[Vasari’s painting in the Ashmolean, Oxford, depicts Adam, Eve and Old Testament patriarchs and prophets chained to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil, which itself is bound by the serpent. The Immaculate Virgin Mary by the grace of God and the birth of Christ triumphs over original sin and the bondage of Satan over humanity]
Fr. Benedict Groeschel, in his wonderful Jersey City accent, often says that the one Christian doctrine that everyone can believe is that of Original Sin. Fr. Groeschel says that all we need to do is walk the streets of the Bronx, or listen to the evening news, to realize that something is broke in nature, especially in human nature. We see it in the crime and poverty. We see Original Sin.
Jesuit Father Paul Mankowski, in addressing the question, “Why the Immaculate Conception?” said:
I live in an age, and a country, wherein the largest single cause of death of infants under one year of age is homicide. I live at a time when, according to those claim to know these things, Ronald McDonald has surpassed Jesus Christ in popularity among children. . . . I live in a country where, this very day, in the time between my rising and my standing here before you, 4000 of our fellow citizens, 4000 human beings with an eternal destiny, were summarily killed by abortion. I live at time when most promises will be broken, most vows will be repudiated, most marriages will fail. I live at a time when it is virtually impossible to go through a day without using some commodity which, however innocent in itself, is not hawked in terms of some base or venal allure. I am promised prosperous and intriguing companions by the folks who brew my beer; and those who sell my shaving cream are at pains to assure me that it will provoke the women I encounter into sexual frenzy (Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J., 1990, as quoted in Fr. Edward Steiner, “Homily Backgrounds: Do Not Be Afraid, December 8, 2008, The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” The Priest, Vol. 64 (11), November 2008).
Even though Fr. Mankowski’s comments were made 18 years ago, I think we can all agree that they are just as true today in describing our culture as they were then. In fact, Planned Parenthood is even selling gift cards for Christmas this year. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is the patronal feast of the United States, so perhaps it is appropriate that we reflect today on the cause of so much suffering, pain, terror, and despair – Original Sin.
God created Man in His own image and likeness, and He intended all human beings to live in His friendship. However, due to the temptations of the serpent, our First Parents doubted God’s goodness and love. Instead of trusting in God, they freely chose to try to make themselves happy without God. This caused a break in their friendship with God, and we call this Original Sin. This brokenness is passed on to all of their descendants, namely all of us. So, due to Original Sin, we are not born as friends of God.
While this situation might seem bleak, we should never despair. Instead we should ask ourselves what it will take to get us back to the Garden with our God? What will it take to make our nation more an image of the Kingdom of God, and less the fallen city of humanity?
It should be obvious that the human race could not save itself from evil; we could not achieve the happiness and peace we were created for; Original Sin had cut us off from our destiny. And so, God came to our rescue by sending us a Savior – Jesus Christ. As today’s Second Reading puts it, God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.” Without Christ’s grace, none of us would have any chance at fulfillment and true happiness; but with his grace, we do.
And the first step in this salvation was the Immaculate Conception. In a privilege only given to her, Mary was granted the merits of Jesus Christ, that is freedom from the effects of Adam’s sin. From the first moment of her conception, Mary was exempt from all stain of Original Sin. She was born into the same state of grace in which Eve was first created – friendship with God.
We are not born free from Original Sin. For us, Original Sin has to be removed in the sacrament of Baptism. That is why we are described as being reborn and becoming a new creation through Baptism. It is important, however, to keep in mind that even though Mary was born free from Original Sin, she was never prevented from sinning. Like Eve, Mary was born into innocence and love – to love God or free to love something else. The Immaculate Conception did not make Mary any less free than Eve, or us. However, Mary made a fundamentally different choice than Eve. When presented with the opportunity to choose between what God wanted versus what she wanted, Mary chose God. In this single choice the possibility of redemption was born.
We too enjoy the same blessings as Mary through the grace of our Baptism. We stand before the same choices in life. By our Baptism we are freed from sin, although we are still free to sin. As Mary chose God, so can we.