e il l’achève; il nous retient dans la douce captivité de Dieu… La rélation est réelle entre l’habit et la condition; il est des choses que nous sentons impossibles, des démarches que nous ne tenterons jamais, simplement parce que nous portons les livrées du Seigneur.” Delatte, pp. 395-396. English translation: Delatte, p. 347.
(14) A. Vermeersch, “Veil,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XV (New York: The Encylopedia Press, Inc., 1913), p. 321.