At Northampton Cathedral, 8th December 2016
A year ago today, on this solemn feast of the Immaculate Conception, we gathered here for the Opening of the Holy Door at the beginning of the wonderful Jubilee Year of Mercy. You may not remember but, while the Cathedral was packed, some priests and people from around the Diocese were unable to get here because all roads leading into Northampton were blocked. Sadly, accidents and breakdowns prevented a number of people from reaching the Cathedral.
It was an amazing coincidence - or was it? Perhaps it was a reminder that there is a real opposition to the mercy of God, to the flourishing of the Church and to `the growth of the Kingdom of God. And that obstacle is the reality of sin. Sin disfigures us and robs us of our likeness to God. While we are created in the image of God, sin undermines the glory of that creation. Sin separates us from one another. Sin creates disharmony within ourselves, between ourselves and in society. For example, we all know that a word spoken in anger or out of hurt pride can cause division and lasting unhappiness.
Our first reading from the Book of Genesis recalls the catastrophic effect of the fall from grace into sin, and the loss of innocence and likeness to God, experienced by Adam and Eve. The consequences of that original sin are inherited by every human being, by each of us. All of us are wounded, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin and evil.
Do you recognise yourself in that description? Of course, by the grace of Baptism, original sin is erased, and the life of Christ’s grace turns us back to the Father, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in us and summon us to a spiritual battle.
The struggle to respond to the call to holiness in our lives is a struggle to put our trust in God and in his grace rather than in our own efforts. It is a struggle to overcome our pride and to accept God’s love for us as we are and not as we think that we should be. In response to the reality of sin, God sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes away our sins. It is only that grace and love of God that can lift us up. The Lord alone is our light and our help.
Today we celebrate the working of God’s grace in our Blessed Lady, the one whom we hail as “full of grace”. She alone, of all humanity, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. The teaching about the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854 as follows: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” The splendour of an entirely unique holiness by which Mary is enriched from the first instant of her conception comes wholly from Christ: she is redeemed in a more exalted fashion by reason of the merits of her Son. Applying words from our second reading, God the Father blessed Mary more than any other created person ‘in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’ and chose her ‘in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love.’
At the announcement that she would give birth to ‘the Son of the Most High’ as a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responded with the obedience of faith. She embraced the divine will for salvation wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son. As St. Irenaeus wrote, “Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert …. ‘The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound with her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.’ Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary ‘Mother of the living’ and frequently claim: ‘Death through Eve, life through Mary’
“Mary, our mother, offers us a positive challenge in the example of her faithful obedience to God’s will. For Mary, it was a life changing act of faith and obedience. God seemingly demanding the impossible. Yet, nothing is impossible to God. And that is a true for each of us in our lives as it was and is in the life of Mary.
Not only does Mary offer us a positive challenge, she is the expression of hope, of the working of God’s grace that brought about her immaculate conception and can, therefore, save us.
What special encouragement is given to the Cathedral Parish and to the Diocese of Northampton as we celebrate our patronal feast of the Immaculate Conception – the encouragement to respond positively to the call to holiness, to seek God’s will in our lives, and the call to be a people of hope. Let us ask the prayers of Mary, full of grace, that we may be free from sin and servants of the hope that the coming of her Son brings us. Let us pray that in our Cathedral Parish and in our Diocese we may be people of prayer, that we may grow in our knowledge and understanding of what we believe and how we should live, and that we may be a community of welcome and service for the greater glory of God.
O Mary, conceived without sin: pray for us who have recourse to thee.
Bishop of Northampton