My childhood parish had a lovely custom of building the Christmas Crib throughout Advent. The first Sunday saw the stable and the first animals arriving. Then, as the Sundays of Advent progressed, more and more figures would be brought up at the beginning of Mass — the shepherds, the angel, St Joseph — until finally, Our Lady and the manger appeared on the last Sunday, ready to receive the Christ Child at Midnight Mass. Like the candles on the wreath, this practice helped to mark the progress of Advent, but it was also a visual reminder of what the season is all about: preparation for the birth of the Saviour. Just as the crib was gradually made ready, so we were reminded to prepare our homes and our hearts for Christmas: through prayer, through acts of charity and kindness, and especially in the Sacrament of Confession.
But this custom is also a representation of God’s saving plan in history. After the Fall, God gradually prepared his Chosen People for their redemption, through the Law and the Temple sacrifices, through the prophets and kings. And his final, and most wonderful, act in that plan — the last piece of the puzzle — was the mystery we are celebrating today: the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Our Lady, by a singular grace, was preserved from all stain of sin from the first moment of her creation, to be a worthy dwelling place for God’s Son. Free from all the foolish pride, arrogance, grasping greed, and self-centredness of sin that had afflict humankind since Adam, Mary was able to be so open to the Lord and his will, so trusting and so loving, that she was able to say “yes” to God and welcome his Son into her womb. With the Virgin Mary, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”, God was able to complete his plan, and everything was finally ready for his coming into the world.
Our celebration of Mary’s Immaculate Conception gives glory to God for his plan of salvation and for the immensity of his love for her and for his sinful children. We honour Our Lady because in her God gave honour to the whole human race. But our calling to mind her “unsullied purity of soul and body” is also meant to help us prepare and purify our own souls for the feast of the Nativity of the Lord. Our Lady prompts us to look at ourselves, and see what in us needs forgiving, and healing, and strength; she helps us to know what in us needs saving so that we can welcome our Saviour when he comes.
Most Holy Virgin, obtain for us a deep hatred of sin, and purity of heart, so that our every thought, word and deed may tend to the greater glory of God. Obtain for us a spirit of prayer and self-denial, that we may recover by penance what we have lost by sin. Obtain for us the grace to share one day your happiness in heaven.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
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