Today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception seems so otherworldly. First, the solemnity itself: the Catholic Church teaches that Mary was born without sin, hence the Immaculate Conception. Then there is today’s Gospel story: an archangel appears to a small-town girl, out of nowhere. (I don’t know about you, but my calling to religious life didn’t include an archangel showing up.)
Anyway, this archangel then announces to Mary, a virgin, that she will bear a son who will change the world. Gabriel explains that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and then Mary says yes! (I would have had a few more questions.) What can we learn from this story that seems so incompatible with our own lives?
In a homily given by Pope Francis on this solemnity in 2015, he said, “The fullness of grace can transform the human heart and enable it to do something so great as to change the course of human history.” Mary said yes to an act (giving birth) that occurs every day, but because she was “full of grace,” this particular act changed the world forever.
Although Mary’s yes was extraordinary, we too are also invited to have hearts full of grace. A heart full of grace is one that loves unconditionally, but that hates injustice; a heart that extends mercy to those who are forgotten, and ensures accountability to those who throw others away; a heart that isn’t afraid to take risks in order to work for the common good. Although Mary and Jesus are both without sin, they are our models in how to have a heart full of grace.
The second reading from Ephesians offers Jesus as our model in this work. “In Jesus we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his [God’s] will, so that we might exist praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ.”(1:11-12)
It is certainly difficult to accomplish God’s purpose for us. There have been times in my own life when things seemed impossible -- in particular, times in my discernment journey where I felt lost. There’s no roadmap for when you’re one of the youngest in your religious congregation; I certainly didn’t feel like I had a heart full of grace. I’ve had to search deep within myself to the first times I felt that God was calling me to religious life. I thought back to when I became a candidate, then a novice, and then professed my first vows. Those were times I truly felt God was confirming my vocation. There were also smaller moments I looked back on.
I think Mary herself had to think back to that original call when Gabriel told her not to be afraid, and that God was with her. Today is a reminder for us all to continue to say yes and know that Jesus and Mary are with us always.