This morning I preached the following sermon strongly influenced by notes taken at the Advent talk given by Fr. John Hemer for clergy in the diocese. As mentioned previously his address was inspirational.
Sometimes one meets a dysfunctional family where the parents behave in a way that is horrific and destructive. Yet the children, because it’s all they have known, do not understand the behaviour is exceptional. They grow up imagining violence or drunkenness, neglect or abuse is perfectly normal. It is only later that they realise something was deeply wrong, that things were not normal at all.
Today we honour Mary. The one woman in history who was, if the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches us anything, raised as God intended us to be. Free from sin and its corrosive effect. Meaning she, not us, is the normal one. Whilst we, tainted by original sin as we are, must be- to one degree or other, the dysfunction in our families; the problems for our communities. For we are damaged by sin. Romans puts it this way: All have sinned and lack the glory of God. But that’s not how God intended it to be remember, hence Ephesians says “he chose us to be holy and blameless before him”. That word ‘blameless’ being in Latin immaculati. So scripture is saying quite explicitly that God wanted us all to be immaculate- like Mary!
But we lost our immaculate nature at the fall. So that today sinfulness has become so inevitable as to seem normal, we imagine its part of human nature. But no, the bible says sin is part of fallen nature, damaged nature. Meaning every sin, no matter how small, is deeply unnatural. It makes us less human. Mary is the normal one- we the broken versions. For Mary, from her conception, by grace of God, lived free from the stain of original sin.
Original sin means our desires are disordered. That we want in life what make us less than human, and have done ever since Eve sinned and Adam copied her. We treat God as rival, imagine obedience curtails freedom and fun. But Mary’s Immaculate nature means she never treated God as rival or hungered for the inappropriate. God made her the example of normality for us. A human life lived by grace alone.
Usually when the Church defines dogmas it’s because there is dispute. But in 1854 Pius IX defined the IC without any dispute but it proved prophetic. For in the 19th century Europe started down a path that would prove destructive to humanity. Darwin teaching there was no purpose to creation save procreation and survival. That we are not children of God only products of harsh natural selection. And Nietzsche was determined to win the struggle. For him, God was dead and the man, should now take over and impose his will on the world. Two ideas which formed the philosophical underpinning of both Nazism and Communism. Those regimes that showed no regard for the dignity of man leading to the deaths of millions.
So, just as people said we are cells with no purpose, the Church held up the icon of Mary Immaculate- an image of goodness and love. Held up the IC just as the foundations were being laid for the modern culture of death. As man turned in on himself- the Church held up the one life that is normal. Mary our standard for human behaviour. An image offered to a broken world, a world so distorted by sin that sin is now believed to be normal even desirable. Consider how even the most natural and obvious statement of all-that man and woman belong together in marriage for the benefit of children – is challenged and even dismissed.
Interestingly there are four Dogmas concerning Mary. The first two came when the world was confused about the nature of God. So “Mary Mother of God” and “Her perpetual virginity” helped us understand who God is. The next two dogmas arrived relatively recently, as we have become confused about the nature of man. So the Immaculate Conception and Assumption help us understand what a human being really is.
So that, in 1950 the Church defines the assumption of Mary following two world wars. Which is to say the seeds planted in the 19th century bore deadly fruit in the 20th. Those ideas about life without purpose came true. 2 wars doing more to damage faith than any atheist propaganda. So via Mary, assumed body and soul into heaven, the Church proposes a different vision. Despite all that people had seen the Church was saying our destiny is not in a trench or a gas chamber or gulag, the victim of survival of the fittest. Nor is it in the dignitas or abortion sluice of today. No- God’s will is for each of us, like Mary, to have great dignity and worth on earth before we are raised to be with him in heaven. For God each and every life is to be held as precious and sacred.
In the years following the two world wars things have only got worse. There is now, if it is possible, an even more pessimistic view of life and its purpose, or lack of it. So much work for the Church to do then. But even that church is in crisis due to the fall out caused by the doubts and fears of this generation. The liberal agenda, with its false sense of mercy, ever wanting to conform the church to the world rather than to lead the world in faith to Christ for transformation.
But in Mary- mother of God, ever virgin, conceived immaculate and assumed into heaven- the Church posseses an alternative view. The view of firm faith. Of God’s vision of human life. A natural life whose destiny ends in heaven. And that message has never been more needed than it is today. Which is why we must learn to celebrate it with courage. To stand up for the faith we hold dear. Meaning that when Christmas comes again- we don’t only delight in the baby lying in a manger. But lift him from it and take him into our hearts. That he might, by grace, make us normal and lead our souls to heaven.