Sunday December 8, 2013
Perhaps the most common misconception about the Immaculate Conception is that it refers to the conception of Christ, rather than the conception of His mother, Mary. It should be a simple mistake to avoid: After all, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 (see When Is Immaculate Conception 2013? for an important exception in 2013) and Christmas, the Nativity of Christ, only 17 days later!
The Gospel reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception may have something to do with this misconception. Luke 1:26-38 is the story of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she had been chosen to be the Mother of Our Lord. That sounds more tied to the Christmas story than to the circumstances of Mary's own conception, doesn't it?
The reason the Church has chosen this passage for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, however, is because of Gabriel's greeting to Mary: "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."
To be "full of grace" means to be free from sin. Adam and Eve were full of grace, but after their Fall, all of mankind was born into their sin—what we call Original Sin. After Christ's death and resurrection, we who believe can be freed from Original Sin by Baptism and kept free from sin through sanctifying grace.
But how could Mary be "full of grace"? She was born into a fallen world; Christ's redemption of mankind was not yet complete. That is the question that theologians struggled with for centuries. Scripture says that Mary is "full of grace," so it must be true. Yet how could it be?
The answer, especially as formulated by Blessed John Duns Scotus, was that Mary was kept free from the stain of Original Sin from the very moment of her conception. God granted her this special privilege in His foreknowledge of her willing acceptance of His plan of salvation, and through the merits of the sacrifice that Christ would offer in that plan.
In other words, Mary was redeemed by Christ, just as all of us who are baptized into Christ are; her redemption, however, was accomplished in a special way at her conception. (For more details, and to find out what two other people were born without Original Sin, see Who Was Born Without Original Sin?)
That doesn't mean that Mary could not have sinned. Like Adam and Eve, she could have fallen from grace—yet she did not. That is why, from the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians have regarded Mary as a "second Eve." Through her lifelong obedience, Mary reversed the disobedience of our first mother, and by her willingness to become the Mother of God, she became our mother, too.
Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee!
(A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary as she appeared at Lourdes, France, in 1858, where she announced, "I am the Immaculate Conception." Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Hanceville, Alabama. Photo © Scott P. Richert)
More on the Immaculate Conception and Original Sin:
Sunday December 8, 2013
If the first week of Advent serves as a call to repentance, to "cease doing evil, and to learn to do good," then the second week of Advent reminds us that living an upright life alone is not enough. We must submit ourselves in humility to the will of God.
In the Scripture Reading for the Second Sunday in Advent, the Lord calls His children—the inhabitants of Jerusalem—to return to him. Freed from sin, they must nevertheless mourn their past sins, but because of their spiritual pride, they refuse. Instead, while they should be preparing their souls for the coming of their Savior, they celebrate, and God vows to humble them.
It is a sobering message during this "holiday season" that we know as Advent. The world around us, even though it has long ago abandoned belief in Christ, still makes merry every December, and we are not only tempted but often compelled to join in. It would be rude to refuse the invitations of friends and coworkers to Christmas parties held during Advent, but in joining in the festivities, we need to remember always the reason for this season—Advent—which is to prepare ourselves not only for the coming of Christ at Christmas but for His Second Coming at the end of time.
As the Scripture Readings for the Second Week of Advent continue, Isaiah's prophecies move from Christ's first coming to His second. In the same way, as we draw nearer to Christmas, our thoughts should rise from the manger in Bethlehem to the Son of Man descending in glory. There is no better cure for spiritual pride than the remembrance that, one day when we least expect it, Christ will return, to judge the living and the dead.
Daily Scripture Readings for Advent:
The Other Weeks of Advent:
Saturday December 7, 2013
There has been much talk about the War on Christmas in recent years, and it's hard to deny that objections to the public celebration of Christmas have been on the rise. Students in public schools have been barred from singing religious Christmas carols and hymns; Nativity scenes that have been placed in town squares for decades have been removed; and even the Christmas tree has come under attack, from renaming it a "holiday" tree to demanding its removal from public places in the name of the separation of Church and state.
But despite it all, Christmas continues to prevail. What has largely been lost, however, is Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas.
Ask most people when the Christmas season begins, and they will likely tell you that it starts on the day after Thanksgiving. If they're aware of Advent, they might say that it begins on the First Sunday of Advent. In other words, what is often called "the Christmas shopping season" has become, in many people's minds, the Christmas season. And then the real Christmas season, which runs from Christmas Eve until Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord), simply becomes preparation for the New Year.
But anticipating Christmas in this way not only deemphasizes Advent; it dilutes Christmas, too. So those who are worried about the War on Christmas should also take up arms (metaphorically, of course) to defend Advent.
The easiest way, of course, is to adopt some of the traditional family activities and devotions for celebrating Advent. But there are more public ways to help revive interest in Advent. Instead of greeting your friends with "Merry Christmas" before Christmas Eve, why not wish them a "Blessed Advent"? Most Catholics (even those who do not celebrate Advent outside of Sunday Mass) will understand, and the greeting could become a teaching opportunity for other Christians who do not celebrate Advent. (You could, for instance, print out copies of my article on The Season of Advent in the Catholic Church and distribute them to people who are unfamiliar with Advent.)
If you're planning a Christmas party, either at home or at work, consider holding it at some point during the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas to Epiphany. That helps others to understand that the Christmas season starts, not ends, with Christmas--and, again, it gives you an opportunity to explain to them that Advent is a period of preparation for Christ's Nativity.
Waiting until Gaudete Sunday--or, better yet, Christmas Eve--to put up your Christmas tree can help others who see the tree in your window to understand that Christmas didn't begin after Thanksgiving. And not taking the Christmas tree down until January 7--likely long after your neighbors have tossed theirs to the curb--helps others to understand that Christmas didn't end on Christmas Day.
Similarly, if you decorate the outside of your house with lights, consider using only white lights until Christmas Eve. (In a comment on a reader question about putting up the Christmas tree, Nancy makes a great suggestion: Use purple lights during Advent, to mirror the purple vestments used during the season, as well as the purple candles in the Advent wreath.)
By restoring Advent to its rightful place, we also raise up Christmas, and we increase our sense of joy and expectation as Christmas Day nears.
Do you have any Advent customs that I haven't mentioned above? Please tell us about them in the comments!
(A fully lit Advent wreath with a central Christmas candle on a home altar, in front of icons of Saint Stephen, Saint Michael, and Our Lady of Czestochowa. Photo © Scott P. Richert)
Friday December 6, 2013
December 6 is the Feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a bishop from the fourth century. He is, of course, the model for our modern-day Santa Claus, because Saint Nicholas's generosity was legendary. His generosity continued even after his death, through the many miracles (especially of healing) attributed to Saint Nicholas's intercession.
Saint Nicholas's charity was bound up with his firm orthodoxy, and it is said that, at the Council of Nicea in 325, he walked across the room to the heretic Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ, and slapped him in the face. It's hard to imagine our "right jolly old elf" doing that!
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the Byzantine Catholic Church, and his feast day is very important to Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Positioned about halfway between the start of Philip's Fast--the Eastern Christian time of preparation that coincides with Advent--and Christmas, the Feast of Saint Nicholas provides some relief from the austerity of this "little Lent."
The night before Saint Nicholas Day, children place their shoes in a prominent location--say, by a fireplace, or outside their bedroom door. The next morning--usually very early--the children find their shoes filled with little presents from the great saint.
Like many Advent customs, the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day reminds us that Advent is a time of preparation for the birth of Christ. The love of Saint Nicholas, while great, pales in comparison with the love that Christ has for all of mankind.
(Icon of Saint Nicholas of Myra, bishop and wonderworker. Photo © Slava Gallery, LLC; used with permission.)
More on Saint Nicholas: