First in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception
Readings: Genesis 3:9-15, 20; Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12; Luke 1:26-38
Welcome, everyone, to the Year of Mercy!
The Year of Mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis, is an “extraordinary jubilee” – that is, it’s a jubilee that falls outside the “ordinary” cycle of jubilees, which are celebrated every 50 years. A jubilee, in Catholic context, is “a year of favor from the LORD,” a time when rules are relaxed and debts are forgiven. It’s a sabbatical period, a year-long break from things of the world. In short, it is a holy year. This jubilee, beginning today and ending on November 20, will focus in a special way on what, for thousands of years, has been called God’s supreme attribute – His mercy. We are all called to be “merciful like the Father,” to try to see ourselves and others through His eyes, to understand with His wisdom, and to love with His love – without condition, without restriction, without bias, and without guarantee of return.
As we move through the Year, I would like to share with you some reflections on Mass readings for Sundays and important feastdays (such as today’s Solemnity). The Mass readings will be cited at the beginning of every post, so you may pull out your Bible – or your search engine of choice – and read them for yourselves. It is my hope that, whatever your faith or your relationship with God, you will be able to take what you will from these readings and reflections in order to see the world, and yourselves, in a more loving and merciful light. And if it can help the Church and the world understand each other a little more fully, all the better.
For those unfamiliar with how our Sunday/Solemnity liturgical readings are organized:
– the First Reading, usually taken from the Old Testament, speaks to or foreshadows the Gospel;
– the Gospel, which is read last, reveals fulfillment of the First Reading in the person of Jesus; and
– the Second Reading, taken from one of the New Testament letters (usually Saint Paul), is read between the two and ties both of them together.
Today, the first day of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, our belief that God, in order to prepare her for her destiny as the Mother of Jesus, preserved Mary from the effects of original sin from the very moment she was conceived. Accordingly, the First Reading discusses the immediate aftermath of Fall of Man, in the discovery of Adam and Eve’s sin and the cursing of the serpent, and the Gospel tells of the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she is to become the Mother of the Son of God. The Second Reading, which links the other two, teaches that both events are manifestations of God’s will, in which He destined us “before the foundation of the world” to be His holy children.
Now: the word “predestination” gets a bad rap, especially when it comes to the story of the Garden of Eden. Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhiker trilogy, once referred to the Fall as God jumping out from behind a bush saying “Gotcha!” once the forbidden fruit was eaten. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, at the beginning of their book Good Omens, depict an angel and the serpent wondering whether urging the woman to eat the fruit wasn’t the right thing to do in the first place, and what God really has in mind. But even beyond the bounds of comic and satirical literature, we do struggle with the question of how one can have free will and still be “fated,” as it were, to do or achieve a particular thing. As a result, we end up imagining God as some white-bearded maniac sitting bored on a cloud arbitrarily deciding who lives, who dies and who will never be the same. So first, let’s clarify what we mean by predestination.
In the mind of God, all possibilities exist at once, and it is up to each human being to choose his or her path among those possibilities. Therefore, when God instructs our first parents not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil “for on the day you eat of it, you will surely die,” it was possible that they would eat of it, and that they would not eat of it, and that he would and she wouldn’t, and that she would and he wouldn’t, and that they would eat it out of ignorance, and that they would eat it through guile, etc. Whatever possible outcome can be imagined existed in the mind of God as He gave His command to His created man and woman. And because all possibilities exist in His mind, for any path they might choose God already had a response.
Predestination is not linear. It is not deterministic. It is not an imposition of God’s will upon human free will. Why would God ask us not to do something that would separate us from Him, yet give us the ability to choose not to do what He asks? Pondering this question can give us a few ideas about the real character of predestination: that God ultimately intends for us to live with Him in happiness for ever; that God will continue to offer us the chance to achieve the destiny He intends for us; that God will not force that destiny upon us; that this predestination ultimately arises from God’s supreme attribute – His mercy.
Happiness isn’t truly happy if it’s imposed against the will; to be fully alive, happiness has to be freely chosen. And that’s the destiny God intends for all His creatures: to choose Him as just freely and lovingly as He chose us. That’s how we become a holy people, how we become the best versions of ourselves: by freely choosing to be what God created us to be. As Gaiman and Pratchett also wonderfully stated in their great work, “[p]eople couldn’t become truly holy…unless they also had the opportunity to be definitively wicked.”
Now we may understand a bit better what Saint Paul meant when he wrote that “He destined us for adoption to Himself,” and see better how this teaching bridges the gap between the No of Eden and the Yes of Nazareth to show that that adoption occurs “through Jesus Christ.” Because every possibility exists, God had a plan for however His creation would respond to His command. When they disobeyed in their perfect freedom, all creation – of which they were the trusted stewards – bore the consequences. But God folded those consequences into a plan predestined to reverse their effect, although in the fullness of time and subject to the whims of human free will. The final end of that plan was Mary, as I’ve stated elsewhere. And when she obeyed the will of God in her own perfect freedom – a freedom solemnized by the Church today – she “reversed the curse.” God entered the world through her as one of us; He gave us a Mother by becoming our Brother.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s not Christmas just yet. 😉
O God, Who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for Your Son: grant, we pray, that as You preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of Your Son, which You foresaw, so through her intercession we too may be cleansed and admitted to Your presence.