By Fr Jim Butler
“I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me”.
One of the loveliest and most significantly Christian lines in all of Scripture is a very short and uncomplicated line found in the wording of the Our Father: ‘Thy will be done’. While it is the simplest of lines, it forms the foundation and central challenge of the whole Christian life. This is a sentiment which was powerfully reiterated by Jesus Christ himself in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his Passion. What a wonderful prayer with which to begin each day. Similarly, it is a very worthwhile exercise, at the end of each day, to meditate on this line and to ask oneself how one has lived it during the day. And Mary’s response to the angel in today’s Gospel is the perfect embodiment of this principle.
But in the context of today’s readings, the Adam and Eve of the 1st Reading stand in direct contrast to the Mary of the Gospel. Whereas Adam and Eve (created without sin) bring about the fall of humankind by rejecting God’s will, so Mary (also born without sin) brings about the redemption of creation through her obedience to God’s will. As such, Mary is placed before us as the perfect example of Christian discipleship.
But, in this context, have you ever wondered if (perhaps) Mary is sometimes placed on a pedestal so far beyond us mere mortals that we (maybe) find it difficult to relate to her? Consequently, it is important in this sense that we understand the real significance of the Immaculate Conception.
As Christians, we are all called to holiness as the fullness of humanity. Sin, on the other hand, is the absence of holiness and the rejection of our humanity. Nonetheless, being conceived and born without sin does not make Mary divine. Instead, she is fully human, full of grace, and lacking nothing. In fact, the Gospel today even highlights Mary’s humanity. We see Mary questioning and pondering on the message of the Annunciation. We are told she was ‘deeply disturbed by this message’. Yet, most significantly, we see her beautiful response and her openness to the will of God: ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me’.
And this is where ‘grace’ enters the equation. The beautiful 2nd Reading from Ephesians today highlights the importance of grace as a gift from God. It is a pertinent passage for understanding the Immaculate Conception of Mary, who was born ‘holy and spotless’, and is therefore ‘full of grace’. But it is important here that ‘full of grace’ be understood, not as some unattainable goal, but rather as the realisation of what it means to be fully human. In other words, the Immaculate Conception gave Mary the grace to accept and to do God’s will, but yet, for us, her response will always stand as the perfect example of faithfulness and obedience.
And one last thing. It is significant and appropriate that the feast of the Immaculate Conception takes place within the season of Advent, because, like Mary, each one of us is also called to embrace the coming of Christ, and to allow Christ to dwell in us. As such, for Christians, Mary is first among the ‘disciples of Christ’. Or, to put it another way, Mary is the Christian role-model par excellence.