This reflection was originally published in 2018.
Of all the memorials, feasts and holy days that can fall amid the Church’s two seasons of penance and expectation none seem so perfectly situated as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which is observed on December 8, and always falls near the start of Advent.
The day is a good prompt for us – a chance to consider something we may not always believe but is nevertheless true: that God has a plan for every one of us, just as he did for Mary, and that we, like Mary, may trust in it. That if we consent to the way God is moving within our lives, great things will happen.
This is something all of the great saints have understood, a truth of which Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton – who saw her own life as a young wife and mother upended and eventually became a remarkable foundress — said, “We know that God gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.”
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception falling within Advent helps us to recall the Annunciation and to see that even as Mary had been created for God’s clear purposes (and what seed of holiness must have been carried throughout Mary’s own ancestry to bring about this moment!) Mary was nevertheless “courted” as it were, by God who did not simply overtake her, but sought out her consent through Gabriel, his angelic agent.
This makes perfect sense because God’s entire being is one of Almighty assent – so much so that the universe is still expanding upon the strength of his initial “Yes” of creation.
Mary had free will – she could have said no to the angel’s message – but being “full of grace,” why would she? Instead, the “Yes” of first creation is continued in her, only this time, instead of the words “Let there be…(light, etc)” uttered by God, it is the created creature who says the Word as she utters “Let it be done to me…”
These are words that permit the work of the Creator to go forward, and thus creature co-operates with creator and there comes a second, more muted, but not discreet “big bang” (what’s discreet about angels, shepherds and kings?) and the world is made anew.
All of this is relevant to our daily lives, especially when we look at where we are and wonder, “How did I end up here?” or “Is this all God has for me? Is this what I was born for?”
The answer is this: none of us are created “for nothing.” Rather, as we see in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, we are each made for some purpose, not for “nothing” but decidedly for “something” in the grand scheme of the world and all of its intended Glory.
“Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI.
This shouldn’t be news to us but it usually is, particularly when we look at the questionable places in which we have landed, and the awkward roads we have traveled. If God had a plan, we ask, was it only for our illness, or our drudgery, or our lives of unfulfilled longings, of potentialities unexplored – undared, or ridiculed out of us?
“Be attentive to the voice of Grace,” St. Elizabeth Ann Seton urged her community.
Mary, conceived without sin and gifted with an abundance of Grace, perhaps had an easier time saying “Yes” to God’s plan for her life than we do. We too rarely perceive the angels around us dropping strong hints about what God wants of us.
And yet, our lives are similar to Mary’s in this way: We are thoughts of God, part of God’s plan, loved into being. We are gifted with measures of necessary grace commensurate with the plan of God, and provided with additional graces, as needed, if we only ask.
This Advent, take time to consider what it is you were born for – what are your particular gifts and blessings? How have you used them? Have you lain them aside, and if so, why? Is it because you are fearful, or because you have been bullied away from them? Where might you have perceived an angel dropping a hint? How might you manage to better conform your life toward God’s mysterious purposes by saying “yes” in anticipation of a promise kept, rather than trembling in a “no” born of fear, or shame?
There is no point in hiding from God. He has known us from our beginnings, when we each were “knit in secret” in our mother’s wombs (Psalm 139:13). He has known us as fully, and as intimately, as he knew Mary in the very first moments of her Conception, and he has given us what we need in order to cooperate with him within his New Creation, if we only say “Let it be done to me according to thy will.”
Because God wants our consent, just as he wanted Mary’s.
“Faith lifts the soul,” wrote Saint Elizabeth Ann. “Hope supports it, Experience says it must and Love says…let it be!”
Amen. Let it be. Let this passage from Blessed John Henry Newman’s Meditations on Christian Doctrine become an Advent meditation and prayer on the mystery of our creation, and on the plan God has for each of us. He waits only, as with Mary, upon our fiat:
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes…
He has not created me for naught. …
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us.
He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.
O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel…O Emmanuel, O Sapientia, I give myself to You. I trust You wholly. You are wiser than I—more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfill Your high purposes in me whatever they be—work in and through me. … Let me be Your blind instrument. I ask not to see—I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.