Sem. Minh Vu Martin Nguyen
Today's feast of Immaculate Conception comes from a long historical evolution of popular Christian devotion. The meaning of the term “Immaculate Conception” is not about Mary’s physical conception or about the physical process. Rather, it is theological: “from the first moment of her conception, she was preserved intact from all stain original sin” as Pope Pius IX promulgated.
The historical development of the doctrine started from Origen in the East who did not believe Mary to be without fault. Irenaeus in the West did not consider Mary free from all human fault. The acceptance of Mary as holy with Immaculate Conception was the result of popular Christian piety and prayer, not scholarly and theological reflection. Eadmer of Canterbury (d.1130) first began to argue for this doctrine: “God certainly could do it, it therefore, he willed it, he did it.” But Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux denied this doctrine because Mary herself also needs to be redeemed by Christ.
The dispute was calmed by John Duns Scotus (1300) who defined that in the case of Mary, redemption - as preserving Mary from sin – is more perfect than freeing from sin. Mary’s redemption is anticipatory. In 1854, pope Pius IX declared this doctrine: “Blessed Virgin Mary was free from original sin from the first moment of her existence.” As sin is understood as stain, and Mary is preserved intact from all stain of original sin.
Saint Augustine helped us to understand this dogma by his explanation about original sin. By the sin of Adam, the original condition of moral and physical integrity has been lost. This sin influences every descendants of the human race at the moment he/she comes into being. Only grace of God can bring salvation. Thus, the doctrine of Immaculate Conception means than “Mary is preserved intact from all stain of original sin”, she was spared from the fallen nature at the beginning of history.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception witnesses the grace of God freely offered to each human being at the beginning of life. Today's feast invites us to be aware of the divine presence in us. Sometimes we do not fully comprehend what is happening inside and outside us. Like Mary, we should always live in constant communion with GOD. Let's ask God to enlighten our mind to understand the will of God revealed to us through our daily activities. Let's communicate with our loving and merciful God and present to Him our worries and concerns while doing His will. By giving us His only Son who died for us and empowered us to overcome our human weaknesses in following Jesus’ footsteps, God Himself chose a very costly way to enables us to actualize what God's calling us to do or to be. We should trust in Him since God’s presence and grace will always with us. Sister Coyle wrote that “the symbol of Immaculate Conception reminds us that we have been given glimpses of divinity, life is ultimately good and meaningful. It will find it fulfillment in the final coming of Christ.” As we realize our role in God's salvific plan, like Mary, let's say “Fiat” to God with courage and total trust. Since “divine grace does not undermine human freedom, but awake a free response”, each of us can contribute our best in cooperating with God's grace. If we fail, do not lose hope but stand up again since our experience makes our next step stronger and more determinate in glorifying God and strength enjoying His everlasting peace.
Indeed, it is quite difficult for us to see God's divine presence in the person we do not like to encounter. However, we cannot deny the existence of goodness in that person which reflects God's love and mercy as “image and likeness” of God. Therefore, once again, we ask God to strengthen us to overcome our biases and prejudices. Why we continue to suffer from our own perception? We better “think positively” and start to do good with confidence that our goodness coming from God will conquer all hatred and misunderstandings. Do not let evil take advantage of our weaknesses to distance us from God. The devil can never give us inner peace but full of anxieties and mistrust. Let's choose to do good, to walk strongly with God who never fails to accompany us in our journey of faith.
Like Mary by her Immaculate Conception, we are called to raise our prophetic voice for the poor, the exploited, excluded, deprived, etc. Let's confront the unjust political, economic and social system which is so much influenced by “original sin”. Let's ask for “Jesus’s grace to break the cycle of evil by refusing to be carriers of evil”; Saint Paul proposed us to “put on the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:26) to care for one another and care for the nature. Our world already shaped by sinful decisions, situations, prejudices, biases,etc we need to work together with God's grace to bring the creation back to its original beauty. God is calling us to realize that we are all responsible to cooperate with Him in building a better future for all creatures. That duty is not on individual but can be laid on everyone collectively. Therefore, we start by this very moment of our lives not only doing our best in joining God's salvific plan for us and for all creatures by witnessing His power of transformation our lives, but also inviting our community to help one another to recognize God's presence in every one and everything by our effort to build a better “common home” (pope Francis in his Laudato Si) for all of us. May our Blessed Mother intercede for us!