A Meditation on the Mass of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
[Originally posted in 2006]
Look at this extraordinary medieval painting that shows the Tree of Life with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Eve, completely naked, is giving the bitter fruit of her sin to her own communicants in evil. From her side of the tree a skull looks out, grimacing in death. On the other side of the tree is Mary, crowned and clothed in grace and beauty. She takes pure white hosts from among the branches of the tree and, like a priest distributing Holy Communion, places them in the mouths of her own communicants in eternal life. In the branches of Mary’s side of the tree there is a crucifix. The Face of the Crucified is turned toward those who partake of the fruit of the Cross.
A Song From the Womb
“Rejoicing, I will rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God. He has clothed me with the garment of salvation, and with the robe of justice He has wrapped me about, as a bride adorned with her jewels” (Is 61:10). A song intoned from the womb! The Church takes the jubilant words of the prophet Isaiah and places them in the mouth of the Immaculate Conception, the Child full of grace just conceived in the womb of Saint Anne.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God: for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, and with the robe of justice He hath covered me, as a bride adorned with her jewels.
Prelude to the Magnificat
Gaudens, gaudebo in Domino. “Rejoicing, I will rejoice in the Lord.” If you would understand the text, you must sing it as the Church sings it on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The exegesis of the text is in its ravishing third mode melody composed by Dom Pothier (1835-1923), monk of Solesmes and later abbot of Saint-Wandrille. It soars pure as crystal in a kind of ecstatic cry of undiluted joy in God. Mary herself intones the first chant of the Mass today: a kind of prelude to her Magnificat. Already — just conceived — the Child Mary begins to sing, and with her the whole Church. On no other feast of the year does the liturgy allow the Virgin Mary to open the Mass by singing in the first person singular. “Rejoicing, I will rejoice” (Is 61:10). Mary’s message, from the first instant of her Immaculate Conception, is one of joy in God.
The joy of the Immaculate Conception springs from the mystery of the Cross. The Collect says that Mary was “preserved from all stain” in foresight of the death of Christ on the Cross. Here enters the figure of the tree glimpsed in today’s First Lesson from Genesis. The tree of Eve’s mourning and weeping becomes for Mary the tree of “an unutterable and exalted joy” (1 P 1:8). Mary is the first to taste of the sweet fruit of the Tree of Life; Mary is the first to sing of the joy of the cross.
O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin didst prepare a worthy dwelling-place for Thy Son: we beseech Thee, that as by the foreseen death of the same Thy Son, Thou didst preserve her from all stain, so Thou wouldst grant unto us also, through her intercession, to come unto Thee with clean hearts.
Holy and Immaculate Before the Father
The Collect asks that we, by the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession, may come into the presence of God “with pure hearts.” The Collect points to the Lesson from Ephesians. Saint Paul says that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:3) chose us in Christ “that we should be holy and immaculate before Him” (Eph 1:4). This standing before God in holiness contrasts with the fear of Adam and Eve who, upon hearing the sound of God in the garden, “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8). The naked Christ, exposed to the gaze of the Father on the tree of the Cross, casts out the fear that caused our first parents to make of the trees of the garden a screen between themselves and the Face of God. The first effect of the grace of Christ is that it makes us come into the presence of the Father, “free from fear” (Lk 1:73). “For you have not received the spirit of bondage in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: ‘Abba, Father'” (Rom 8:15).
Blessed the Clean of Heart
The Collect asks specifically that we, being made clean, may draw near to God. The connection with the beatitude of the clean of heart is not to be missed: “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). Mary, the Immaculate Conception, is the Mother of the pure in heart. By her intercession, she obtains from Christ, again and again, the application of “the blood of his Cross” (Col 1:20) to every heart darkened and defiled by sin. The Collect invites us to pray, specifically through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, the poignant petition of King David: “A pure heart create for me, O God” (Ps 50:12).
Receive the saving Victim we offer to Thee, O Lord, on the solemn feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary: and grant that, as we confess that by Thy preventing grace she was kept free from every stain of sin; so, by her intercession, we may be delivered from all our offenses.
Immaculate Mother of the Purest of Lambs
The Secret returns to the same petition, asking that “we may be freed from all our faults” by Mary’s intercession. A culpis omnibus liberemur! What a stupendous petition! It leads directly into the Preface. There we praise the Father for His work in Mary, calling her “the purest of Virgins, she who was to bear your Son, the innocent Lamb who takes away our sins.” We seem to hear already something of the sermon of Meliton of Sardis read in Holy Week: “He is the mute lamb, the slain lamb, the lamb born of Mary, the fair ewe” (Paschal Homily).
Glorious things are told of thee, O Mary, for He who is mighty has done great things unto thee.
The Communion Antiphon opens on a phrase from Psalm 86, a song in praise of Zion, the city cherished by the Lord. The liturgy takes the verse, “Glorious things are said of thee, O city of God” (Ps 86:3), and in place of “city of God” says “Mary.” “Glorious things are said of thee, O Mary.” A key image from the prophet Malachi completes the Communion Antiphon: “for from thee has arisen the Sun of Justice, Christ our God” (cf. Mal 4:2). We see here a glimmer of the O Antiphon of December 21st: “O Dayspring, radiance of the light Eternal and sun of justice; come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” In Malachi’s prophecy the “sun of justice” rises “with health in His wings” (Mal 4:2). Mary, the Immaculate Mother of the clean of heart, is also the Mother of all those healed by the rays of Christ, the Sun of Justice.
May the Sacraments which we have received, O Lord, our God, heal in us the wounds of that sin, from which Thou didst alone preserve the Immaculate Conception of Blessed Mary.
Our Wounds Repaired
Today’s Mass is artfully constructed of interlocking parts. It requires the closest attention of those who would benefit from its teachings and, through it, receive the sweet light of today’s mystery. The Communion Antiphon leads directly into the Postcommunion Prayer and interprets it. “Lord our God, may the sacraments that we have received heal (or repair) within us the wounds of that fault from which you preserved the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in so wonderful a way.” In every Holy Mass, “Christ, the Sun of Justice arisen from Mary” shines for each of us with “healing in His wings” (Mal 4:2). Unlike Mary, we were conceived bearing the wounds of Adam’s ancient sin but, by the Eucharistic Face of Christ shining like the sun, we are healed of the wounds from which the Immaculate Conception was preserved.
The First and Last Word Given to Joy
In the end, for those who allow themselves to be illumined by the grace of the sacred liturgy today, there is a return to the song of the beginning. “Rejoicing, I will rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God. He has clothed me with the garment of salvation, and with the robe of justice he has wrapped me about, as a bride adorned with her jewels” (Is 61:10). This is the song not only of the beginning of today’s Mass; it is the song of Mary’s beginning in her mother’s womb. It is the song of every new beginning in grace. It is the song of every man and woman once paralyzed by fear, but now set free to stand unafraid in the sight of the Father. It is the song of every heart darkened and stained by sin, but now made bright and clean by grace. It is the song of every life wounded by sin, but healed by the Sun of Justice who, even now, will rise glorious above the altar “with healing in his wings” (Mal 4:2). The last word and the first belong to joy.