At the back of our church is a very large and very striking stained glass window. It is often the first thing that visitors remark upon when they come through the door, but it is also something that many of us perhaps take for granted. The window is a rich tapestry of light and of colour, but much more than that it is a tapestry of theological truth. Through its forms and design the glass depicts for us a theme that is essential not just to the Christian life, but the entire human experience. This is of course the story of our creation, the covenants between God and Man, and the salvation offered us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in His passion, death, and resurrection.
The window is not like a cartoon strip that can be understood by moving from left to right, but rather (as we have said) it is a tapestry. This means that it needs to be “read” to be properly understood. At the centre is the great image of the Lamb, of Christ Who reigns in triumph from His tree. On the right is the ark of Noah, the dove of peace, and the rainbow given by God as a sign of His covenant with mankind (Gen. 9). And on the left we find the Genesis narrative of creation: the fish in the sea, the Spirit hovering over the waters, and Garden of Eden complete with Adam and Eve (Gen. 1). It is in this garden that we can identify the start of the human story, and also the start (as our First Reading shows) for our understanding of today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Everything, we can say, began with the tree of the knowledge in the Garden of Eden, and with that fateful act in which Eve took from the tree, ate the apple, and shared the fruit with her husband, Adam (Gen. 3).
Tradition calls this event the first or original sin. Eve’s disobedience, taking of the tree that she was commanded by God to not eat, was (at it were) Man’s first mistake; the first time that we chose not to follow the way of the Lord God and opt instead for our own path. This is the act that in turn led to our loss of perfect union with God—the union that allowed us to live in His garden. And it was the end of our innocence, shown by shame of Adam and Eve at their nakedness in the presence of God (Gen. 3:9).
Out of love for us God gave to Adam and Eve, our first parents, the ability to choose this path or to continue to live in the perfect union of paradise, of the Garden of Eden. Out of love for us God gave to them, and to us, free will, the consequence of which is that we can (and, as we know, do) choose to reject God’s plan for our lives when we seek to go it alone, to live without His grace and favour. And so also God respected the choice of Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree—though it pained Him—and also the implicit choice of Adam and Eve to be cast out from paradise, cast out from God’s presence, in order to dwell in the world. Eve’s disobedience at the tree led Man from eternal life to the first sin and so to the consequence of sin, which is death.
Let’s go back to the window. As we said, we also see in this signs of God’s covenant with Man. Since that first sin, God (because of the love that first caused Him to create us) has called us back to Him: in the covenants of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and so on, He has sought to restore us to paradise, to bring us back (as it were) to the garden. But each of these attempts, because of our sinful inclination, failed. In every moment Man chose stubbornly to continue to follow his own way, and not to return to God and His immense love. And so, as we read in the opening of the Epistle to the Hebrews, whilst “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; […] in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world” (Heb. 1:1-2). In Jesus Christ, then, God chose not to send us any more prophets to bring us back, but (as Ezekiel foretold) came to look after His flock Himself: “As a shepherd keeps all his flock in view when he stands up in the middle of his scattered sheep, so shall I keep my sheep in view (Ez. 34: 11-12). God, as it were, rolled up His sleeves and got stuck in.
And how did all of this come about? How did God come to dwell with us to save us from our sins, to save us from ourselves? By becoming one of us. God Who is outside time and space, Who is immortal, chose to become one of us so that we might become one with Him. And He did this by preparing a “holy and spotless” womb which would be a fitting place of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to dwell (cf. Eph. 1).
In the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Our Lady, God found a willing participant in His plan for the restoration of our race with His life in that garden. In Mary’s fiat, in Her “yes” to God which we heard again in the familiar words of the Gospel according to Saint Luke, Our Lady cooperated with God Who had prepared Her (as Saint Paul has it in the Second Reading) “before the world was made … under the predetermined plan of the one who guides all things” (Eph. 1:4,12). In Mary the Lord found someone Who, by Her obedience to His will, allowed Him to undo the mess we had made when first we sinned. As Saint Irenæus wrote as early as the second century: “As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the Good News by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to His word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve” (Adv. Hær., Lib. V, Ch. IXX, 1).
Our Lady’s preparation for this moment is what we celebrate in the feast of the Immaculate Conception. We commemorate that by Her willingness to let God’s will be done to Her according to His word, we are offered once more the chance to return to paradise, to return to the Garden of Eden, and to return to His perfect love. The serpent that tempted Eve in Eden is, through Mary, crushed underfoot. The sin that was the cause of our downfall is, through Mary, destroyed by God in His Son. Today we honour Our Lady for this, and we ask that through Her prayers we might be joined to Her “yes” and ourselves be redeemed through Christ to the perfect union with God that, through Adam and Eve’s fault, we have lost. May Mary Immaculate, Mary our help, pray for us that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.