immaculate conception and prevenient grace
I had a theology professor who used to call this feast the “Innacurate Misconception,” not because he didn’t believe in it, but because most people don’t understand what we celebrate in it. Of course it is about Mary’s own sinlessness. Lumen Gentium says that we celebrate Mary as free “from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature,” and the Catechism teaches that by “the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.” The words “by the grace of God” are very, very important there. In defining this doctrine as far back as Pius IX the Catholic tradition is always at pains to point out that Mary was “preserved immune from all stain of original sin” by the merits of Jesus. Both the Catechism and Lumen Gentium echo that: “‘The splendor of an entirely unique holiness’ by which Mary is ‘enriched from the first instant of her conception’ comes wholly from Christ: she is ‘redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.’” And then the Cathechism applies to Mary the reading that we heard today from the letter to the Ephesians––that she was chosen in Christ before the world began to be holy and blameless before him in love and that he blessed her with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3-4). It all revolves around this odd and beautiful little notion of “prevenient grace.” (As a matter of fact in the new translation of the Missal those words actually appear in the prayer over the gifts!) From the Latin meaning “to come before,” I like to think of it as working from behind. And there are three aspects to this prevenient grace I’d like to reflect on.
For the first I go back to my Christology class and Monsignor Pollard, of happy memory, when I innocently asked him who the second person of the Trinity was before Jesus was born (I am surprised and somewhat consoled to find out how many people can’t answer that question); and he answered me with his fiery blue eyes, “The Word, Dan, the Word!” When we say that the grace of Jesus Christ is already at work in Mary, it doesn’t only have to mean that it’s retroactive––Jesus’ redemptive death acting backwards––, though that’s valid and the way it’s usually explained. We could also think of it as proactive instead of retroactive: it’s the Word already at work, the Word who is the second person of the Trinity, the same Word that is going to plant Itself in Mary’s womb and become something real, become the baby which she will name Jesus who we believe is the Word-made-flesh.
And secondly, even though the Catechism refers this reading from Ephesians to Mary, Paul isn’t speaking about Mary; he is speaking about us! So Mary is the first of this new breed of children, the new Eve. We human beings were chosen before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless; we were destined to be God’s adopted children (Eph 1:3-6). You might say this was the whole point of our being created, to be perfect (as our heavenly Father is perfect). It’s the whole point of evolution, in fact the highest point of evolution up until Jesus. God created the sun and the moon and the earth and fruit bearing trees and seed bearing fruit, and said “That’s good! And that’s good!” And then God created the human being and said, “Ah, that’s really good! This one is in my image––holy and blameless in my sight.” And whatever happened in the evolution of consciousness to cause the human being to turn away from the sacred, to turn away from the divine––the story of the Fall in Genesis (3:8-15) that we also heard today, conveying all this in mythical language––has been healed now. The Word has sunk deep roots in this woman Mary and she gave birth to Jesus who is the Word-made-flesh, perfection itself, to show us the way and to show us who we should truly be and who we truly are.
The most common way we use this notion of prevenient grace is actually in reference to human beings. It’s the grace that precedes our free choices, the grace that precedes any righteous act of ours. We too “suffer” from prevenient grace by the Word that is near us, written on our very DNA, the law of God planted in our hearts. I am thinking back to the Greek phrase I like so much in reference to asceticism––kata physin. The constant teaching of Eastern Christian ascetics was that the aim of the spiritual life, the ascetical life, is the recovery of the human condition before the Fall––not to punish us, not to destroy our bodies, but to become human for the first time, like Mary is. That is our true nature. It is the sinful condition that is actually para-physin––“unnatural.” We are created to be holy and blameless, and in some way we already are, but need to realize it.
But, as always, there’s one more step too, a step we usually leave out. This passage from the book of Genesis is called the protovangelium–the first Gospel––proto from the Greek meaning the first or the earliest form of the Gospel, like a prototype––especially that line I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you will strike at his heel (vs. 15). This is not only the prophecy of new Adam––Jesus; but also of a new Eve––Mary. At the end of this passage we hear that Adam called the woman Eve because she became the mother of all the living, and Saint Anselm (in the proper reading from the Liturgy of the Hours for this solemnity, Oratio 52) wrote that just as God is “the Father of the created world, Mary [is] the mother of the re-created world.” I know this is mythological language, but the point is this is about all creation! Saint Anselm gushes over Mary saying, “Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance!” This is a moment for all creation! A high point moment in evolution!
Saint Anselm says that “the “world is corrupted and tainted by the acts of those who served idols.” We might listen to a passage like that and roll our eyes and think that it’s just the same old Christian world denying negativity. But the thing that saves it from any kind of dualism and any kind of anti-world bias is that he says being corrupted and tainted is “contrary to its true destiny”! The world contrary to its true destiny is corrupted and tainted just as we are para physin when we are in our sin. But now “all creation is being restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by those who believe in God.” Or maybe we could say all creation being stewarded by those who have discovered also there own true destiny, to be holy and blameless, to be adopted children of God. This is all part of the Christ event, beginning with this female creature Mary, full of grace, and Saint Anselm recognizes that this is the beginning of something for the whole universe, matter, the created world being brought back into right relationship with the Word, who is primal life, primal reason, primal spirit––prevenient grace working from behind. And so he says “the universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness.” You can almost hear the whole universe sighing, “Ah!” “Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God, its creator,” working from behind, pushing it forward; “it sees God openly, working, and making it holy.”
So let’s let this feast remind us of who we are and who we are meant to be, and remind us that our hope is based on the fact that all creation is slowly, slowly being brought into right relationship with God, through the Word, through Mary, through Jesus born of the Virgin and through us being holy and blameless in love. May we share Mary’s bliss and feel the unseen presence of God, our creator, working from behind, pushing us forward, and by (these are the words of my friend Ali Lakhani) “hearing the celestial harmonies in our immortal soul and seeing the divine radiance in the sacredness that surrounds us.”[i]
“Lady, full and overflowing with grace,
all creation receives new life from your abundance!”
[i] Ali Lakhani, 67.