I remember vividly a scene in my young childhood where I was “lording it over” younger brothers, but when called to account for it by my father was unwilling to admit my participation. Now, many years later I am still ashamed of such behavior because, like Augustine and the stolen pears, I know that even then I had some capability to harm those I cared most about by my choice of trying to get what seemed best for me alone. Original sin is the capacity deep within us to betray the truth about ourselves: that no one of us is god for ourselves, and that all power and authority carries significant responsibility.
On this feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in her mother’s womb, we have a number of ways to focus prayer on the rich Scriptural banquet of the day. We can rejoice in the profound love of God that created us as free, knowing persons, and then chose to redeem us from our self-destructive idolatry. We can rejoice in the central role that women have played in the plans of God for creation and redemption. We can meditate on how the Church sees Mary as the icon of itself – she who was made sinless, by God’s grace, in her own conception at the “dawn of the NEW creation” in order to bear God in her own flesh in “the fullness of time”.
But this year, at the beginning of an election cycle for our highest leadership in the United States, it seems appropriate to consider the freedom that each woman was given and the way that she used her freedom to bring life or death to others that she loved and cherished.
The logic of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary had to exercise the same freedom as the first parents did, in order for her choice to be untainted with a bias toward sin. We perhaps don’t remember or consider that Eve was apparently created without sin as well as Adam. Without sin she was radically free of its pre-limiting consequences as the basis of her choice to violate God’s one command to her and to her spouse. In other words, she had no real “excuse” for the choice or the consequences. Most of us don’t think about freedom as being free from the consequences of human sin that is, free from the need to be in control, or from the need to be admired. Conversely, we may not think about the freedom to take full responsibility for our actions. For many of us freedom equates to doing whatever we want without responsibility. Freedom does not mean that we don’t have to deal with consequences of our choices.
Mary was also not free from the consequences of what other people’s sins could do to her. She was not free to control her son’s destiny, and to be sure that he would have a happy and “successful” life by the standards of her culture; she was not free to look forward to the rewards of grandchildren or a host of other pleasures of human life. Mary’s freedom was the ability to see the truth clearly, to love unselfishly, to trust God unfailingly, and then, unlike Eve (and Adam) to take the full response-ability for her choice of loving service of God that is almost unimaginable in cultural success terms. From the biblical perspective Eve’s choice left all of us wounded. From the New Testament perspective, Mary’s choice opened the door to the healing of that wound.
There are many invitations to grace in Mary’s choice, but one that is relevant to the election year cycle I mentioned, would be the invitation for each of us to look at all electoral choices in light of the common good, rather than my own self-aggrandizement – and then to take full responsibility for the consequences of my choices rather than blame the other for “making me” fail or “leading me” to sin. Should every Catholic take this invitation seriously it would not necessarily change the election outcomes (we will still see things through various lenses and sadly, we are still subject to some effects of sin) but it might give all of us a somewhat greater freedom, which is really what this nation is supposed to be about . . . even if lots of her citizens don’t realize that genuine freedom is freedom from the effects of sin, and freedom for responsibility. Furthermore, the more we make choices through grace, the more fully we cooperate in bringing the New Creation to fullness in our own hearts, in the lives of those we love, and in this world we share.
“Hail Mary, full of grace . . . pray for us”
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