It is a great spiritual gift that the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 happens to fall in early Advent. The Birthday of Mary began to be celebrated in the Western Church in the 8th century. Church tradition settled on September 8 for the celebration, though no one really knows the actual date. By the calendar Mary’s conception would be nine months earlier, on December 8. Some geographical parts of the church observed the feast at various times, but not all in the church accepted the premise behind the dogma and saw no biblical backup for the teaching. It took until 1854 for Pope Pius IX to confirm the Immaculate Conception as a dogma, with some influence from the visions of Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes.
The title of the feast has sometimes led to confusion about who was being immaculately conceived, many thinking it was Jesus through Mary’s virginity. Not so; it was Mary herself, being conceived without the effects of original sin from which Jesus saves us all. She received this gift of salvation “retroactively,” so to speak, therefore being born without stain or any touch of the unsanctified. This concept troubles those who would say that the Gospels and other scriptures say nothing of this, that it is a concoction by fervent devotees of Mary. However, there is a great deal of biblical support for why God would do such a thing for this one human person.
From the time of the first “bearer of God’s Word,” the Ark of the Covenant, there were God-given directives for its worthiness for this privilege. It had to be constructed of valuable, fragrant and durable wood for the inner body and a complete covering of pure gold. So precious and holy was it that only the priests could touch it. The Temple in which it was ultimately housed also was paneled with expensive imported cedar from Lebanon. The musical instruments played there and the containers for sacrifices were also of precious metals. All that was offered to God there had to be perfect, without spot or physical defect. All those who ministered there also had to be physically perfect (no lameness, missing body parts, etc.) and dressed in pure white linen. It was presumed that they would be spiritually pure and models of observance of God’s Word as well. Anything and anyone serving to honor God’s given Word treasured in the Ark, representing and sometimes manifesting God’s presence – the divine shekinah – had to be as perfect as earth and human conscience could offer.
In the Litany of Mary, one title given for her is “Ark of the Covenant,” for as bearer of God’s Word this is what she is. From the Book of Exodus through the books of the prophets, the perfection and purity of all related to the Ark is asserted. Mary falls into this requirement: God was preparing a place to be in her, and God’s standards continue in this human Ark. It is both biblical and reasonable that it should be so.
During this season of Advent, the model of Mary can inspire us to aim at being as worthy a place for Christ to reside as possible. Through baptism we all become temples of the Spirit, of Christ and the Father. St. Paul challenges us to become worthy of the calling to which we have been called (2 Thess 1:11-12). During Advent, as we wait for a deeper closeness to the Messiah, God’s Word made flesh, in our hearts, we might reflect on whether our receptivity to the Spirit, to other persons, to the Word speaking to us in the Scriptures is as sure and faithful as Mary’s. Do prayer, kindness, and hospitality open the ark of our hearts to bear the Word to all we encounter? May Mary’s example motivate us to prepare to become worthy bearers of the Word.
Sr. Edith Selzler, OSB, Annunciation Monastery, Bismarck, ND