“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This famous line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities seems to apply well to the vivid contrast between today’s first reading and the Gospel. The third chapter of Genesis gives us an account of the terrible event at the beginning of the human family, our fall from grace and expulsion from the garden of Eden. The word of God exposes the disturbing work of the tempter, the nature of temptation, the sin of Adam and Eve, and their consequent shame, loneliness and fear. The worst of times has begun. We live in a world plagued by the enmity of the serpent, the burden of sin and the inevitable punishment of death.
But the Gospel is Luke’s beautiful account of the Annunciation of the Lord. It is the best of times! God sends his angel to greet a New Eve, chosen to be the Virgin Mother of God: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” The sin-filled disobedience of Eve which closed the way to paradise is reversed by the grace-filled obedience of Mary which opens the door for salvation to come into the world. Jesus, the light of the world, the hope for all mankind, the Lamb of God, enters the world through Mary’s great “yes.”
Although we read about Mary’s “yes” in the Gospel, today’s feast celebrates a prior “yes,” the very foundation of a new beginning for the human family. It is the “yes” of God to create a woman who is preserved from all stain of sin. This is the extraordinary grace of the Immaculate Conception. Mary is capable of making a perfect “yes” to the message of the angel because there is nothing in her which would interfere with the will of God. She has no trace of Eve’s disordered desire to rise up as a rival to God. Free from sin, she is truly, as Gabriel declares, “full of grace.”
We do not have direct experience of what it is like to be immaculate. We can ponder the great gift of being free from all sin by contrasting it with the condition that we do know, or should know very well, the sin condition. God’s question to Adam, “Where are you?”, is addressed also to us. The Lord knows where we are, but he calls to us so that we can make an honest evaluation of where we are. It is a question we should ponder often. Where am I in relation to God? Why am I experiencing the present moment in this way?
Often we still follow the pattern of sinful Adam, making feeble attempts to hide from the truth of our condition. We have eaten from the tree which was forbidden to us, but now we are blaming it on others, or even on God, who “put here with me” some person who troubles us. Or, like Eve, we try to escape responsibility by claiming that we were “tricked” into our sin. These responses to God are embarrassingly familiar. We keep trying to hide and cover up our sins, to blame others, and to defend ourselves before God. We want to explain to him that our sins are not really our fault, that he should regard us as almost innocent.
It is a dead-end road. We cannot deny sin, nor escape it, nor overcome it. We cannot justify ourselves or blame God or anyone else for our condition. Then what can we do? We can try something entirely different, and look to God’s own answer to the problem of sin, our Savior Jesus Christ. As St. Paul exclaims, God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.” When we are in Christ, and the Father calls out to us, “Where are you?”, we can truly say that we are “holy and without blemish [that is, immaculate] before him.” Because Christ has overcome all sin, we have nothing to hide. Rather, with freedom and joy, we can “sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds.”
The first of his “marvelous deeds,” the first step in establishing a new creation without sin, is the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The gift that God gave her ahead of time is a foreshadowing of the gift he wants all of us to share: the fullness of life in him, “for the praise of the glory of his grace.” Together with Mary, we place ourselves humbly at the threshold of his perfect plan for our salvation, saying, “May it be done to me according to your word!”
In what ways do I try to hide from the Lord? When do I blame others for my sins? Like Mary, do I humbly trust in God and seek his will?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.