Remote Learning: Wed., Jan. 19, 2022

Due to street conditions and parking challenges around campus, we will move to Remote Learning on Wednesday, January 19, 2022. Check your email for full details.

Saint Ignatius High School

An Immaculate Teaching Moment

From the standpoint of a teacher of theology, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the archetypal “teaching moment”. For this feast, the first words from God through Gabriel to Mary are: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” So, when did Mary become full of grace? On the day that she also became immaculate.

From the standpoint of a teacher of theology, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the archetypal “teaching moment”.  Most students - and, I’m guessing, many adult Catholics - think that this is a feast commemorating the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the young maiden Mary offering her God’s invitation to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word.  When I proceed to ask my charges how long the human gestation period is, and they respond with “nine months”, there are a few bright bulbs who get that look in their eyes and conclude that this feast could not be directly tied to the imminent birth of Jesus just a few short weeks away.
 
As much fun as it is to share that exchange with my students, there is the larger issue of wondering why the Church would choose a Gospel reading for this feast that so easily leads the faithful to the wrong conclusion.  Why would the story of the Annunciation from St. Luke’s Gospel be the primary reading for a feast that preceded the Annunciation by a generation?
 
With just a bit of meditation on the text, it seems that there is a good theological explanation for the use of this reading, but we need to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the opening words from Gabriel.  Since an angel is, by definition, a messenger, then whatever comes from his lips came originally from the mind of God.  In this particular case, the first words from God through Gabriel to Mary are: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
 
For God to tell Mary that she is “full of grace” makes this an incredible, and indeed mystical, statement. 
 
To be “full” of grace one must be what Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, tells His disciples that they are called to be: “perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Here Jesus is not calling His followers to be divinely perfect, for that would be impossible; instead He is calling them to be humanly perfect - “full” to the brim with grace.
 
Later in Matthew, Jesus relates this perfection to God’s grace when He says, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”  Only with the gift of God’s grace can we be perfect, and so the declaration to Mary that she is full of grace indicates to us that what is impossible for her to accomplish by herself has been given to her by God.  For God, the impossible - the immaculate soul of Mary - is not only possible, it is a fait accompli.
 
Since Mary is already Immaculate when Gabriel addresses her, the only theological issue at hand is to determine when she was first “full of grace”.  There are an infinite number of moments on the timeline from the conception of Mary in the womb of St. Ann to the moment that God spoke to her through Gabriel, yet all but one of those moments would be an arbitrary choice for Mary’s becoming “full of grace”.   Only the moment of her conception gains us any theological ground, and therefore is the only logical place for God to have bestowed His grace upon her.

Mary’s being “full of grace” from her conception, from the beginning, certainly provides for God a pure, immaculate, untainted-by-Original-Sin vessel for the carrying of the divine Son. But it also ties her in a mystical way to the creation of the world and the sinless Eve who was “full of grace” at her very beginning.  Even in her fall from grace, Eve remains our earthly mother, but Mary, the Immaculate Conception - as she called herself when she appeared to St. Bernadette - has been given the mantle of spiritual motherhood for all of God’s children.  And in that role she longs for all of us, despite our origins in sin, to join her in the Kingdom where all are made immaculate by the infinite grace of God.
 
A.M.D.G.