What are we celebrating today? The theologian Fr Louis Bouyer says we celebrate:
‘that the grace of God which, since the Fall, never ceased to pursue mankind, and which had already sanctified so many of the just of the Old Testament…produced its effect, in Mary, more promptly and completely than any other. It came to dwell in her at the very instant of her individual existence, not delaying till some subsequent phase of her being. In other words, there was never a moment, however brief, when she was actually tainted by the heritage of original sin; from the first instant of her life, the grace of God regained possession of our nature. Mary was not called, first to exist, then, subsequently, to be redeemed, but was created and redeemed at one and the same time. At the first instant of her conception as child of Adam, she was redeemed by and for the Son of God.
Thus, as the Church explicitly declares, to say that Mary was conceived without sin…is, by no means, to imply that she was not, like us, redeemed by her Son, or that she was less in need of redemption. It means, on the contrary, that she was redeemed in super-eminent fashion.’
So, that’s what it means. Now the issue this feast raises for many of us is: wait a sec – if our Lady was born that way, does that mean she did not have a choice? This is the old problem of predestination versus free will.
Now part of what lies behind this problem is a mistaken imagination. We think: if God predetermines things, doesn’t that take away our freedom? We forget that first among the things that God ordains in our lives is our freedom. God creates our freedom, otherwise we would not be free. And so, though it might be difficult to work out how this happens from our point of view, the supposed contradiction between divine predestination and our freedom must be false.
Again, however, as soon as we think of this, we begin to wonder: hang on a sec – if God predestines all this, does that mean he predestines sin and suffering? No – but God does take it into account, much like how parents must allow their adolescent children freedom in order to grow into responsible adults, even when they know it might hurt. And this taking-it-into-account is the history of the people of God culminating in Mary.
Salvation history is the history of God calling fallen freedom to become what it was created to be: true freedom, the freedom of the children of God. It is God calling our freedom into the light of truth. Freedom painfully separating itself from past mistakes, remaking itself through the hard work of repentance, listening to Word of God and love of God and neighbour.
This is why we celebrate this feast and why it is so important for our lives. In it, we see God’s success in dealing with our fallen nature. God does not leave us alone in our mess. In Mary, we see how, through grace, humanity can cooperate in its redemption by handing over its freedom to God, allowing God to write straight with crooked lines. We hear this in our opening prayer.
And when we allow God in, as Mary did, Jesus is born in the world. God unites us with himself and we become one in the Son, and the mystery of the Incarnation spreads throughout space and time, flooding our relationships with joy.