The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest may say two prayers over the bread and wine immediately following their placement on the altar. In these prayers, the bread is called the fruit of the earth, the wine, the fruit of the vine; both are identified as having been received through the goodness of God, and both are called “the work of human hands.” This understanding, what I’ll call the “offertory posture,” positions us and our labors as intertwined with God’s own goodness and creativity. Our work, and the fruit of it, is also the fruit of God’s creation, and anything we create is to be viewed as coming ultimately from God, and offered back to God. This reciprocity of giving involves continuous interchange between God and his people.
Today is the feast day of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This event is not accounted for in the Gospels, but the normal account of it springs from sources in the early Church. The basic story is that Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, are an elderly, childless couple. After having his sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem rejected due to this childlessness being seen as a sign of God’s displeasure, Joachim goes off into the desert, fasting and distraught. He prays for a child. Back in the city, Anne does the same. Their prayers are answered, and the two meet and embrace at the Golden Gate of the city, ready to conceive. In some iconography of the event, the symbolism is slightly more explicit, showing a bed just inside the gate. The implication is clear that, though this is a miraculous gift of God, this is no virgin birth. The normal working of human bodies is the means by which this divine gift comes to fruition, and Mary is conceived.
The narrative continues that, in thanksgiving for this gift of God, Mary’s parents promise to dedicate her to the worship of God at the Temple. When she is a small child, her parents take her to the Temple to live there, consecrated to God and his purposes, where she awaits the grand revelation of these purposes at the Annunciation.
I should note now that the literal truth of this narrative is, at best, unproven. But the narrative illustrates something very real, and very important. This entire story is filled with what I referred to earlier as the offertory posture: the receiving of God’s gift, the fruit of his goodness and creativity as well as our own labors, offered back to God for consecration. And lest we think that Mary is some passive thing in this exchange, we must remember her as the most active human agent in the offertory. She is both gift and giver, bringing human nature, human flesh and blood, in the form of her own body, up to place it upon the altar. It is her own free consent that rests as the foundation of this glorious interchange. It is harder for me to to come up with a greater offertory sentence than Mary’s words in response to Gabriel—“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,”—or a greater offertory hymn than that blessed song of Mary, the Magnificat.
And this is why we celebrate the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In it, we see God’s goodness and humanity’s efforts come to fruition. In it, we have the very earliest opportunity to join in Gabriel’s greeting, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” And in this blessed feast, we see the beginning of a chain of mutual, glorious, joyous interchange and reciprocity whose end is found in the Incarnation of Christ. Rejoice, you people of God; your humanity, your human efforts, your human flesh and blood, have been accepted as a holy offering, without blemish. Rejoice, with Mary, in the goodness, and favor, and love of God.
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