Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. In celebrating this feast, we confess that:
“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 491).
That is to say: Mary, in a unique way, was free of original sin, so that, unburdened by the fear, confusion, and selfishness that accompany sin, she could give her “yes” with absolute freedom when asked to bear the Son of God. The Prayer over the Offerings at today’s Mass describes this teaching beautifully by saying, “We profess [Mary], on account of [God’s] prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, so, through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults.”
While “prevenient grace” is a bit of an unusual term, and not one most of us learn in religious education classes, it gets at the heart of what we celebrate on this our patronal feast day for the United States of America. The “prevenient grace” Mary receives is a grace given in anticipation of the extraordinary role she would play in salvation history as the Mother of God, but it also shows her ordinary human nature. Mary is not divine; like the rest of humanity, she too needs God’s grace and redemption through Christ’s saving actions.
We might consider the following analogy which is often referenced in explanation of this teaching. Suppose a man falls into a deep and muddy pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been “saved” from the pit but hasn’t escaped the mud stains he got from falling into it. Now imagine a woman walking along about to tumble into the pit herself, but just as she is about to fall in, someone holds her back and stops her from falling in. She too has been “saved”—not only from falling into the pit, but also from getting stained by the mud in the first place. While we receive God’s grace when we are cleansed of original sin in the waters of Baptism, Mary was kept free from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her existence. We are all saved by the same sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; Mary, however, was given this gift at a different point in time.
The Catechism goes on to describe how this gift of grace was necessary for Mary’s unique vocation:
“To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary ‘was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.’ The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as ‘full of grace.’ In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God's grace (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 490).
Just as Mary had to be given the grace she needed to respond to her vocation, we too must rely on the grace of God to answer God’s unique call for us. It is fitting that we celebrate this feast within the season of Advent. We may well take advantage of this holy season and all it offers to open ourselves evermore to the gifts God wishes to bestow on us, so that we too can bring Christ’s presence to a world very much in need of it.
Mary was able to devote herself to God’s will “wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son…by God's grace” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 494). We too can find ourselves more attuned to God’s will after seeking out the forgiveness of our sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is offered more frequently during this season of Advent. We can pause during this season of preparation and reflect on the following: How am I responding to my unique God-given vocation? How can I cooperate more freely with God’s will? How am I being called to make Christ present here and now? How can I cultivate a greater reliance on God’s grace?
As we joyfully await the coming of Christ, may Mary, “full of grace,” loving mother, and model of holiness, intercede for us!