Mary is our model ‘despite’ the Immaculate Conception

By Fr. Simon Cleary, LC.

Boys’ Formation Director

The Highlands School

St. John Paul II, in his book, Gift and Mystery, tells us of a spiritual discovery he made: “Mary leads us to Christ, but Christ also leads us to Mary.” Sometimes going to Mary isn’t easy. She never sinned, how could she ‘get’ us? Making things more complicated is the Medieval idea – based on very little Bible references – of how vast Adam’s and Eve’s intelligence and will would have been above ours, because she was not hampered by Original Sin. So Mary seems one more step distant from ‘getting’ us, with almost angelic abilities now.

And then we have the Romanticist spiritual books, that painted Mary as so privileged that she lived in the Temple all her childhood and was fed by angels, and was spared the pains of the journey to Bethlehem by gift of God… Leon Bloy, a French poet, wrote “Mary’s Immaculate Conception… puts her at an unspeakable distance from us…”

How is Mary a model for us?

Perhaps our idea of of Mary looks like a porcelain doll – perfect, pure, white and beautiful, but so pretty as to be someone you can’t play with. She seems more ornamental than comfortable. Maybe she doesn’t even look very human.  St. Therese of the Child Jesus rejected these kinds of descriptions of Mary, “She is described as unapproachable, whereas she should be pointed to as a model. She is more of a Mother than a Queen.”

How is Mary a model for us? A Legionary Novice explained the Immaculate heart of Mary, as the day right after the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He said this is because Mary modeled her heart on Christ Jesus’. He talked about how we can ‘select’ colors from one picture to paint that same color onto the new picture. The Novice said Mary ‘selected’ the colors of His Heart, and then painted her heart in His colors. Her heart identified with His, since she had Christ Jesus as her constant reference point.  So, how did Mary’s heart resemble Christ’s? How can we do the same, and see her as a model for us?

First, her heart was brought close to Christ’s in an un-merited way. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception rests on Christ Jesus applying the graces of His redemption back in time to before she was born. The gift of the Immaculate Conception is not something Mary earned, it is an un-merited resemblance to Christ’s heart. A chalice is not beautiful and therefore chosen for mass; instead the artisan decides to make a chalice for mass, and therefore he makes it beautiful. Mary was not so beautiful and pure that she ‘deserved’ to be the Mother of God, she was chosen for the incarnation, and therefore made all-pure. She did not deserve the incarnation, no-one could. Before she was born, Christ was painting her heart to look like His.

Second, Mary’s heart is like Christ’s through co-operating with Him. The Doctrine of Trent is that we never earn graces ourselves, but only with and in the mystery of Christ’s work (call this “co-meriting”). Mary lived alongside Jesus, cooking breakfast together, praying together, walking together and talking with Him heart-to-heart. All of her life by Jesus’ side was a sharing in Christ’s work, a co-meriting. Mary did not merit or earn anything by herself alone, or apart from Christ. She spent her life focused on seeing and ‘selecting’ His Heart’s responses and then applying the colors of His thoughts, words, and life to her own heart.

In a way, Mary is the person who needed Jesus the most. I know that I need His presence too, but I can close my heart to Him and get by (although not for long). Mary is the person who always needed Christ Jesus, she couldn’t be separated from sharing her life with Him. She was always being touched upon by Him, never isolated from Him. She couldn’t bear to – and never chose to – live without Him.

Imperfect Mary

What surprises me are the imperfections of Mary. I don’t believe her freedom from original sin made her super-humanly wise. She receives the message of the angel, and “she did not understand.” She gives birth to Jesus, and she wraps Him lovingly in swaddling clothes. Whether swaddling is a good or not, I don’t know, but in Jesus’ time the practice came from thinking that a baby’s bones won’t grow straight if they aren’t wrapped up. It could be the right practice for the wrong reason, but it does mean doing a mistake.

Picture this: Mary gives birth to the Son of God, and the first thing she does is make a mistake! Yes, an error she didn’t know about, done with love and in no way a sin at all, but objectively speaking, a mistake. She also lost Jesus in the Temple when He was a child. A mistake too. She didn’t understand His reply when they found Him.

Mary, wasn’t angelically perfect. She never sinned, but she made mistakes, and probably overcooked God’s dinner a couple of times in 30 years (maybe wet wood or other failures things didn’t help either). She probably got a hair in Jesus’ soup every now and then. Mary would have known how undeserving she was to receive the Son of God in her womb.  She would have felt how inadequate she was to raise the Son of God in her home. And all the same, she knew her ‘imperfections’ and her mistakes never separated her from Christ in any way.

Mary was a gentle, striving woman. She never let her self-doubt or inadequacies tempt her to step away from her mission to be with Christ, to be the Mother of God. That’s a great model for us.

We too can resemble Christ’s heart, and, as He leads us to Mary, we can resemble Mary’s heart. First, by recognizing we also receive grace undeservedly or in an unmerited way. We were not so wonderful that God chose us. God chose us, and gave us wonderful gifts – before we even began to respond to His call. Second, we work side by side with Christ Jesus (or co-merit with Him). And since he cooked and cleaned at home, even cooking or cleaning can be sharing our life with His. Third, we can know our mistakes do not separate us from the love of Christ Jesus. So yes, we are inadequate, but we are still loved and chosen.

Let Christ’s Heart color our hearts. And let Christ lead us to Mary, the model of a heart healed by Christ’s.