14th Sunday-The Birthday of the Virgin Mary 2019
Today we celebrate the feast of the Nativity, the birth of our Lady, the Virgin Mary. We can ponder how great was the joy of this day not only for Saint Joachim and Saint Anne but also for God. We can only imagine in some small way, what it must have been like for the eternal Son of God to be looking at the birth of the little girl who about 14 years later would become his own mother and give birth to him in the Christmas story we read every year. We can look at the baby Mary with the joy-filled eyes and hearts of her parents and her Son as she was an infant and began to grow, thoughts that even many with strong Marian devotions seldom contemplate.
God the Father had had Mary in his sights since the beginning of time. St. Paul tells us that he “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted (or you could insert the word Immaculate which means spotless; pure; unstained; undefiled; without blemish) in his sight in charity.” (Ephesians 1:4), and how could he not be thinking of Mary as the image or representation of this divine choosing? We know that that the very instant of the fall, her coming into the world was prophesied as the one in whom God would place an enmity for the serpent. I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel. (Genesis 3:15)
The proper understanding of the conflict is that the figure of the serpent does not merely represent an individual snake or even all snakes, but the actual Devil himself (cf. Revelation 20:2) and that the other two figures in the passage—the Woman and “her Seed”, refer to two specific individuals that are key to redemptive history—Mary and Christ.
Christ crushed the serpent’s head and was struck himself by the serpent, which both are aspects of his death on the Cross. However, there is another sense in which Mary crushed the serpent’s head and in which she was struck at by the serpent. She didn’t do these things directly, but indirectly, through her Son and through her cooperation with her Son’s mission.
It was she, not someone else, who was the person that agreed to become the human channel through which Christ would enter the world in order to crush the serpent’s head (Luke 1:38). And she was wounded when the serpent struck Jesus. Simeon had prophesied to her that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also,” a prophecy that was fulfilled when Mary saw her Son hanging from the cross (John 19:25–27). Thus Jesus directly crushed the serpent and was directly struck by the serpent, while Mary indirectly crushed it and was indirectly struck by it due to her cooperation in becoming the mother of Christ.
And so on this day we celebrate, her who had been immaculately conceived and was born.
She was born according to a template, a pattern, according to the image of her Divine Son Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells us “For whom God foreknew, he also predestinated (Predetermined; foreordained) to be made conformable to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29) Mary, when in the womb of her mother, was most certainly already conformed to the image of the Holy One who would become the blessed Fruit of her womb. And the Holy One, when in the womb of his mother, was most certainly already conformed mysteriously, to her earthly image. And this was a “shaping together” that would be manifested mutually throughout life, as her fiat (fiat meaning “let it be done” ), would anticipate his fiat (meaning not my will but the Fathers be done). An example of this was her desire to help a young married couple at the wedding feast which would become the first place Jesus does his first miracle, and also as her pierced heart would emulate his pierced heart that was pierced with a lance, and as his glory would become reflected in her forever.
How could anyone believe Mary was Immaculate, spotless; pure; unstained; undefiled; without blemish, free from all sin?
Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” I John 1:8 adds, “If any man says he has no sin he is a liar and the truth is not in him.” What’s more, Mary herself said, ‘My soul rejoices in God my savior’ in Luke 1:47. She clearly understood herself to be a sinner if she admits to needing a savior.
Indeed, Mary needed a savior! However, Mary was “saved” from sin in a most sublime manner. She was given the grace to be “saved” completely from sin so that she never committed even the slightest transgression.
The Bible indicates that salvation can refer to man being protected from sinning before the fact:
“Now to him who is able to preserve you without sin (to keep you from sin), and to present you spotless (Immaculate) before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,To the only God our Saviour through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory and magnificence, empire and power, before all ages, and now, and for all ages of ages. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)
Six hundred years ago, the great Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus explained that falling into sin could be likened to a man approaching unaware a deep ditch. If he falls into the ditch, he needs someone to lower a rope and save him. But if someone were to warn him of the danger ahead, preventing the man from falling into the ditch at all, he would be saved from falling in the first place. Likewise, Mary was saved from sin by receiving the grace to be preserved from it. But she was still saved.
But what about “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) and “if any man says he has no sin he is a liar and the truth is not in him” (1 John 1:8)? Wouldn’t “all” and “any man” include Mary? On the surface, this sounds reasonable. But this way of thinking carried to its logical conclusion would list Jesus Christ in the company of sinners as well. No faithful Christian would dare say that. Yet no Christian can deny the plain texts of Scripture declaring Christ’s full humanity either. Thus, to take 1 John 1:8 in a strict, literal sense would apply “any man” to Jesus as well.
The truth is Jesus Christ was an exception to Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8. And the Bible tells us he was in Hebrews 4:15: “but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin.”
Both Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:9 deal with personal rather than original sin.
(Romans 5 deals with original sin.) First John 1:8 obviously refers to personal sin because in the very next verse, John tells us, “If we confess our sins”. We do not confess original sin; we confess personal sins.
The context of Romans 3:23 makes clear that it too refers to personal sin. Romans 3:10-14 “As it is written: There is not any man just. There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. All have turned out of the way; they are become unprofitable together: there is none that doth good, there is not so much as one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have dealt deceitfully. The venom of asps is under their lips. Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:”
Original sin is not something we do; it is something we’ve inherited.
Still, how do we know Mary is an exception to the norm of “all have sinned?” And more specifically, is there biblical support for this claim? Yes, there is much biblical support.
In Luke 1:28-30 we read: “And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.”
The truth is, according to Mary herself, this was no common greeting. The text reveals Mary to have been “greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what manner of salutation this might be” (Luke 1:29). What was it about this greeting that was so uncommon for Mary to react this way? We can consider at least two key aspects.
First, according to biblical scholars, the angel did more than simply greet Mary. The angel actually communicated a new name or title to her. In Greek, the greeting was chairō, “Hail, full of grace.” Generally speaking, when one greeted another with chairō, a name or title would be found in the immediate context. “Hail, king of the Jews” in John 19:3 and “Claudias Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greeting” (Acts 23:26) are two biblical examples of this. The fact that the angel replaces Mary’s name in the greeting with “full of grace” was anything but common. This would be analogous to me speaking to one of the Geek squad members at Best Buy, and saying, “Hello, he who fixes computers.” In Hebrew culture, names and name changes tell us something permanent about the character and calling of the one named. Just recall the name changes of Abram to Abraham (from “father” to “father of the multitudes”) in Genesis 17:5, Sarai to Sarah (“my princess” to “princess”), in Genesis 17:15 and Jacob to Israel (“supplanter” to “he who prevails with God”) in Genesis 32:28.
In each case, the names reveal something permanent about the one named. Abraham and Sarah transition from being a “father” and “princess” of one family to being “father” and “princess” or “mother” of the entire people of God. They become patriarch and matriarch of God’s people forever. Jacob/Israel becomes the patriarch whose name, “he who prevails with God,” continues forever in the Church, which is called “the Israel of God”. The People of God will forever “prevail with God” in the image of the patriarch Jacob.
What’s in a name? According to Scripture, quite a lot.
St. Luke uses the perfect passive participle, as his “name” for Mary. This word literally means “she who has been graced” in a completed sense. This verbal adjective, “graced,” is not just describing a simple past action. Greek has another tense for that. The perfect tense is used to indicate that an action has been completed in the past resulting in a present state of being. “Full of grace” is Mary’s name. So what does it tell us about Mary? Well, the average Christian is not completed in grace and in a permanent sense according to St. Paul in Philippians 3:8-12. But according to the angel, Mary is. You and I sin, not because of grace, but because of a lack of grace, or a lack of our cooperation with grace, in our lives. Or it even could be because we have not come to God with confidence, asking for grace that we need. "Let us go therefore with confidence to the throne of grace: that we may obtain mercy, and find grace in in time of need." (Hebrews 4:16) This greeting of the angel is one clue into the unique character and calling of the Mother of God. Only Mary is given the name “full of grace” and in the perfect tense, indicating that this permanent state of Mary was completed.
There is so much more that can be said but let us continue on the subject of Marys Nativity.
Normally for us the celebration of a birthday is always an occasion to think with gratitude to God and to our parents for the gift of human life — and that is a very good thing to do! — but Mary’s birthday is a celebration of something more. As we know from throughout her life, she was born with a purpose, to be the Mother of God according to his humanity. She was born to conform her life to him. As we think about her birth, her early days, her upbringing and her life, it’s natural for us to think of our own, and it’s key for us to grasp that we, too, have been born with a similar purpose, to be conformed to Jesus in this life and, God-willing, forever. Sometimes in our Marian piety we can focus so much on her privileges that cannot be imitated — like her Immaculate Conception, the virginal conception and birth of Jesus, her raising the Son of God, her sharing in his passion, and her sharing even in her body in his resurrection and heavenly life — that we can miss those qualities of her life that we can emulate. Today the great birthday present she’d like for us to give her would be to allow her to help us conform ourselves, like she was, to the image of her Son, to conform ourselves to his Word and let ourselves develop in accordance with it as she did; to conform ourselves to his holiness as she did; to conform ourselves to his proclamation of the Gospel as she did; to conform ourselves to his salvific suffering as she did; and to conform ourselves as she did to the newness of life he has given us by his triumph over sin and death.
One of the ways we do that is here at Mass. We conceive within ourselves first the word of God so that just like Mary did, it may impregnate us and grow within us to such an extent that we are like a umbilical cord, united with this Word until it becomes so big within us that we have to give it forth and share it with others. Then the same Jesus whom she bore in her womb for nine months will enter into us so that he can help us to conform ourselves to him from the inside. The purpose of Mary’s birth and life was not merely to be the Mother of God but to help facilitate our becoming like her and like her through the conformation to her Son that is meant to happen in holy communion. Our Amen is meant to imitate her fiat at the annunciation. Let us ask her to pray for us today that we may respond to the graces for which she is interceding for us now with her Son so to conform ourselves to Him in this world that we may be conformed to Him, like Mary, forever.