Nothing in our lives could ever be described as “immaculate.” Not our homes, not our marriages, and certainly not our families or friendships. While we might project onto the world that our lives are shining, bright and pristine, the truth is that life is messy and it is in the broken places of our lives that we live out the call of the Gospel. Our life is not immaculate, but even more importantly, our hearts are not either.
And yet today, we celebrate a woman whose very life teaches us that we have a share in her immaculate heart as our Heavenly Mother.
The word immaculate is defined variably as “pristine, unblemished, unstained and without tarnish.”
The feast of the Immaculate Conception does not refer to the conception of Jesus in the womb as many believe, but about the immaculate conception of Mary herself in the womb of her mother Anne. The immaculate conception does not mean a virgin birth for Mary was conceived by Joachim and Anne in the natural way. But Mary herself did not inherit sin nor did she sin throughout her whole life.
Mary was conceived without sin so that she could be the immaculate vessel for the conception of her son Jesus Christ. The angel Gabriel, at the moment of the Annunciation, salutes her as “full of grace.” This title comes from the Greek word kecharitomene, which describes a super abundance of grace. In Ireland this is translated as “lan de ghrasta.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “for the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men” (721).
What do you notice about the statement above? What always strikes me is the use of the word “dwelling.” God our Father made in our Blessed Mother a dwelling place for Jesus, but also where the Holy Spirit could dwell among us. In the wellspring of Mary’s obedience and faithfulness, God brought forth the Savior of the world so that we could share in his love and also in his Spirit. One of the definitions of the word “dwell” means to “linger over or ponder in thought, speech or writing.” And we know that Mary did this as Luke tells us: “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (2:19).
Mary herself is and was immaculate. But her life was clearly not. When we look at her life, especially with modern eyes, we do not see a woman surrounded with luxury and comfort, but one who has trodden the road of suffering and sadness — but also of pure joy and complete fidelity to the Lord. What a gift for us today! Rather than trying to focus on having an immaculate and pristine life, especially at this time of year, let us go forward into Advent intent on cultivating a simple and pure heart, one that overflows with gratitude to the Lord just as Mary’s did. It is in surrendering “my will be done” to “thy will be done” that we learn how to be a disciple. This is how we learn to make a dwelling place for the King of Hearts, to be born in our heart.
Stanz is director of the diocesan Department of New Evangelization. She is the author of “Developing Disciples of Christ” and co-author of “The Catechist’s Backpack.”