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The Immaculate Conception: A Light In The Darkness

December 3, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the celebration of our Lady’s sinlessness and total preservation from original sin from the first moment of her conception, has an added poignancy as we near the end of 2018.
At the close of a year that has revealed just how deeply the corruption of grave sin has cast its horrible shadow over our world and our Church, the sinlessness of Mary and her virginal purity come anew as light overcoming the darkness.
In a commentary on the Blessed Virgin’s title “Morning Star” given in a 1749 treatise on the Litany of Loreto, we read:
“Was not the entire world, before the nativity of Christ, enveloped in the most impenetrable darkness of man’s wickednesses?. . . But when Mary appeared, as the orient Morning Star, then dawned the effulgent rays of hope, that the sun of justice was rising over the horizon, and would soon be followed by the day of salvation, and that darkness would be overwhelmed in the effulgent flood of light” (Franz Xavier Dorn, Georg Balthasar Probst and Joseph Sebastian Klauber, Himmels-Konigin Mariae: Das Erste mahl In dem Wunder-thatigen Hauss Loreto, Augsburg, 1749, n. 41, translated by Thomas Canon Pope in The Illustrated Litany of Loretto, in Fifty-six Titles, Dublin, James Duffy and Sons, 1878, sig. Pp.).
We all know the admonition of our Lord, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). We think of certain saints as particularly childlike — St. Therese of Lisieux, for example — but have we ever thought of our Lady in this way? For if being childlike is essential to being a disciple, then must it not follow that the Blessed Virgin possessed this quality to a supreme degree, surpassing all the saints?
Some of the great artists have captured this aspect of our Lady especially well. In one of Francisco de Zurbaran’s many portrayals of the Immaculate Conception, a work entitled The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception in the collection of Placido Arsingo, dating from the 1640s, he gives the Blessed Virgin an exquisitely childlike face, her innocent eyes gazing upward, her hands open, as if she were wordlessly saying, “Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God” (Heb. 10:7).
In a canvas depicting the Holy Family entitled Virgin with Kitten, dating from before 1577, the Italian painter Federico Barocci (+1612) portrays Mary with a face and playful demeanor so youthful that she seems but a child herself as the Christ Child clings to her and St. John the Baptist as a little boy sits beside her teasing a kitten at our Lady’s feet, delighting the Divine Infant.
The Blessed Virgin smiles serenely as she gazes down upon her Son, and St. Joseph, having interrupted his work, pauses to enjoy the whole scene, his eyes directed toward our Lady.
The Blessed Mother was so supremely childlike above all others precisely because she was so utterly innocent, totally sinless, and because she was so virginally pure.
While there are several reasons that could be given as to why the Solemnity of Christmas has always possessed a childlike aura, surely the Blessed Virgin herself must have imparted the celebration of Christmas with this quality from the moment she first recounted the events of the Nativity to St. Luke and St. Matthew. For in the Gospel narratives we are really seeing the birth of Christ through her eyes, her chaste and sinless eyes, the eyes of a child par excellence.
Mary’s sinlessness and spotless virginity have not only made her supremely childlike; they have likewise made her unutterably beautiful, a paragon of beauty, beauty personified, second in this only to her Divine Son.
Is this not why so many artists have chosen to make her their subject matter on canvas and in stone countless times over the centuries? In the Divine Office for the Immaculate Conception, she is saluted with the antiphon Tota pulchra es, “You are all beautiful, O Mary, and there is no stain of original sin in you.”
Just as our Lord is believed to have been perfect to the utmost as a paragon of manhood even in His physical qualities, undoubtedly the Blessed Virgin must have been the most beautiful of all women. Yet such outward beauty was but a symbol of that greater beauty from within, as Richard of Saint-Laurent (+c. 1250) observes:
“Of the spiritual beauty of Mary, which consists in the virtues of the soul, the Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mother says in His Canticles [4:1], ‘…you are beautiful, my love,’ made inviolate in the womb from original sin. Also ‘all beautiful,’ wholly [inviolate] from being subjected to the fire of actual, mortal [sin]. ‘And there is no stain in you’ of venial sin. And therefore ‘you are all beautiful’ in deeds, ‘all beautiful’ in body. ‘And there is no stain in you’ in heart. ‘All beautiful’ in deeds, by her simplicity, Matthew [6:22]: ‘. . . if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light….’ ‘All beautiful’ in body by her virginal chastity, Wisdom 4: ‘O how beautiful is the chaste generation with glory: for the memory thereof is immortal…’ (Wisdom 4:1 — Vulgate — Douai-Reims translation).
“ ‘All beautiful’ in heart by her humility, that is, being without blemish. For that reason it is said of Esther that she is a figure for the selfsame Mary. Esther ‘was exceeding fair, and her incredible beauty made her appear agreeable and amiable in the eyes of all’ (Esther 2:15 — Vulgate — Douai-Reims translation).
“ ‘Exceeding fair’ by her charity, which is the pattern of the virtues. ‘Incredible beauty’ by her uncommon chastity . . . or ‘incredible beauty’ in the plenitude of all the virtues in the highest degree” (De Laudibus Beatae Mariae Virginis, Douai, France, Jean Bogard, 1625, book 5, column 328).
For centuries the Spanish city of Seville has prided itself on its longstanding devotion to the mystery of our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. Images of the Blessed Virgin abound in this city, and among these can be found a quite unique portrait entitled The Virgin of the Navigators, an altar panel work by Alejo Fernandez dating from the 1530s that celebrates the discovery of the New World. At our Lady’s feet is a sea full of ships and beneath her outstretched mantle are a host of people, from King Ferdinand II of Aragon and the evangelized natives of the Americas to three of the great explorers. Among these is Christopher Columbus (+1506).
In 1892 Pope Leo XIII penned an encyclical marking the fourth centenary of the discovery of the New World (Quarto Abeunte Saeculo, July 16, 1892) in which he unreservedly praises Columbus as a man motivated primarily by his deep and sincere Catholic faith and piety.
A perusal of the explorer’s writings confirms Pope Leo’s understanding of the man. Particularly conspicuous are Columbus’ manifestations of Marian piety. Thus it was his custom to inscribe his papers and books with the invocation, “May Jesus with Mary be with us on the way” (Ismael Bengoechea Izaguirre, OCD, “La Virgen Maria en le vida y la obra de Cristobal Colon,” Scripta de Maria, volume 3, 1980, pp. 435-440).
From Columbus’ journal of his first voyage to the New World (1492-1493) we learn that the Salve Regina was sung daily by the sailors just before nightfall (The Journal of Christopher Columbus and Documents relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real, translated by Clements Markham, London, Hakluyt Society, 1893, pp. 36 [October 11, 1492], 179 [February 16, 1493].
But particularly noteworthy is the entry for February 14, 1493, in which the explorer tells of how he and his crew sought heavenly intervention as they struggled to survive a fierce storm near the end of their return journey:
“The Admiral ordered that a pilgrimage should be made to Our Lady of Guadalupe [Spain], carrying a candle of 6 lbs. of weight in wax, and that all the crew should take an oath that the pilgrimage should be made by the man on whom the lot fell. As many beans were got as there were persons on board, and on one a cross was cut with a knife. They were then put into a cap and shaken up.
“The first who put in his hand was the Admiral, and he drew out the bean with a cross, so the lot fell on him; and he was bound to go on the pilgrimage and fulfill the vow. Another lot was drawn, to go on pilgrimage to Our Lady of Loreto, which is in the march of Ancona, in the Papal territory, a house where Our Lady works many and great miracles. The lot fell on a sailor of the port of Santa Maria, named Pedro de Villa, and the Admiral promised to pay his travelling expenses.
“Another pilgrimage was agreed upon, to watch for one night in Santa Clara [church] at Moguer, and have a Mass said. . . . The lot again fell on the Admiral. After this the Admiral and all the crew made a vow that, on arriving at the first land, they would all go in procession, in their shirts, to say their prayers in a church dedicated to Our Lady” (Journal, pp. 175-176).

Trust In God

In facing this storm, Columbus had to struggle against doubts that he and his crew would survive, contemplating likewise the prospect that if they perished the knowledge of everything he had discovered would be lost. But he told himself:
“As he had before put all his trust in God, who had heard him and granted all he sought, he ought now to believe that God would permit the completion of what had been begun, and ordain that he should be saved” (Journal, pp. 176-177).
In the end, Columbus and his crew escaped the storm — and the rest is history.
Our Lady has a knack for changing history. She did so by saying yes to the message of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. She did so by asking her Divine Son to perform a miracle at Cana when it was not yet His “hour” to do so.
And as was the case with Columbus, she has been changing history for centuries since. She can change the history of our lives for the better if only we will permit her. Imitating her by keeping our hearts pure and clean for the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity is a prime way to do just this. And in doing so, we will help her to drive away the darkness from our world.

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