Heaven’s December Gifts
During Advent, God lavishes two “preliminary” presents on us before we receive his great gift of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus.
The first is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation on Dec. 8; the next is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. (Since this year it falls on Sunday, dioceses may observe it on the day before or after.)
How do these two gifts fit into Advent? Perfectly.
“There can be no doubt,” the Vatican’s Directory of Popular Piety explains, “that the feast of the pure and sinless conception of the Virgin Mary, which is a fundamental preparation for the Lord’s coming into the world, harmonizes perfectly with many of the salient themes of Advent.”
As Father Joseph Esper, pastor of St. Edward on the Lake Church in Lakeport, Mich., whose latest book is With Mary to Jesus: Our Surest Path to Heaven (Queenship Publishing, 2010) explains, “The Immaculate Conception was an essential forerunner of the Incarnation, because Jesus needed a worthy mother, someone without stain of sin.”
And Mary brings motherly love, life, mercy and beauty to us.
Father Seraphim Michalenko of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, who was vice postulator of St. Faustina’s cause in North America, notes a strong connection between the two feasts. Mary first appeared at Guadalupe on a Dec. 9: “That used to be the original date of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and it still is in the Byzantine rite. At that time, the bishop (Juan de Zumarraga) was Franciscan, and the Franciscans were the ones who propagated the devotion of the Immaculate Conception.”
Masterpiece of Mercy
Father Michalenko says the Immaculate Conception illustrates that Mary is the masterpiece of God’s mercy: “According to St. Thomas, the first act of God’s mercy is creation. And since Mary was preserved from original sin, she became the masterpiece of God’s mercy. And she, above everybody else, has received the greatest degree of mercy,” referring to John Paul II’s 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia.
John Paul wrote in the section titled “Mother of Mercy,” “Mary, then, is the one who has the deepest knowledge of the mystery of God’s mercy. She knows its price; she knows how great it is. In this sense, we call her the Mother of Mercy: Our Lady of Mercy, or Mother of Divine Mercy.”
Pope Benedict XVI commented on this in his homily on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2005, when he said, “As a merciful mother, Mary is the anticipated figure and everlasting portrait of the Son.”
No wonder Dominican Father Marie-Dominique Philippe stressed in his 2002 book Mary, Mystery of Mercy, “She is the masterpiece of God, of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, for us. … We must receive her.”
‘Advent’ of God
How can we not accept God’s gift of Mary in these feasts full of beauty? In fact, Father Lance Harlow, pastor of St. Charles Catholic Church in Bellows Falls, Vt., and author of the Marian book Echo of God (John J. Crawley Co., 2006, EchoofGod.com), sees in each of these two Marian feasts an “advent” of beauty: The first reflects the beauty of holiness; the second the beauty of vocation.
“In Mary’s being conceived without original sin, there is an advent of beauty for all of us who suffer from sin,” explains Father Harlow. “It is the beauty of holiness. Mary will give birth to Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world. Holiness will once again be made possible through the incarnation of Jesus, the paschal mystery and consequential sacramental life of the Church.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe’s apparition to Juan Diego, when she provided a miraculous bouquet of Castilian roses for Bishop-elect de Zumarraga, is an “advent of vocation because Fra Zumarraga, a missionary who had come to Mexico from Spain, was caught in the middle of intrigues between Church and empire. With these beautiful roses, Mary assures him that she has really visited him and encourages him in his vocation.”
This relates to us today as well.
“We, too, are caught in the intrigues of living in the world, and we often wonder if we are really doing God’s will,” Father Harlow says. “And although we may not receive roses from Our Lady, we receive the fragrance of her solicitude. Mary is not a far-removed theological definition or a 16th-century apparition. She is the perfect mother who is very much concerned with the daily worries, preoccupations and joys of her children. She has heard the prayers of Juan de Zumarraga, she has heard the prayers of the ‘poor children of Eve,’ and now she hears my prayers and yours. So the Mother comes during Advent, bringing the divine Child who will renew our lives with holiness, giving them meaning and purpose.”
“The combination of these two dimensions of holiness and vocation, embodied in Our Lady,” he concludes, anticipates Christmas, “where holiness and beauty are perfectly realized and fulfilled in Jesus, the Son of God and son of Mary.”
In his Immaculate Conception homily, Benedict also related Mary’s example to us. Like Mary, “the person who turns to God does not become smaller, but greater, for through God and with God, he becomes great; he becomes divine; he becomes truly himself.
“Mary thus stands before us as a sign of comfort, encouragement and hope. She turns to us, saying: ‘Have the courage to dare with God! Try it! Do not be afraid of him! Have the courage to risk with faith! ... Commit yourselves to God; then you will see that it is precisely by doing so that your life will become broad and light, not boring, but filled with infinite surprises — for God’s infinite goodness is never depleted!”
Excellent reminders before celebrating the perfect Gift to come at Christmas.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.