Feast of the Immaculate Conception

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Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ.
Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence, . . . determining that we should become his adopted children, through Jesus Christ,
for his own kind purposes,
to make us praise the glory of his grace,
his free gift to us in the Beloved, . . .
Ephesians 1: 3-6

When the angel had approached her, he said, “Hail, Gifted Lady! The Lord is with you!” She was utterly confused by this speech. She wondered what the greeting might mean.
Luke 28-29

I led a worldly life from the age of fourteen or fifteen until the age of nineteen when, after powerfully being put in my place, I turned toward God, fell in love, and put myself in His service.
Autobiographical Sketch, T. J. Ryken

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is a feast that draws attention to the Church’s sense of Mary’s specialness and extraordinariness, of her sinlessness. Yet, the Annunciation story in Luke rather shows Mary to be quite ordinary and common. In fact, she is contrasted with Zechariah in the preceding story of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. The scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes:

In contrast to Zechariah, we notice, Mary holds no official position among the people, she is not described as “righteous” in terms of observing Torah, and her experience does not take place in a cultic setting. She is among the most powerless people in her society: she is young in a world that values age; female in a world ruled by men; poor in a stratified economy. Furthermore, she has neither husband nor child to validate her existence. That she should have found “favor with God” and be “highly gifted” shows Luke’s understanding of God’s activity as surprising and often paradoxical, almost always reversing human expectations.

The Gospel of Luke, p. 39

The Annunciation speaks of the love of God for the human race. It speaks of a Divine love and desire that pervades all of creation, but that is also subject to the “Let it be done” of the individual. The love of God for us is “common” to all persons, but God waits on each of us for our “Yes.” The great Middle Dutch Mystic John Ruusbroec speaks of the common experiences of life whereby each of us may know the annunciation of God’s desire to be for each of us and to be for the world through us. He calls that love and grace of God that is “common” to all “prevenient grace.”

Prevenient grace touches a person either from without or from within. From without, this may occur through periods of sickness or through the loss of material goods or of relatives or friends. It may also occur through having to suffer public humiliations, through being moved by someone’s preaching, or through the good example given us by the saints or other good persons in their words or in their works. In all these ways a person can come to know oneself as one is, and this is what it means to be touched from God from without.

Sometimes a person is also touched from within, as when that person reflects on the sufferings of our Lord and on the good that God has done for oneself and for all persons. Or again, this may occur through a person’s considerations of one’s sins and of the shortness of life, through the fear of death and of hell . . . . Or one might observe all the wonderful things that God has created in heaven and on earth in all God’s creatures.

All of these are works of prevenient grace, which move a person from without or from within in many different ways. Moreover, a person has a natural and fundamental inclination toward God through the spark of the soul and through the higher reason, which always desires what is good and hates what is evil. In these ways God touches everyone in the requisite manner, each according to one’s need, with the result that at times a person will feel cast down, accused, and beset by fear and dread, and so will remain turned inward, reflecting upon oneself. . . .

It is thus that prevenient grace creates in a person a readiness to receive this other kind of grace, through which one merits eternal life. When the soul is thus void of any evil will and evil works, and feels accused and cast down and fearful about what it ought to do as it looks upon God and upon itself and its evil works, then there comes a natural sorrow for sin and a natural good will. This is the highest state to which prevenient grace can bring a person.

The Spiritual Espousals, I,i,B

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