Gospel Reflections

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Luke 1:26-38

Feast Day Reflection by Sister Camilla Burns

Published: December 08, 2016


The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception means that Mary was conceived without original sin or its stain – hence the word “immaculate.”  It might be puzzling to realize that the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the Annunciation celebrating Mary’s conception of Jesus. The key to the connection is the angel’s greeting to Mary. The angel Gabriel said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you"  (Luke 1:28). The phrase "full of grace”  sometimes translated “highly favored” or “Gifted Lady”  is a translation of a Greek word chosen with great specificity by Luke. The Greek verb and tense used by Luke means that Mary was “full of grace” all of her life. Luke could have used a different word to show that Mary was full of grace only at that particular moment as when he described Stephen “full of grace” only for a moment in Acts 6:8 before he was stoned to death. But Luke insists by his careful choice of words that Mary was full of grace all her life, so indirectly we get a hint of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in the account of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary in the Gospel today.

The angel Gabriel greeted Mary, “Hail, full of grace!”  Normally at that time after greeting someone with “Hail” you would give them their title, so “full of grace”  is actually a title or name that the angel Gabriel gives to Mary. And names were very important in that part of the world because your name told something about who you were. So “full of grace”  describes Mary’s very being. May was full of grace from the first moment of her existence when she was immaculately conceived. In the words of St. Louis Marie de Montfort, “God the Father made a gathering of all the waters and called it the sea; he made a gathering of all graces and called it Mary.”

Mary’s first response to the greeting was being “greatly troubled.”  The Greek word Luke uses to describe Mary’s response is unique in the New Testament, but it is very closely related to the word used to describe Herod’s response of learning of Jesus’ birth, which was to be “troubled” so much he would try to kill Jesus. Luke also uses the word to describe Zechariah’s response to the angelic message that he would be a father, and the Disciples’ response when the resurrected Jesus appears to them. The Annunciation of God’s work in our lives may cause us fear or overwhelming anxiety but it is also an invitation to believe.

What God invites us to do and to believe may appear impossible. This is the intended point conveyed by Mary’s “virginity.” Here as throughout the Bible, God demonstrates he “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph 3:20).

The closing note of the Gospel often goes without comment but is quite realistic in the life of Mary and our own. “Then the angel departed from her.”  Left on her own, how does she keep the commitment without the consolation of a presence? As Julie said of herself, she gropes along like a blind woman not always sure of the correct direction but making decisions with her best insights and trusting in the Good God. Like Mary and Julie we are called to life from faith to faithfulness to fruitfulness and many times in a cloud of uncertainty.

The Annunciation has been one of the most frequent subjects of Christian art with depictions that go back to early Christianity including a fresco in the Priscilla catacomb in Rome dating to the 4th century. Although not qualifying as a great work of art, one of my favorite pictures of the Annunciation is of Mary standing at the kitchen sink peeling apples. The shadow of an approaching angel can be seen at the window. Very often our “annunciations” arrive in the very ordinary circumstances of living with just a shadow of assurance. It is in such ordinary moments of life that God calls us to a growth in faith, faithfulness and fruitfulness.

 

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