Last evening, as I opened my antiphonal to begin the First Vespers of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I was stunned, all over again, by the beauty of the antiphons that the Church places in our mouths to sing of this mystery. I had just come in from the snowy cold. A layer of pure whiteness was resting ever so lightly on the trees, on the housetops, and on the ground.
And then, I took a breath, and said what the Church wanted me to say. Her words, not mine. Words inspired by the Holy Ghost, words crafted by the Church, coming to the help of all of us who know not how to pray as we ought.
Tota pulchra es Maria, et macula originalis non est in te.
Thou art all fair, O Mary, there is no spot of original sin in thee (Ct 4, 7).
Tota pulchra: all fair, all lovely, all beautiful or, to use the words of the Angel Gabriel in today’s Gospel, gratia plena, full of grace. In Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” one of his characters comments on the portrait of a woman named Nastassya Filippovna, saying, “One could turn the world upside down with beauty like that.” The beauty of the Immaculate Conception does not turn the world upside down; it is more radical than that. It is the beginning of a new world. It is the beauty of a new genesis, of paradise reinvented in a little girl conceived, as Bernanos put it, “younger than sin.”
The Heartbeat of Hope
This is the key to understanding today’s Lesson from Genesis (3: 9-15, 20). Immaculate beauty crushes the head of the ancient serpent. The human race receives in the person of the Immaculate Conception a new “mother of all the living.” The heartbeat of hope begins its rhythm in the womb of Saint Anne. Nothing will ever again be the same.
The Jubilee of Lourdes
The second antiphon describes Mary as she appeared to Bernadette 150 years ago, in the grotto overlooking the Gave River:
Vestimentum tuum candidum quasi nix, et facies tua sicut sol.
Thy raiment is white as snow, and thy countenance as the sun (Ct 1:3, 4).
Today the Church enters into the Jubilee Year of Lourdes. It was 150 years that the young woman robed in white, with her countenance indescribably radiant, said to Bernadette, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The Church intends to mark this Jubilee Year in a number of ways. The Holy Father announced the gift of a Plenary Indulgence. It is granted not only to those who will go on pilgrimage to Lourdes this year, but also to all those who will pray before a blessed image of Our Lady of Lourdes solemnly exposed to public veneration between February 2nd and February 11th, 2008.
That We Should be Holy and Immaculate
The antiphon is a key to understanding the lesson from Ephesians that we heard a few moments ago. “He (the Father) chose us in Him (Christ Jesus) that we should be holy and unspotted (that is, immaculate) in His sight in charity, (that is, in the Holy Ghost, the living Flame of Love).
Look at Mary and discover what the Father wants for you in Christ. Look at Mary and marvel at what the Father will do for you, by the Blood of Christ, in the power of the Holy Ghost. If you would advance steadily — however slowly, and notwithstanding the occasional fall — toward holiness, keep your eyes fixed on Mary.
Dancing in the 8th Mode
The third antiphon almost made me want dance. The Church sings it a joyful 8th mode, beginning, not as most 8th mode pieces do, on so or la or re but, rather, in the heights of her jubilation, on do. The Church not only gives us texts in her liturgy; she interprets them for us. She communicates their mystical secrets by means of the melodies with which she clothes them.
Tu gloria Jerusalem, tu laetitia Israel, tu honorificentia populi nostri.
Thou art the exaltation of Jerusalem, thou art the great glory of Israel, thou art the great rejoicing of our nation.
This antiphon is the Church’s response to the Introit of today’s Mass in which Mary sings her joy: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God” (Is 61:10). The Church having listened to Mary sing her joy, holds that joy in her heart and, then, turning to Mary, honours her with a triple title:
— exaltation of Jerusalem: high point of the Church, the pinnacle of the new creation;
— glory of Israel: everything and everyone in salvation history looks to the Immaculate Conception and, in her, is gloriously lifted up;
— great rejoicing of our nation; where Mary is present there will always be joy. Where Mary is absent there cannot but be sadness and gloom.
We Will Run After Thee
At Vespers, there were four antiphons for the psalmody. And the fourth one caught hold of my heart and would not let it ago. It is a prayer of petition, a pleading addressed to Mary. It is the expression of the soul’s deepest longings, the perfect prayer after today’s marvelous Gospel of the Annuciation (Lk 1:26-2 :38).
Trahe nos, Virgo immaculate, post te curremus, in odorem unguentorum tuorum.
Draw us, Maiden undefiled, we will run after thee in the odour of thy perfumes.
True devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is not static and sedentary. It is dynamic. It obliges us to get up and run. What is more elusive than the scent of a sweet fragrance borne on the wind? It is the fragrance of Mary, sweet beyond all imagining; pure, and purifying; irresistible, drawing souls after her, even souls once sunk in the putrefaction and stench of habitual sin. Mary is for all of us, sinners, the way upward and forward; the way out of sin, and into holiness; the way into a whole new order of things in which an Angel says, “No word (no thing) shall be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37), and in which each of us is called to say, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word (Lk 1:38).
Consecration to the Immaculata
One last thing. How can we go about appropriating for ourselves the graces of today’s festival? The saints teach us the inestimable value of making an act of consecration to the Immaculata, to Mary, the Tota Pulchra, and of renewing it frequently. It is a way of saying, “Everything that I see in thy eyes, O Mary, everything that thy Immaculate Heart desires for me, I too desire, and so that the will of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit may be realized in me, I hand myself over to thee. I give thee my past, my present, and my future, holding nothing back, reserving no times, or places, or things for myself. All is thine.” This was the meaning of Pope John Paul II’s motto, Totus tuus.
As for me, when people ask me to pray for them, especially if the situation is complicated, or painful, or appears hopeless, I respond by consecrating them to the Immaculate Virgin Mary. I keep a record of these consecrations, so that I can thank the Mother of God for all that she has done and continues to do. Here are the words that I use:
Most holy Virgin Mary.
— thou whom the FATHER didst preserve from the first instant of thy conception
from all evil and from the least shadow of sin,
— thou whom the Precious Blood of JESUS didst render immaculate and all-beautiful, even before that same Blood was formed in thy virginal womb and poured out upon the altar of the Cross,
— thou whom the HOLY GHOST didst fill full with every grace in view of the glorious motherhood of the Son of God for which thou wast created,
— thou art she who crusheth the head of the ancient serpent,
thou art she who alone overcometh the evil that is in us and around us.
To thee, O Mary, thy Son hast entrusted the liberation of souls enchained by sin,
the healing of wounded souls, and the sanctification of souls who have suffered evil’s worst ravages.
Thou hast only to open thy immaculate hands over them, and they are shot through with the rays of thy purity. Through thee, entereth the light to shine in the darkest places. Through thee, souls are washed in a downpour of graces. Through thee, the Holy Ghost succoureth the weakest souls and giveth to the sterile a wonderful fecundity.
Thou, O Mary, art the only hope of thy children scarred by sin and poisoned by its venom. To those whom the enemy hath made to go astray in bitterness and in fear, thou openest the path of life and of beatitude. This is why, impelled today by the boldness that cometh of the Holy Ghost, and by a confidence that is altogether that of a son, [and when the consecration is made by a priest:
and in virtue of my priesthood,] I entrust to thee N. and N., in consecrating them to thy pierced and immaculate Heart. Show thyself the Mother of mercy. Show thyself our all-powerful Queen, for there is nothing that resisteth thy supplication in the presence of Jesus, the King of Love. Mediatrix of all graces, save these souls from the tentacles of evil. Heal them, even in those secret and painful wounds, that only thy most gentle motherly hand can touch without adding to their pain. From this moment on, these souls are consecrated entirely to thee. Do thou for them whatsoever thy maternal Heart will suggest to thee. Purify them in the Precious Blood of thy Jesus the Lamb without stain, so that now, and even unto the ages of ages, they may live for the praise of the glory of the Father + and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.