This homily was given on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Old Saint John’s, Silver Spring, Maryland:
There is a profound beauty in our celebration of this feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady in the midst of the season of advent. Nine months before her birth, which the Church celebrates on 8th September, there is a deeper and richer spiritual truth being communicated to us by the Church’s calendar than simply the physical growth of Our Lady in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne. What might this be?
One of the principle themes of the season of advent is prophecy. We hear the prophet Isaiah, for example, quoted extensively in the readings and propers at Mass, and we see his language and analogies drawn on, to show Christ as the fulfillment of all that is foretold by the old testament. Just as during Holy Week we see Christ in the suffering servant of Isaiah, so in this season we see the babe in the manger in the anticipated king of the prophets. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Isaiah’s prophecy is referred to by the fathers as ‘the fifth gospel’. Indeed, Saint Jerome attributed the title ‘evangelist’ to Isaiah because, he said, “he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come” (Nn. 1.2: CCL 73, 1-3).
With prophecy, too, comes preparation. Isaiah and the other prophets lay open to the people of Israel the covenant-relationship of God with them, and prophesy the fulfillment of the old covenant in the new, which is sealed by the blood of Christ, the new sacrificial lamb. The voice of Saint John the Baptist prophesying in the wilderness, ‘prepare ye the way of the Lord’, becomes louder and louder in our hearts and minds as the days of advent come and go, and as we prepare our souls and bodies to be a place fit for the coming of Christ. His prophetic voice has an urgent tone, as we sing, On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry / announces that the Lord is nigh; / awake and hearken, for he bring / glad tidings to the King of kings.
The preparation of Our Lady for the event of the nativity is, then, far from insignificant. By her fiat our blessed mother confirms in time what is prepared for her in eternity; that she might be preserved from original sin in order to become the perfect tabernacle for her divine son. The great honour which is given her necessitates a similarly great gift; her great obedience to divine will is given a greater reward. ‘Our Lady is without compare in her objective dignity, and so it is fitting that she should be unrivaled in her subjective sanctity’ (J. Saward, Cradle of Redeeming Love). For so great a task, she is well-prepared.
By her Immaculate Conception, Our Lady, then, becomes the archetype of the preparation we are to make to welcome her Son as did she. By her perfect submission to the will of God, and by a life lived in sacrificial offering of her self to him, she shows us in a prophetic way how we must prepare a dwelling-place fit for her son. By preserving her from original sin, God gives us an example of spotless humanity, that we might aspire to the sanctity which she embodies.
Countless carols describe for us the woeful state of the stable which was the place where Christ was born. Our Lady shows us how this scandal can be avoided in our own lives, as we prepare for the coming of her divine Son at the end of time, and in the awesome gift of Holy Communion. Just as with the urgent call of the Baptist, so our encounter with Our Lady in this feast is a wake-up call to the task of preparation, not simply for the last things, or our own earthly death, but for the Lord’s coming into our midst in this here and now in the Eucharistic sacrifice, hidden under outward forms of bread and wine.
So may we see the life and witness of Our Lady as a prophetic call to readiness in this holy season; to preparation for the coming of her divine Son. May she intercede for us in this urgent task, and may her sinless state be for us a sign of what man has lost through sin and – still more – of what, in Christ, has been restored, that we might be stirred to live now in ready preparation for what is her home, and our eternal destiny: the kingdom of Christ the Lord.