Hail Mary Full of Grace. These are words that ought to be familiar to all Catholics. As we enter deeper into the season of Advent, today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception invites us to contemplate the meaning of Mary in our faith lives. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is an important feast in the life of the church and it has much to say for how the church can address the crises facing people and planet today. However, the deeper meaning and transformative power of this celebration of Mary’s conception – not Jesus’ – is too often lost. As most of us will recall, today’s celebration is not about the conception of Jesus Christ, but of his mother.
So what are we to make of this solemn Marian feast and what might it say to the life of the believer in the world today? One central insight from today’s celebration can be found in the angel’s greeting to Mary. In the Gospel, we get a glimpse into a dramatic scene in Nazareth, where an angel visits this young unmarried woman from a town on the edges of an empire. The angel Gabriel stuns Mary by stating, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
This simple greeting speaks volumes to our life as Christians in the world. The concept of grace plays a central role in Catholic theology and practice. Unfortunately, as Pope Francis laments in his recent exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, it is also something that is often overlooked in the life of the church. Traditionally, as we may recall, Catholic theology emphasizes three elements of grace: it is a gratuitous gift and cannot be earned; it heals us of our sinful nature; and it elevates us to a new reality that enables them to participate in God’s Trinitarian love. We cannot do anything of any real value without God’s grace in our lives.
To celebrate and honor Mary as the exemplar of a graced person is not to say she is the only agent of grace in the world. On the contrary, all of believers in Christ, as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, are chosen so that God can accomplish great things though us. God’s grace, in other words, is at work in all that we do as Christians.
In today’s context, there are two main temptations that prevent us from modeling Mary’s life of grace. One temptation is passivity or indifference in the face of God’s action in our lives – to live a life of faith without action. The experience of God’s gracious love radically transforms the recipient. No one who receives the gifts of God can remain passive in the face of a broken world. Christians often describe this as a process of divinization. Through this elevating power of grace, people are empowered in their lives of Christian discipleship—including works of charity and justice. We can see this action of grace in the holiness of individuals like St. Oscar Romero who have been formally declared saints as well as in those less famous women and men that Pope Francis describes as the “saints next door.”
A second temptation in relation to grace is to deny or overlook the necessity of God’s gracious actions in our own lives. This is a particular risk for those in positions of leadership in the church, in society, and in social action movements. By our very nature, human beings, even the best of us, are wounded by sin. We are flawed creatures, not the Creator. To reject this reality can lead to what the early church condemned as the heresy of Pelagianism. In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis warns of the new forms of this Pelagian temptation. Our individualistic and consumerist culture feeds a mindset that says “we are great” or “we can go it alone.” Or in the words of Pope Francis, it results in:
“a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ” (no. 57).
These are very real dangers for all Christians, including those leading efforts at social transformation. Here, Mary’s act of humility and boldness serves a model for us. Mary is neither passive nor prideful. Filled with God’s grace, Mary allows herself to be led by the Spirit to undertake bold actions as a parent, prophet, and follower of Christ. This is clearly seen in her Magnificat prayer, which appears a few lines later in the Gospel of Luke where she offers a radical song of praise for the God who raises the humble and casts down those in positions of power.
To follow this model and grow in grace as follower of Christ it is not easy. It is a process that demands humility, discernment, community, and God’s grace. Thankfully, we are not alone in this journey. We can turn to Mary in prayer. At the end of Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis reminds us that Mary “teaches us the way of holiness and she walks ever at our side…Our converse with her consoles, frees and sanctifies us. Mary our Mother does not need a flood of words. She does not need us to tell her what is happening in our lives. All we need do is whisper, time and time again: “Hail Mary…”