Sunday 20 December
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
If you’ve been keeping up with the readings this Advent, you’ll notice that today’s Gospel is the same Scripture that we read on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her reflection for that day, Amanda Alley wrote about how God gives us sufficient grace for each thing he asks of us.
Today, I want to talk about Mary and her Immaculate Conception. Some people struggle to understand how we can claim that Mary was conceived without original sin.
Where is this in the Bible?
Today’s reading tells us that the Angel approached Mary and said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” (Lk 1:28). As articulated by Pope Piux IX, our Church understands “full of grace” to mean that “the Most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus).
If you read this passage next to Gabriel telling Zechariah about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, you’ll notice that the stories are very similar, but how Gabriel addresses each person is quite different. The angel appears to Zechariah and simply calls him by his name, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah” (Lk 1:13). In contrast, the angel greets Mary, “Hail, full of grace” (Lk 1:28) and later uses Mary’s name only later. This initial greeting — “Hail, full of grace” — is unique.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, spoke at the MidAtlantic Congress in 2019 and noted that the Roman Catholic Church has a carefully articulated theology about the Eucharist, in part, because the Church had to defend her beliefs from attack. Similarly, the Eastern Orthodoxy has a well-developed theology of praying with icons because iconography was attacked as idolatry. (View minutes 17-20 of this recording for the specific remarks).
Sometimes external pressure moves us to declare or reaffirm truths that we already know. Like the Eucharist and iconography, the Catholic Church articulated the Immaculate Conception as “dogma” in 1854, not because Mary’s Conception without original sin was a new concept, but because the belief was under attack.
If Mary’s Immaculate Conception makes sense to you, that is a grace. If this teaching is hard for you to understand, I recommend the book A Biblical Walk with Mary by Dr. Edward Sri as a good starting point.
If you’re struggling with a teaching of the Church, find a friend to help you learn. We’re all students. Ask for God’s grace to understand.
Have you ever struggled to understand a teaching of the Faith? What helped you to get through it?