Thursday, December 08, 2016

Hail, Kecharitomene! (Immaculate Conception homily)

In what way does this depict the Immaculate Conception? See note below!

There is frequently confusion about what we are celebrating today. 
I am determined to correct this mistake every chance I get.

Pop quiz: whose conception – whose beginning of life – 
are we commemorating today? 
If you answer, “Jesus,” I’m sorry, that’s wrong.
Rather, it’s Mary’s conception; 
it’s Mary who is conceived immaculately, or, without sin.

We mark Jesus’ conception on March 25, 
nine months before Christmas.
Today we recall when Mary was conceived 
in the womb of her mother, Ann. 
Mary’s birthday comes nine months later, September 8.

So, again, the Immaculate Conception is about how Mary began her life. 

The mistake is understandable, 
in part because the Gospel reading 
talks mostly about Jesus being conceived. 
Even so, this Gospel reading is still the right one, 
because it is the place where the Bible 
most clearly points to Mary’s Immaculate Conception. 

First, we have a single, powerful word, in the original Greek: 
kecharitomene. This is the word we translate, “full of grace.”
Biblical scholars like to point out that kecharitomene
is a very unusual word – unique, in fact; 
it appears nowhere else in the Bible 
or even in secular literature of the period. 
That’s because it’s an unusual construction of the Greek verb 
meaning “to grace” or “to favor.”

Let’s notice a couple of things. First, it’s a greeting. 
This isn’t a statement about Mary; 
it’s the name Heaven gives to Mary; it’s who God says she is. 
And it isn’t something she did, but rather, something God did in her. 

So here’s the thing: “full of grace” is true, as far as it goes; 
but it doesn’t actually go far enough. 

Here’s a more literal sense of what the Archangel Gabriel said to Mary:
Hail, You who have been, and now are, 
perfectly, completely, and uniquely graced.
Get that? Mary was, and remains, 
perfectly, completely, and uniquely graced by God.

So here’s why that means Mary was untouched by sin, 
even from her first moment of existence:
Because if she had ever been touched by sin, even for a moment, 
it would not be true that she was “perfectly and completely” graced. For that to be true, she had to be completely free from sin, 
and completely full of grace, as full as full can be!

Then there is another detail in this passage that confirms this. 
Later, Gabriel says, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” 

This is an unusual phrase, used only a few times in Scripture, 
as  when the Glory of God overshadowed the tent of meeting, 
which was where God’s People gathered to worship the Lord. 
Let me quote a part of that:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting,
and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
Moses could not enter the tent of meeting,
because the cloud settled down upon it
and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:24-25)

Now, that primarily refers to Jesus being conceived in Mary, 
which, again, we commemorate on March 25. 
But here’s the thing. The tent of meeting, 
before it was filled with God’s Glory, 
was already perfectly prepared. 

In the chapters before this happened, 
God describes in great detail exactly 
how the tent of meeting was to be built 
by the artisans and craftsmen of Israel. 
Remember, Moses was up on the mountain for 40 days and this is why – 
God described everything in exact detail. It had to be perfect. 

So what Gabriel’s words mean is that Mary is that tabernacle, 
first made perfect by the Divine Craftsman, 
in preparation for being “overshadowed by the Most High.”

Here’s a beautiful quote by Blessed John Duns Scotus, 
who played a major role in understanding 
Mary’s conception without sin. He asked:

"Would the God of justice and mercy grant the first Eve, 
who He foreknew would betray Him, a greater glory in her creation 
than He would give the second Eve, 
who He foreknew would be His handmaid forever?"

And, of course, the answer is no!

St. John Chrysostom wrote a hymn about Mary; here are a few lines:

Hail, Kecharitomene, unreaped land of heavenly grain.  
Hail, Kecharitomene, virgin mother, true and unfailing vine.  
…faultless one carrying the immutable divinity.  
…habitation of holy fire. 
…golden urn, containing heavenly manna.  
…spiritual sea who holds Christ, the heavenly pearl.  
Hail, Kecharitomene, pillar of cloud containing God, 
and guiding Israel in the wilderness.

Yes, it can be a little confusing today, but it can’t be helped, 
because Mary’s creation, as the Immaculate Mother, 
is all about her Son. 
She was lovingly created, without any stain, 
in anticipation of the day she would give her loving consent 
to be the Mother of the Messiah.

Today is like a little Christmas.
Today, Mary begins her life, filled with light.
On Christmas, that light dawns into the world.

How does the image above depict the Immaculate Conception? I learned this when I was preparing a presentation for the people of Immaculata Church, in Cincinnati, about the lovely art that graces that church. This image is meant to show Mary's soul, at the instant of its creation.

From the cutting-room floor, some notes I didn't include in my homily, for the sake of brevity:

Contrast between first and second Adam:

1st Adam retreats from evil; 2nd Adam goes into battle against evil in the desert, and again in the garden.

1st Adam says nothing when enemy lies and seduces; 2nd Adam is always silencing demons.

1st Adam shrinks from fear of harm; 2nd Adam accepts the cup of suffering.

1st Adam lets his bride be ruined, and follows her; 2nd Adam sacrifices himself for his bride, and thus purifies her.

This doctrine and this feast is a powerful answer to all who demean women, or who think Christianity demeans women. It is not God, but sinful Adam, who demeans the woman. Notice how, when God confronts Adam about his failure, he doesn’t own up to it, but rather blames God and the woman for the catastrophe.

God puts a woman at the center of the drama of salvation, first in Eve; finally in Mary.

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