Catholic Homily/Marian Reflection

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

December 8, 2008

N.B. I am posting a reflection I wrote in Long Range, NJ, USA back in November 28, 2006.

Two words reverberate in my ear as I sit down to pen these reflections, while tucked quietly in this Atlantic coast retreat house of the Redemptorists (Baltimore Province): emptiness and fullness. The Song of the Virgin Mary, the Magnificat, constantly resounds in the silence. And the two seemingly contradictory concepts of utter emptiness and total fullness weave in and out of my mind caught up by the simple joy and utter peace of being washed away figuratively by the gentle waves that toss in and out of the shore, a few hundred yards from my bedroom window.

A line from one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lesser known poems keeps on hitting me like waves that persistently wash ashore …

“Myself unholy, from myself unholy,

To the sweet living of my friends I look;

Eye seeing doves bright counter to the rook.”

The poem’s wave-like cadence, reminiscent of the repetitive and persistent push and pull of the surf on the patient shore, reminds me, at one and the same time, of Mary, the woman of faith, and of human life as a whole.

Yes … human life is like the waves that toss and turn, that pull in and push out, that come and go, but the never-ending push and pull of the surf shows us all that life ends where it begins, that our “endings are really beginnings,” and that, like the waves that return to the bigger ocean – their source, all of life ends in God, in whom it all begins.

And yes … those same waves remind me of her who is definitely the Queen that reigns supreme in this relatively small piece of Atlantic shoreline, surrounded though it is by at least two towering Resort Hotels – Mary, the Queen of the universe, our Lady of Perpetual Help, whose giant, glittering mosaic image glistens as the beautiful late autumn morning sun bathes it, thus making it reflect in earthly splendor the glory that befits whom it represents – “the woman clothed with the sun.”

I am humbled by Hopkins’ words that speak of a realization that each one ought to have. “He has a sin of mine; he its near brother …” Using the contrasting images of white doves and black rooks, Hopkins speaks of our universal tainted nature, our sinfulness as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. The pounding waves that batter the shore, on the other hand, predictable in its consistency, remind me of the undeniable sin-prone reality of the human condition that Hopkins writes about. We all are servants of sin. We all have acted exactly unlike those “doves bright” who were “counter to the rook.” “All men have fallen short of the glory of God,” as St. Paul writes.

But the other side of this same reality does not fail to capture my thoughts even as I write and even as I stare at the waves that keep pushing out from shore, back to where they come from. To God I go, from Him I come. The pounding waves that batter the shore remind me that I am as much sinful as saved, as much a dove as a rook.

Though dead to sin, I am redeemed and have been paid for by the death of the Lord. For this reason, I am sovereign, not just servant, for “the Lord has done marvels for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 1:49).

Servant … this is what the humble maiden from Nazareth called herself. Knowing her place, Mary entertained no unrealistic thoughts and desires. Lowly people like her are those who can appreciate to the full what is eventually given them. Only the servant-at-heart could know the depths of gratitude to Him who bestows sovereignty as gift and grace … “For He has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.”

Servant and sovereign … these are what Mary was and is. Lowly but glorified … this is what we all are, too, by God’s graciousness and mercy. Sinful but saved … this, too, is what all women and men are, by Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.

Today’s solemnity of this sovereign woman above all women (and men!) comes as a gentle nudge to us who are so full of ourselves, so full of our selfishness and sinfulness. We are inundated by crass materialism, by so much jealousy and intrigue, in this fast-paced and rat-race world of individualism. Tsunamis of earthly and selfish desires literally engulf us on a daily basis. Redeemed though we have been once and for all, we need repeated reminders from a God, who, like the patient shore, is persistently battered by the waves of our infidelity and indifference. But like the ocean that doesn’t go dry, God’s love is infinite, everlasting, and never-ending. Like the patient shore that is buffeted continuously by waves, God never runs out of understanding and love for us His people.

The ocean empties itself to the shore, but continually gets filled in the process. God’s love, like the mighty ocean, keeps on giving itself out to sinful men, filling them with every good gift … “His mercy is from age to age, to those who fear him.”

But only virginal, empty vessels can be filled by all this goodness from above. Only those who are willing to be acted on, those who are ready to surrender themselves to the incoming waves of God’s gracious gifts can become full. Filled people cannot be made full. Filled people are merely satiated. They cannot be given more. Filled people have no place for more. They can only be inundated. Filled people have no more space. They are merely fed up, overwhelmed, and stuffed stiff in their satiety.

But the humble woman from Nazareth came empty before the Lord. She was a virgin, open, ready, and willing to be acted upon by God. Virginal and pure, only Mary was worthy of becoming a vessel – a vessel of God the Most High. Empty of all worldly desires, only she was worthy of being filled to the utmost: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28).

Contrary to popular wisdom, God does not love only the cheerful giver. God loves a welcoming, wholehearted recipient, who makes himself or herself a ready receptacle of His grace. Like Mary was. Like Mary is. Blest. Highly favored by the Gift-Giver par excellence.

A hymn for the Office of Readings of the French Breviary captures this truth about Mary as both virgin and vessel. It reads thus: “Elle offre a Dieu le silence ou la Parole habite” (Mary offers the emptiness of silence that was filled – inhabited – by the Word Himself). Her emptiness, her virginity, that spelled openness and receptivity, was precisely what made her so full, and so favored by the Lord.

O Mary, humble servant, sovereign and queen of our hearts, look down upon us, struggling servants of yours in this valley of tears, inundated by so much selfishness and pride. Make us imitate you in your lowliness and humility, that owing to the richness and blessedness that come from your Immaculate, virginal fullness, we may become like you, vessels of grace and sources of blessings for others.

O Immaculate Mother, full of grace, and woman above all women, help us get the wisdom of emptiness and lowliness. Devoid of all that hampers our growth, lead us to fullness of union with your Son, Jesus Christ, who is Lord and Savior of all. Amen.

I end by quoting the last strophe of the fine French hymn I referred to above:

Voici l’epouse inepoussee, (Behold the spouse who herself was not espoused)

Marie, servante et souveraine, (Mary, servant and sovereign)

Qui porte en secret le salut du monde. (Who bears in secret the salvation of the world)

Le sang du Christ la rachete (The blood of Christ redeems her)

Mais elle en est la source. (But she herself is source thereof)


San Alfonso Retreat House

Long Branch, New Jersey, USA

November 28, 2006