Monday, December 8, 2008

Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

This is the third day in a row in which I was blessed to receive the Lord Jesus Christ truly present in the Holy Supper, for the remission of my sins. The Father of mercies made for His Son a worthy habitation in the womb of the Virgin Mary (a phrase I borrowed from the traditional collect for today's feast), and three times in three days He has done so in me as well, as I have had the blessing of going to Mass on Saturday (St. Nicholas' Feast), Sunday (Second Sunday of Advent), and today (Conception of the BVM).

Of course I am not a worthy habitation naturally, in myself. Luther in his catechism taught me to confess that "I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him." Rather, I am drawn to the Eucharist, despite my unworthiness, by His infinite grace and Spirit, or as Luther teaches, "but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith." Saint Ambrose has taught me the same thing, for as we pray in Ambrose's prayer in preparation for Mass, "O loving Lord Jesus Christ, I a sinner, presuming not on my own merits, but trusting in Thy mercy and goodness, with fear and trembling approach the table of Thy most sacred banquet."

When I say that Luther taught me, and that Ambrose taught me, it is also to say that the Church, my holy Mother, has taught me, by the catechetical and devotional tradition of her saints. This holy and pure mother, the Christian Church, is typified by the holy, pure, and always Virgin Mary. And just as my worthiness to have Christ in my body is not a worthiness of my doing, or of which I can boast, so too with Mary. Her worthiness is the grace and work of God. This, God's work in her, is what she pondered in her earthly pilgrimage, and contemplates eternally before the face of God. Having said all of this, just as we can, and should, confess the holiness of those Baptized into Christ, so it is at least as fitting for us to speak of Mary's holiness.

Today is the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, nine months as it is before the Feast of Mary's Nativity. One of the unusual blessings of today's Mass, the sort of thing one doesn't often get at Mass, is to hear from the book of Judith. The liturgy takes the words addressed to Judith (by Ozias and by Joacim the priest and the ancients of Israel) and applies them to the Mother of God, "Blessed art thou, O Virgin Mary, of the most high God above all the women upon the earth. Thou art the exaltation of Jerusalem, thou art the great glory of Israel, thou art the great rejoicing of our nation" (KJV).

The Gospel of the day is the angelic salutation in the first chapter of Luke. These evangelical words of the Evangelist are so rich in the Gospel, it is a wonder that Lutheran preachers, trained as they are in preaching Christ, too often shy from preaching, teaching, and praying them.

The Divine Office at Matins today gives us a meditation from Saint Jerome upon the angelic salutation that is magnificent in its sheer Christology. He says, for example,

"She has encompassed a man in her womb, as holy Jeremiah testifies, and received Him from no one else. 'The Lord,' he says, 'will bring about a new thing upon the earth: a woman will encompass a man.' Indeed this was a new thing, a work of power of a supereminent newness, when God (whom the world cannot contain, whom no man can see and live) so entered the guesthouse of her womb as not to know confinement in her body, and when He was so carried that the whole God was in her womb, and He so came forth from it that (as Ezekiel prophesied) it was a door never opened. This is why the Canticle sings of her, 'A garden enclosed, a fountain sealed, your streams are those of paradise.' Truly she is a garden of delights, planted with all kinds of flowers and the perfumes of all virtues; she is enclosed in that she has known no violation nor corruption by any wiles or deceits. She is a fountain sealed with the seal of the whole Trinity."

Saint Jerome was not a Calvinist. And Luther was not a Nestorian, nor is traditionalist Lutheran worship.

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