Sermon for Thursday 8 December 2022
Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
No – that’s not a magic incantation from Harry Potter – though it sounds like it. Neither is it the latest antibiotic to be developed and put on sale by drug companies – though it sounds like one.
Kecharitmōenē is in fact one of the most complex and debated Greek words in the whole New Testament. It is found in our gospel reading today. It was translated just now as “Favoured one.” It’s how the Angel Gabriel addresses Mary when he meets her for the first time. “Hail, favoured one, the Lord is with you.
So why is this word so complex and why is its meaning so debated?
Most of the time we use a different translation. When we say the Hail Mary we tend to use the phrase that has come to us through the Latin tradition. “Hail, full of grace.” The problem is this. Talking about Mary as “full of grace” isn’t without its problems.
Some have argued it makes grace sound like a liquid, and Mary simply a vessel. She’s like a cup, if you like, filled to the brim with grace. She is as full of grace as it’s possible for a human to be.
But isn’t there more to be said about grace than that it’s simply like a quantifiable liquid? And isn’t there something less than satisfactory about thinking of Our Lady as simply a vessel, an inert and compliant container of God’s presence?
Well if we go back to that strange Greek word, we discover there’s much more theological depth than first appears. For in Greek kecharitōmenē means literally, “having been favoured.” It comes from a verb meaning to bestow grace, or show favour. Rather than being a vessel full of quantifiable grace, the New Testament actually speaks of Mary as one who is the focus of God’s favour. A favoured one in whom he delights. A favoured one whom he has chosen for a particular and individual role.
But there’s something more about that Greek word that’s important. It’s what’s called a perfect passive participle. Please don’t switch off when I start using boring grammatical terms. I’ll explain what I mean.
A past participle like this is a word that refers to something that has happened in the past. We don’t really use past participles in English as adjectives, but they do in Greek. This phrase in today’s Gospel tells us that Mary is not just favoured in the present, but she has already been favoured in the past.
The crucial thing about that verb is this. When the angel comes in to greet her, God has already been at work in Mary. He has already in the past chosen her, prepared her, favoured her for this role. She is not a tea cup full of grace, but rather the one in whom God’s favour has already been acting.
And that is the point of the feast we celebrate tonight. We celebrate the fact that God chose and prepared Mary to be the Mother of his Son from the beginning of her existence. The doctrine of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception is not a late accretion to the Christian faith, nor a folly of baroque Mediterranean excess. Rather it is a simple truth communicated to us by the text and grammar of the New Testament. God’s grace was already at work in Our Lady before the angel ever arrived.
And if she was to be the Mother of him who saves us from our sins, it only makes sense that she was somehow preserved from the curse and power of sin so that she could bear the sinless one.
The Christian theological tradition has used many different images and terms to try to express this mystery. In the Christian East, our Orthodox sisters and brothers refer to Mary as “all holy” as a way of describing the purity God bestowed upon her.
In the Latin West, our artistic and musical traditions have frequently presented Mary as a second Eve, vanquishing Satan, and participating in the reversal of the sinful fall that took place in the Garden of Eden. This, too, explains and annunciates the same truth that we celebrate today.
But the point of tonight’s feast isn’t to celebrate something external and distant to us. For in a way, that which God did in Mary, we too may hope for by virtue of her Son’s death and resurrection. In our baptism, the presence of original sin in us was washed away. Our alienation from God is overcome and we are put on the journey of faith that leads through this life to see God face to face in eternity.
In Baptism, we are made ready to be god-bearers ourselves as we become part of the Body of Christ. And when we fall away from grace and into sin, the sacraments of the church are there to restore that baptismal grace and calling through the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist.
As we prepare for the birth of Christ this Advent, we celebrate as part of that journey to Christmas Day the way in which God prepared and chose Mary to be the Mother of his Son. For she is the highly favoured one whom we greet today, who exemplifies our own Christian calling, and whom all generations will called blessed.
Fr Peter Anthony