Homily by Bishop David Oakley

Solemnity of Our Lady immaculate

At the entrance to Our Lady of Grace church, High Wycombe, there is a simple drawing of Mary greeting Eve. It has captured my imagination over the past few weeks. It is an image by Sr Grace Remington, a Cistercian of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Mississipi. We see the serpent, wrapped around Eve’s leg, holding her back as it were. Our Lady’s heel crushes the head of the serpent. One commentator speaks of ourselves, dolefully latching onto our symbols of self-satisfaction and divine pretensions. But Mary is smiling at Eve and holds Eve’s hand on her womb. The commentator speaks of Jesus, truly present in this womb in a most beautiful way, as close to the human heart as is physically possible, welcoming patiently the rhythms of human development, he grows in the womb of a young woman named Mary. In the original picture, there is something which is missing from the drawing in High Wycombe. A garden full of fruit makes an arch over the two women.

This image bring together two moments in salvation history. We see the sorrowful Eve, mother of all people, and the joyful Mary who bears in her womb, the Redeemer of all creation. Again, the commentator makes a useful observation. The arch above the two women is paradoxical. It is a strength caused by two weaknesses, the two segments of  circle with are nothing on their own, but together, are a force to stand the tests of time.

Eve grasps the fruit by which sin entered our world. Mary grasps her faith in the truth about the child within her womb. It is a beautiful and very profound picture. You may go to Our Lady of Grace church in High Wycombe to see it. Or you can google it and read some helpful reflections about its meaning. It is a picture which holds together, the tension between the first reading we heard this evening and the Gospel proclamation of the good news to a world that holds its breath in expectation. Or on the other hand, a world that goes about its daily business with no thought beyond the immediate and the material.

And what holds these two mysteries together: the mystery of iniquity in the Fall, the mystery of redemption, revealed in the words of an angel to a woman who is named as full of grace? The apostle’s song of blessing, in praise of God’s loving plan of salvation. This is where we find the answer to our question. An answer we could never have discovered by ourselves. Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence. My own contemplation of the Lord in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, continually brings me back to these words. God’s certain and definitive choice of us, is what makes sense of the tension we all feel within ourselves. There are times when all we are aware of, is that we have brought forth something which diminishes and even destroys our relationship with the Lord, as those who have been created in his image and likeness. Then there are times, we are aware with awe and wonder, an unexpected grace has brought us to a joy and peace, the source of which lies beyond our imagining.

Our gathering together this evening in our Cathedral church for this solemn Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the celebration of our Patronal Feast here in our Diocese. And because of this, today’s mystery within God’s unfolding plan of salvation touches every aspect of our diocesan mission, our parish communities, our diocesan agencies, our schools, our families. There is much we may learn from Our Lady Immaculate. She is a woman of prayerful focus on the word of the Lord. We might ask ourselves, is our missionary response to Scripture held within an attentive gazing upon the face of the Lord we discover within the Word of God? In Mary’s prayer there is an ongoing dialogue. Can we say the same of ourselves? Or are we too often holding our ideas and plans, and struggling to grasp a bigger perspective, nothing less than the Lord’s plan for those who have been claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning. And what about that encounter between Eve and Mary? Are we prepared to embrace the compassionate mercy of a loving heavenly Father? It is not his will that we remained trapped within the patterns of our fallen nature. We who have not been conceived without sin, must carry the wounds of concupiscence in so many different ways. Great mystics throughout the ages, have alway understood the church in those terms. And at the same time, we have a message of joyful salvation to proclaim. We are not seeking to become more perfect agents of mission in God’s Kingdom, because we are without sin and fully faced. We simply wish to live out our birthright as disciples of Mary’s Son. And it lifts our hearts to know that Our Lady Immaculate is our powerful advocate and intercessor in all of this.