Beginning the Pilgrimage of Freedom

Beginning the Pilgrimage of Freedom

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Fr Richard Conrad shows how the Spirit of freedom from sin that Jesus pours out was with the Blessed Virgin Mary from the beginning of her existence.

Today we celebrate the beginning of Our Lady’s pilgrimage, when she was conceived in her mother’s womb. On August 15th we celebrate the end of her pilgrimage, when she was assumed bodily into heaven. These two great feasts ‘define’ the life she lived between those two moments: they say no taint of sin was ever in her, from the first moment to the last. Therefore she did not suffer the bodily decay imposed on mankind as a penalty for sin.

It may seem incredible to claim that Mary never committed any sin. But even those theologians who, centuries ago, thought she was cleansed from original sin some time after her conception, agreed she never committed any actual sin. We must believe that Mary’s Son was without sin, and to say he could not keep anyone else free from sin would be to deny the awesome power of his death and resurrection.

Today’s feast reminds us that the power of Jesus’s death and resurrection is felt throughout human history. We who come after him are impelled towards God by them. Those who lived before Jesus died were drawn forward by those future events, drawn to become God’s friends. As one would expect, Jesus’s death and resurrection had their greatest influence on the one who was closest to him, namely his mother. Nothing was ever permitted in her to resist his influence.

To say that Mary was conceived without original sin is to say that God’s grace went before her. Today’s second reading tells us we are chosen in Christ eternally, chosen to become holy and to be enfolded in God’s friendship. In fulfilment of his timeless love, the Father sent his Son into history, and through his death and resurrection poured out the Holy Spirit on people of all times. The Spirit was at work in Mary from the first moment of her existence, making her holy, free from sin. The Spirit begins the same work in us at our baptism, setting us free from sin.

We have not yet been brought to the same integrity the Spirit wrought in Mary. So we find it difficult to imagine a sinless life. We are so used to little compromises that we forget a sinless life is fully and richly human, not somehow inhuman. Because the sin of the fallen angels, the first sin of human history, the root of all sin, is pride, we tend to suppose that the ability to say ‘No’ to God is a sign of freedom and somehow safeguards our dignity.

But Jesus tells us that sin is a slavery. It is saying ‘Yes’ to God that is true freedom; that ‘Yes’ safeguards our dignity as God’s beloved children. When by God’s grace that goes ahead of us we say ‘Yes’ to God, we are in touch with our deepest needs, we journey securely to the satisfaction of our deepest longings.

In today’s Gospel we hear of Mary’s great free act, made in the power of the Spirit who had been at work in her from her beginning: Be it done unto me according to your word. In the strength of that commitment, she was able to treasure in her heart the strange things that began happening. As the first Eve drew her Adam to his act of disobedience, so Mary the New Eve was enabled to draw the New Adam to his saving act of obedience: at Cana she spoke for all creation when she said, ‘They have no wine,’ and so launched her Son on the journey that would lead to his pouring out the best wine of all. As he did so on the cross, she stood by him.

At Cana, Mary pointed the servants to Jesus: Do whatever he tells you. When Blessed Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception as a dogma in 1854, he pointed us to our need for Jesus, and to Jesus’s power. We need his gift of the Spirit if we are to be freed from sin and preserved in freedom. What Jesus can do is shown most clearly in his mother, who depended on the Spirit for her freedom from sin, and in the Spirit was attuned to God’s Word, her Son.

Readings: Gen 3:9-15,20 | Eph 1:3-6,11-12 | Luke 1:26-38

fr. Richard Conrad teaches dogmatic and sacramental theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.