Remember the days of old,
consider the years of generations past.
Ask your father, he will inform you;
your elders, they will tell you.
When the Most High allotted each nation its heritage,
when He separated out human beings,
He set up the boundaries of the peoples
after the number of the divine beings;
but the LORD’s portion was His people,
His allotted share was Jacob.
Today the Church solemnizes the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the divinely-revealed belief that the mother of Jesus, by virtue of the merits of her holy offspring, was preserved by God at the moment of her conception from the taint of Adam and Eve’s original sin. All well and good, of course. But in this age, even among those who believe, there is only a vague understanding or appreciation of this ponderous act of God and what it means. Some may even think that the belief itself just appeared one day in the 19th century, pulled out of the air by a remote and austere group of men in red as yet another obscure relic with which to saddle an increasingly enlightened and independent world populace. But the promulgation of this doctrine under the infallible teaching authority of the Bishop of Rome was the climax of a sustained belief by the growing Church throughout the world for centuries about the nature of the Mother of God. Devotion to “Mary conceived without sin” was widespread, and many places were consecrated to her patronage as such (including the United States of America). Over 1800 years of free devotion by the Body of Christ led the Church to declare in unbreakable tone this constant belief as dogmatic truth.
In a similar way, the wonderful act of the Immaculate Conception is beginning of the climax of God’s divine plan to redeem the fallen race of men. And in the cosmic episode related in the Old Testament passage quoted at the beginning of this article (Deut. 32:7-9), that plan was begun.
In the Church we believe in the Fall, that humanity has fallen from an initial state of grace. The Bible’s Book of Genesis describes the Fall as Adam and Eve, the humans created to tend God’s garden, making a free choice to eat the fruit of the tree from which they were told not to eat. They gave in to the temptations of their earthly nature (symbolized by the ancient symbol of the serpent), and as a result God cast them from the garden to till the ground for food, to bear children in pain, and at the last to die and return to the dust from which they were made. The reality that shines through the Genesis story is the recognition that at some point humanity developed – and passed on – an inclination not to do what we know we should do, a predisposition towards disobedience and self-satisfaction which we call “concupiscence.” (I tend to liken it to the urge to laugh when someone says “Don’t laugh.”) This means that any choice that we make is not completely free; even if we make the right choice, we do so fighting an instinct that leans towards the wrong choice. Following the Genesis story, we believe this inclination resulted from the free choice of disobedience, the original sin, of Adam and Eve.
But God, in His infinite mercy, would not let that be the final end of His creation. Even as He pronounced judgment and sentence upon all involved, God told the serpent that from that moment on its offspring and the offspring of Eve would be at odds: “they will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.” In this oracle Tradition has seen more than just an explanation for the hostility and fear of humans and snakes towards each other; from the outset God decreed that humanity would overcome the earthly nature sniping at its heels, delivering a blow to the head that renders it powerless. But God would not simply do it for them; humanity would have to deliver the blow itself, in the fullness of time and in the course of history, and now it would have to fight that earthly nature in order to do so. Humanity chose to effect its own ruin; now it would have to choose to work out its salvation.
Fast-forward through the ages. Simple societies and associations give way to towns and cities, which give birth to countries and nations, all cohabiting in uneasy turns of alliance and enmity. Empires rise and fall as the individual choices of men and woman fighting against their earthly natures result in mass consequences, such as laws and wars. In time, God singled out one people as His own: the descendants of the man Jacob, called Israel. Leading them by wondrous means from their state of slavery in Egypt to the foot of a sacred fiery mountain, God gave this people a law of their own, commandments and guidelines and rituals designed to establish a nation in the midst of the nations with a unique sense of society and justice. God even went so far as to make a deal with these Israelites: as long as they kept to these statutes and precepts, He would fight for them and keep them safe. He would even send them a new prophet greater than their deliverer and lawgiver Moses, who would know Him more intimately than he “whom the LORD knew face to face.” In other words, God would shelter and defend them, for He willed humanity’s salvation to come through them.
The Sacred Scriptures inform us that over the centuries that followed, the divine law was adhered to with varying degrees of success and failure. Many are the references to the Israelites as a stiff-necked people with wandering hearts. Even from the outset they disobeyed the prohibition of idolatry and crafted a calf of beaten gold that they could worship; that act resulted the Israelites being kept from their promised land for forty years, until the offending generation had all died away. But the choices of individual people continue to have great consequences. Solomon’s paganism late in his life, for example, resulted God splitting the nation between his two sons, with the people being caught up in the politics of it all. But through it all God watched and waited, and after each stumble He waited for His people to stand back up and try again. He sent blessings upon those who held fast to the law and cursing those who disregarded it. He patiently guided and refined this people until even the smallest remnant would show a spark of true righteousness and faithfulness and purity of heart.
At last came the pair Tradition identifies as Joachim and Anna. Here at last were two God-fearing people with pure hearts zealous for God’s law. They must have been, for God imparted a special blessing upon their union. When they came together as husband and wife, He intervened and preserved their offspring from concupiscence, from the taint of the sin of Adam and Eve. For the first time since the before the Fall, a human being was created who would have the power to make truly free choices. Centuries of back-and-forth devotion and faithlessness, prosperity and ruin, success and failure had refined this chosen people to the point where God looked upon this one couple and decided: Now is the time.
So when several years later the holy messenger Gabriel stood before Joachim and Anna’s daughter and told her that God had chosen her to be the mother of the long-awaited Anointed One – Who would know God so intimately that God’s Spirit itself would conceive Him within her – she said, in a freedom complete in ways not experienced for untold ages, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
Hail, favored one. The Lord is with you.