Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
This Feast celebrates the grace of God to humankind through Mary. God gave the grace of holiness and exemption from sin to Mary, the mother of His only Son and our Savior. But many people cannot accept this dogma of faith. They try to limit the power and grace of God. They feel that it is not right that Mary should be given this privilege and that this is not based on the Word of God.
Yet this special privilege given to Mary is expressed in the scripture readings. It was all within His divine plan. Clearly, it was not through the merits of Mary but the pure grace of God that she was exempted from Original Sin. We are not saying that Mary earned that grace and that God had to act as such. But since the foundation of the apostolic Church, the faith of the Church recognizes that this was within the plan of God. That was why right from the early Church, Mary was called and recognized as the most holy Virgin Mary. It was by the mercy and wisdom of God that He would not allow His Son to be born of a woman under sin. It would not be appropriate that Christ would be conceived by one who was under the rule of Satan.
Her Immaculate Conception was at the service of God’s plan for humanity. It was for the salvation of mankind and not so much for Mary herself or to glorify her. It was to be a fitting sign as the beginning of a new humanity redeemed by Christ. At any rate, Mary was not exempted from being saved by Christ. She was redeemed by Christ by exemption in view of His saving work on the cross. Like us, Mary was saved by Christ and hence, there is no question of Mary not needing Christ as her Saviour. The way Mary was redeemed is different. Whether by preemptive measures or after the fact, it remains that all are redeemed by Christ.
Similarly, every vocation is also pure grace. Vocation is a gift from Christ to His Church. Why did He leave the Church the Eucharist before He left this world? He wanted to give us the gift of Himself. No one chooses to be in a particular vocation; it is a call from God. No one is worthy enough to be His servant. It is not based on our merits that we are capable of leadership but because of His mercy and grace. We cannot demand to be in a particular calling but only offer ourselves to Christ and His Church. Each one is chosen from among the people of God. The calling of each individual for a particular vocation is for the sanctification of the people of God. Like Mary, each one by his or her vocation is called to bring Jesus to the world. We are called to be the sacrament of Jesus to others through our service, profession or ministry.
Yet, we must remember that, similar to our vocation, although the call to be the Mother of God was pure grace, we are called to cooperate with this grace. Mary was certainly preserved from the stain of original sin but she had to cooperate with God’s grace to remain holy before the Lord. Her holiness was not simply the work of God in her. The grace of God in her must also be received by her. Indeed, we see how Mary cooperated with the grace of God at the Annunciation and at the foot of the cross. From the beginning to the end, Mary said her fiat to God. Hence she instructed us to do the same when she was at Cana. “Do whatever He tells you to do!”
In addition, the grace of vocation requires our cooperation. If we want to be effective in the ministry and in our vocation, we need to be holy. Pope John Paul II in the apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Inenute, wrote that before we do any pastoral planning, we must first be trained in the art of holiness. Without holiness, there can be no ministry or genuine service.
What is holiness? Holiness is to live a life of integrity. It means that we live a life of grace in accordance with the commandments of the Lord. We must seek to have a clean heart and a pure mind. Our faith and our live must by synchronized. In other words, we are not hypocrites. Our doing flows from our being. Who we are is how we live and how we live expresses our identity. So if you are a spouse, be committed to your spouse totally by living out the vows you have taken. If you are a student, then do your best to learn and acquire as much knowledge and skills as possible. If you are a parent, teach by your examples of unselfish and unconditional love for your children. So too, as a priest, we are called to live out our vocation as a priest by being the person we are called to be, a living sacrifice for others, not just offering the Mass but becoming a victim and sacrifice offered for the salvation of the world through our ministry of teaching and pasturing. Indeed, a priest is not reducible to celebrating the sacrifice of the Mass, which is the high point of his priesthood, but to be a living sacrifice for the service of God and humanity.
Holiness is simply to do His will like Mary. We are called to be obedient to God’s will and respond to His call to live out our vocation. To be true to our calling in life is what holiness is all about. We are to sacrifice our lives for others. We are to put the interests of others before our own. When we live a life according to our vocation and calling in life, we grow in holiness. Like Jesus and Mary, we are called to make our lives a sacrificial offering to the world. We must suffer with Jesus and Mary for the salvation of others. By so doing, we also save ourselves.
How can we grow in holiness? We must be formed in the art of prayer. We must learn how to pray like the disciples, especially in individual and communitarian prayer. We must also go beyond petitionary prayer to meditation, contemplation and mystical prayer. Most of all, our prayer must be rooted in the contemplation on the humanity of Christ, His passion, death and resurrection. For that reason, we must be like Mary, always contemplating on the Word of God and then putting into practice what we have learnt and heard. Without a deepening contemplation on the Word of God, no one can progress in his or her spiritual life and purify his or her heart even if he or she were to attend mass daily. Receiving the Eucharist without first savouring the Bread of Life cannot change our hearts and minds. Finally, no one can grow in holiness without receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly. Otherwise, we become insensitive and immune to our sins. Before we give birth to Jesus in the flesh, we must first give birth to Jesus in our hearts like Mary. This is why only prayer can give birth to Jesus in our hearts.
Thus, we must be careful of excessive activism. Often, activism is an escape from our interior life that needs growth. Many people are doing work for God, but in truth they are just running from confronting the truth about themselves. They are doing this and that for the Church and apparently for God. But deep inside, they are looking for peace and happiness. They are seeking love and acceptance. So the real peace and security must come from basking in the love of God in His presence. We do not have to earn the grace of God and His love. This is what the Immaculate Conception is all about. It is not by our effort. But we want to demonstrate our gratitude to His love for us by living the grace that He has bestowed on us. Our life of good works and charity is not to earn the love of God but to express who we really are; God’s grace at work in us. Indeed, it would be tragic that whilst saving others, we find ourselves out of heaven. Woe to us if that happens!
Rather, let us live like graced people as Mary did. Mary was known to be immaculate from hindsight, when the Church reflected on her life. It was not a priori that the Church defines her to be immaculately conceived, but a posteriori. It was from her life and in the reflection of the Church that she came to realize that Mary was preserved from sin at her conception. Her life demonstrates that the dogmas about her are true and credible. Indeed, her life fulfilled the angel’s greetings when he said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” Indeed, she was graced by God from the beginning and the Lord was with her every step of her life.
We too must prove our calling by a life of holiness and humble service. St Peter warns us, “Be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble!. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.” (2 Pt 1:10f) We too must walk with Jesus and Mary in our vocation, be it religious, priestly, married or single. We must be committed to living out the grace of our vocation received as Mary did at her conception so that Christ can be born in our hearts and expressed in our lives.