Immaculate Conception
Genesis 3:9–15, 20; Ephesians 1:3–6, 11–12; Luke 1:26–38

Free from Sin
Mary was sinless from the moment of conception.

Many of us have heard of The Song of Bernadette. This remarkable, true story was made into a movie a number of years ago.

The story took place in 1858. It centered around a 14-year-old French girl who reported apparitions of the mother of Jesus at a hillside outside the village of Lourdes.

As a result, sick people began to visit the site and were cured.

Today, over 1,200 documented cures are on file with the Medical Bureau of Lourdes. These cures have been certified by a distinguished international team of 20 physicians and surgeons of various faiths from various nations.

But if many people are familiar with The Song of Bernadette, few people are familiar with the story behind the writing of this book.

It goes back to World War II. A well-known Jewish writer, Franz Werfel, and his wife had just slipped across the German border. They were fleeing from the Nazis, who were pursuing them.

Working their way down through France, they hoped to cross into Spain and set sail to the United States. But Spanish border guards turned them back.

The couple sought shelter in nearby Lourdes, where the famous shrine of Our Lady is located. That night Franz Werfel went to the shrine. Standing alone in the darkness,
he spoke words to this effect:

“I am not a believer, and I must be honest and say so.
But in my extreme need, on the chance that I could be wrong about God, I ask him for help for me and my wife.

“See us safely to the United States and I promise to write the story of this place for all the world to read.”

Werfel returned to the village. He told a friend later that he experienced a peace of mind after that prayer that he had never experienced before in his entire life.

Within days, Werfel and his wife found a way to cross over into Spain. Shortly after, they were safely on board ship, sailing to the United States.

The first thing the Jewish writer did in the United States was to write the story of Lourdes, calling it The Song of Bernadette.

Today we celebrate the great feast of Mary, called the Immaculate Conception.

This doctrine was defined by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854, four years before the apparitions of Mary at Lourdes.
Belief in Mary’s immaculate conception dates back to the dawn of Christianity. It holds that Mary was untouched by sin
from the moment of her conception.

In other words, Mary was born free from original sin and remained free from all sin for the rest of her life.
 
The teaching of the Immaculate Conception accords with the teaching of Scripture. For example, in today’s first reading God speaks these words to Satan:
“I will make you and the woman hate each other; her offspring and yours will always be enemies.” Genesis 3:15

Catholics have always viewed the woman here to refer
ultimate as Mary and her offspring to refer ultimately to Jesus. Mary and Jesus stand at one end of the spectrum, and Satan stands at the opposite end.

And in today’s gospel reading, the angel addresses these words to Mary:

“Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!” Luke 1:28

This passage speaks for itself. Mary is in a class apart from all other women.

It’s not surprising that God should have shielded Mary from sin. After all, she was to be the mother of God’s Son. Is it not fitting that the Son of God should be born of a sinless mother?

We American Catholics have always had a special devotion to Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception. It was to
Mary, under this title, that we dedicated our country in the early days of our nation’s history.

And so today we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception with special joy and special gratitude. It is, in a special way, “our” feast.

The story of Lourdes in The Song of Bernadette and the story behind the writing of this book remind us that Mary is not only the mother of Jesus but our spiritual mother as well.

And like all mothers, she wants to help us in our needs, whatever they may be.

So if our lives aren’t what they should be, or if something seems to be missing from them, perhaps today’s feast holds a special message for us.
Perhaps it is inviting us to do what Franz Werfel did in his time of need. He turned to Mary in prayer.

So let’s now turn to Mary in prayer. Pray along with me, in silence, the beautiful prayer to Our Lady composed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux over 800 years ago:

“Remember, O most loving Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided.

“Inspired with this confidence, we turn to you, O Virgin of virgins, our Mother. To you we come, before you we stand, sinful and sorrowful.

“O Mother of the Word Incarnate, do not turn from our petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer us. “Amen.”

SeriesII
Immaculate Conception
Genesis 3:9–15; Ephesians 1:3–6, 11–12; Luke 1:26–38

The Shoeshine Boy
Mary was sinless from her conception and remained that way all of her life.

Ashoeshine boy was plying his trade outside Grand Central Station in New York City. A silver medal danced at his neck as he slapped his shine cloth, again and again, across the shoes of a man.

After watching the medal for a while, the man said curiously,
“Sonny, what’s that hardware around your neck?’’

“It’s a medal of the mother of Jesus,’’ the boy said.

“But why her medal?’’ asked the man.
“She’s no different from your mother.’’

“You could be right,’’ said the boy,
“but there’s sure a big difference between her son and me.’’

The man knocked the ashes from his cigar, slapped a dollar in the boy’s hand, and walked off.

That boy’s answer was not only good diplomacy
but also good theology. And both are sometimes needed
in talking to non-Catholics about Mary.

But this wasn’t always the case.

For example,
the Protestant poet William Wordsworth once called Mary
“our tainted nature’s solitary boast.’’

Wordsworth’s beautiful phrase explains why Catholics celebrate today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception.
It’s because Mary is indeed “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.’’ She alone was preserved from sin.

And take Zwingli, the leader of the Protestant reformation
in Switzerland. He approved praying the Hail Mary
in all Protestant services.

And, finally, take Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant reformation in Germany. He had a great devotion to Mary. Not only did he write about her extensively, but he also kept an icon of her in his office.

Years after Luther broke with the Church, Lutherans continued to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate
Conception.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was finally defined by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854.

It holds that Mary was untouched by sin from the moment of her conception. In other words, she was born free from original sin and remained free from sin the rest of her life.

Belief in the Immaculate Conception is as old as Christianity itself, and is also in perfect accord with the teaching of Scripture.

For example, take today’s first reading. There God says to Satan, “I will make you and the woman hate each other;
her offspring and yours will always be enemies.” Genesis 3:15

Christians have universally held that the woman referred to is ultimately Mary and that the offspring is ultimately Jesus.
Mary and Jesus stand at one end of the spectrum. Satan stands at the opposite end.

And take today’s gospel reading. The angel says to Mary,
“Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!” Luke 1:28

The angel’s salutation puts Mary in a class by herself,
above all women of the world.

When you think about it, it’s only fitting that God should shield Mary from sin.
After all, she would be the mother of Jesus. Isn’t it fitting that the Son of God should be born to a sinless mother?

We American Catholics have always had a special devotion to Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception. For it was under this title that we consecrated our country to Mary in the early days of our history.

And so today we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception with special joy and gratitude. For it is, in a special way, “our’’ feast.

Let’s close with a tribute to Mary from Carey Landry’s hymn

“Hail Mary: Gentle Woman’’:
“Hail Mary, . . . gentle woman, . . .
peaceful dove, teach us wisdom; teach us love.
“You were chosen by the Father;
You were chosen for the Son. . . .
Blessed are you among women.’’

Series III
Immaculate Conception
Genesis 3:9–15, 20; Ephesians 1:3–6, 11–12; Luke 1:26–38

Mary
A mother who understands our suffering.

Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message, and she wondered what his words meant. Luke 1:29

AGerman veteran of World War I describes an experience during the war that affected him so deeply it changed his entire life.

One day he was sent to explore a woods to determine if it were occupied by any sizable force of French troops.

When he found it empty, he prepared to leave. Just then a lone French soldier showed up, probably scouting it out for the French.

The German soldier took aim and was just about to fire when the French soldier took a rosary from his pocket, knelt down, and began to pray.

The German soldier studied him for several minutes. Then he took his finger off the trigger and quietly left the woods.

Afterward, that German soldier entered a religious order.

That moving scene in the woods helps us to appreciate
the tremendous attraction Mary holds for all peoples of all nations. This attraction is true especially of citizens of our own nation.

Years before Pius IX defined Mary to be sinless from the moment of conception, the U. S. bishops chose her to be patron of our nation under the title of the Immaculate Conception.

In past centuries, people tended to put Mary on a pedestal and emphasize the fact that she was far, far above all women and far, far above all of us. She was Mary Most Holy, Mother of God, and Queen of Heaven.
Today, however, an interesting shift is taking place. It is a shift that still keeps Mary on the pedestal she rightly deserves.
But it also stresses that she was deeply human, like ourselves.

She was a poor Jewish peasant woman, brought up in a small town. Her life was filled not only with moments of joy but also with moments of hardship and suffering, just as our own is.

The point of this shift is the recognition that Mary deserves our honor not solely because she was chosen to be the mother of Jesus.

The new stress grows out of the realization that Mary experienced pain and sorrow, just as we do.

For example, she experienced the pain of traveling over hilly terrainto be with Elizabeth while she gave birth to John the Baptist. All the while Mary was pregnant with Jesus.

She felt the pain and sorrow of having Joseph prepare to break their engagement because of confusion over her pregnancy.

She felt the pain of giving birth to her child in a cold, drafty animal shelter, with only Joseph to help her.

She felt the pain and sorrow of being told that a sword would pierce her heart and that her son would be widely rejected.

She felt the pain of having her young son disappear for three days, not knowing where he had gone or why he had gone.

She felt the pain of seeing her son driven out of a synagogue
in their own home town by their own friends and neighbors.
She felt the pain of seeing her son crucified before her very eyes, like a common criminal.

Mary, indeed, can relate to pain and suffering. She, indeed, is a model and inspiration for all peoples and all nations.

She, indeed, was the Mother of God. But, just as importantly, she was a mother who knew every sorrow
that human mothers know—and then some.

And this is what makes her so approachable, so lovable, so loving. This is what makes her truly the Queen of Heaven.

Let us close with a tribute to Mary, borrowing the words of Carey Landry’s hymn to Our Lady.

Hail Mary . . .
gentle woman . . .
peaceful dove, teach us wisdom; teach us love.

You were chosen by the Father;
you were chosen for the Son. . . .Blessed are you among women.

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