Thursday, December 08, 2005

Benedict's Homily For Today, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary


From Asia News Italy:

Forty years ago, on 8 December 1965, here in the Basilica of St Peter, Pope Paul VI solemnly brought to a close the Second Vatican Council. It had been inaugurated by the wish of John XXIII on 11 October 1962, then the feast of the Motherhood of Mary, and it ended on the day of the Immaculate Conception. A

Marian framework surrounds the Council. In reality, it is much more than a framework: it is a direction for its entire journey. It sends us back, as it sent the Council Fathers then, to the image of the Virgin who listens, who lives the Word of God, who preserves in her heart the words coming from God, and joining them together in a mosaic, learns to understand them (cfr Lc 2,19.51); it sends us back to the great Believer who, full of faith, placed herself in God’s hands, abandoning herself to His will; it sends us back to the humble Mother who, when the Son’s mission so required, put herself aside and at the same time, to the courageous woman who, when the disciples fled, stayed besides the cross. Paul VI, in his address for the occasion of the promulgation of the Conciliar Constitution on the Church, had described Mary as "tutrix huius Concilii" - "protectress of this Council" (cfr Oecumenicum Concilium Vaticanum II, Constitutiones Decreta Declarationes, Vatican City 1966, pag. 983) and, with an unmistakable allusion to the account of Pentecost handed down by Luke (At 1,12-14), he had said the Fathers were gathered in the Council hall "cum Maria, Matre Iesu" and they would leave it also thus, in her name (pag. 985).

There is a moment fixed indelibly in my mind, when on hearing his words, "Mariam Sanctissimam declaramus Matrem Ecclesiae" - "let us declare Mary the Most Holy Mother of the Church”, the Fathers leapt out of their chairs and stood applauding, paying homage to the Mother of God, our Mother, the Mother of the Church. In fact, it is with this title that the Pope summed up the Marian doctrine of the Council and gave the key for its understanding. Mary does not just have a unique relationship with Christ, the Son of God who, as man, wanted to become her son. Being totally united to Christ, she belongs also totally to us. Yes, we can say Mary is closer to us than any other human being, because Christ is man for mankind and all his being is a “being for us”. Christ, said the Fathers, as Head is inseparable from his Body that is the Church, making a sole living subject together with it, so to speak. The Mother of the Head is also the Mother of all the Church; she is, so to speak, totally expropriated from herself; she gave herself entirely to Christ and with Him she is given as a gift to all of us. In fact, the more a human being gives of himself, the more he finds himself.

The Council intended to say this: Mary is so interwoven in the great mystery of the Church, that she and the Church are inseparable just as she and Christ are.

Mary reflects the Church, she prefigures it in her person and, in all the turbulences which afflict the suffering and toiling church, she remains always the star of salvation. It is she who is the true centre in which we trust, even if often the periphery [of the church] weighs on our soul. Pope Paul VI, in the context of the promulgation of the Constitution of the Church, highlighted all this through a new title which is deeply rooted in Tradition, precisely with the intention of illuminating the interior structure of Church teaching developed in the Council. Vatican II was meant to express itself on the Church’s institutional components: the bishops and the Pope, the priests, lay people and religious in their communion and in their relationships; it was meant to describe the pilgrim Church, “the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified…” (Lumen gentium, 8). But this “Petrine” aspect of the Church is included in the “Marian” one. In Mary, the Immaculate, we meet the essence of the Church in a way which is not deformed. From her, we must learn to become “church souls” too, as the Fathers expressed themselves, to be able to come as “immaculate” in the presence of the Lord, according to the word of St Paul, as He has wanted us to be from the beginning (Col 1,21; Ef 1,4).

But now we must ask ourselves: What does “Mary the Immaculate Conception” mean? Does this title have something to tell us? Today’s liturgy clarifies the content of this word for us with two great images. There is first of all the marvelous account of the annunciation to Mary, the Virgin of Nazareth, about the coming of the Messiah. The Angel’s greeting is woven by threads from the Old Testament, especially from the prophet Sophoniah. This shows that Mary, the humble provincial woman who came from a priestly lineage and carried in her the great priestly patrimony of Israel, is “the sacred remains” of Israel to which the prophets, in all the times of torment and shadows, had referred. In her, the true Zion is present, the pure, living dwelling of God. The Lord dwells in her; in her he finds the place of his rest. She is the living dwelling of God, who does not live in stone buildings but in the heart of the living man. She is the branch which, in the dark winter night of history, comes forth from the trunk felled by David. In her the words of the Psalm are fulfilled: “The earth will yield its fruit” (67:7). She is the sapling from which the tree of redemption and the redeemed comes. God did not fail, as may have appeared already from the beginning of history with Adam and Eve, or during the period of the Babylonian exile, and as appeared once again in the time of Mary, when Israel had become a people without importance in an occupied region, with very few recognizable signs of its holiness. God did not fail. In the humility of the house of Nazareth, the holy Israel lives, the pure remains. God saved His people. From the felled trunk comes blazing forth his history once again, becoming a new living force which directs and pervades the world. Mary is the holy Israel; she says “yes” to the Lord, she puts herself fully at his disposal and becomes thus the living temple of God.

The second image is much more difficult and obscure. This metaphor taken from the Book of Genesis comes to us from a distant time in history and it is only with an effort that it can become clear; only in the course of history has it been possible to develop a deeper understanding of its relevance and meaning. It is prophesied that throughout all history, the struggle between man and the serpent, that is, between man and the forces of evil and death, will continue.

However, there is also the announcement that the “lineage” of a woman will win over and crush the serpents’ head to death; it is prophesied that the lineage of the woman – and the woman and mother herself – will win and that thus, through man, God will triumph. If together with the believing and praying Church, we hearken to this text, we will be able to begin to understand the meaning of original sin, hereditary sin and even what salvation from this hereditary sin is, what redemption is.

What is the picture placed before us in this page? Man did not trust God. He harboured the suspect that God, at the end of the day, was taking something from his life, that God was a competitor who limits our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have put him aside; all in all, that only in this way can we fully realize our freedom. Man lives in the suspicion that the love of God creates a dependency and that it is necessary to get rid of this dependency to be fully oneself. Man does not want to receive his existence and fullness of life from God. He wants to be the one to draw from the tree of knowledge the power to mould the world, to make himself god, raising himself to His level, and to win over death and darkness. He does not want to count on love which does not seem trustworthy to him; he counts only on knowledge in that it confers power upon him. Rather than love, he aims for power with which he wants to take his own life in his hands, to be autonomous. And in doing so, he places his trust in deceit rather than in truth and thus, he sinks with his life into a void, into death. Love is not dependence but a gift which gives us life. The freedom of mankind is the freedom to be a creature with limitations and that is therefore a limitation in itself. We can possess it only as a shared freedom, in the communion of freedom; only if we live in the right way with each other and for each other can freedom develop. However, we live in the right way if we live according to the truth of our being and that is, according to the will of God. For God’s will for man is not a law imposed from outside which forces him, but an intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure which is inscribed in him, making him in the image of God, therefore a free creature. If we live against love and against truth – against God – then we destroy each other and we destroy the world. Then we will no longer find life, but we will serve the interests of death. All this is narrated with immortal images in the story of original sin and the banishment of man from the earthly Paradise.

Dear brothers and sisters! If we reflect sincerely about ourselves and our history, we must say that this account describes not only the beginning of history but history throughout the ages, and that we all carry inside us a drop of poison of that way of thinking illustrated in the images of the Book of Genesis. This drop of poison is called original sin. Even on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the suspect emerges in us that a person who does not sin at all is really boring; that something is missing in his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no is part of truly being men, the descent into the darkness of sin and to do as one pleases; that only then will one be able to exploit completely the vastness and depth of being men, of being truly ourselves; that we must put this liberty to the test even against God to become in reality fully ourselves. In a word, we think that really evil is good, at least a little, we need to experiment the fullness of being. We think that Mephistocles – the tempter – was right when he said he was the strength “which always wants evil and always does good” (J.W. v. Goethe, Faust I, 3). We think that bargaining a little with evil, reserving some freedom against God, is good, perhaps even necessary.

However, looking at the world around us, we can see it is not like this, that evil always poisons, it does not elevate man, it degrades and humiliates him, it does not make him bigger, more pure or rich; it damages him and makes him smaller. Rather, we must learn this on the day of the Immaculate Conception: the man who abandons himself completely in the hands of God does not become God’s puppet, an annoying, conscientious person; he does not lose his freedom. Only the man who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great and creative vastness of the freedom of good. The man who turns towards God does not become smaller, but bigger, because thanks to God and together with Him, he becomes large, divine, he becomes truly himself. The man who puts himself in God’s hands does not distance himself from others, withdrawing into his own private salvation; on the contrary, only then his heart will be truly awakened and he can become a sensitive person, hence benevolent and open.

The closer man is to God, the closer he is to men. We see it in Mary. The fact that she is completely near to God is also the reason why she is close to mankind. Thus, she can be the Mother of all consolation and all help, a Mother to whom anyone can turn in their weakness and sin for any need, because she has understanding for all and she is for all the open strength of creative goodness. It is in her that God stamped his own image, the image of Him who followed the lost sheep as far as the mountains and among the thorns and thorn-bushes of the sins of the world, to get the sheep on his shoulders to take it home. As a Mother who has compassion, Mary is the prefigure and permanent photo of the Son. And so we see that even the image of Our Lady of Sorrows, of the Mother who shares suffering and love, is a true image of the Immaculate Conception. Her heart, through being and feeling together with God, has expanded. In her the goodness of God has come very close to us. Thus Mary stands before us as a sign of consolation, encouragement and hope. She turns to us, saying: “Have courage to dare with God! Try it! Do not be afraid of Him! Have the courage to risk with faith! Have the courage to risk with goodness! Have the courage to risk with a pure heart! Jeopardize yourself with God then you will see that thus, your life will become larger and illuminated, not boring, but full of infinite surprises, because the infinite goodness of God is never exhausted!

On this day of celebration, we wish to thank the Lord for the great sign of his goodness which he gave us in Mary, his Mother and Mother of the Church.

We wish to pray to him to put Mary on our journey as a light which helps us, that we too may become a light and take this light to the nights of history. Amen.