As I was going through some paper I accumulated during my New York visit, I came across a parish bulletin from St. Francis Xavier, where I attended Mass and spoke about my book on the Sunday I was in New York.
The bulletin entry concerned the Feast of the Immaculate Conception that had taken place the day before. It observed that although the literal sense of the feast is the idea that Mary was born free from original sin, the broader understanding of the Feast “expresses the experience of the faithful that what we know about Mary indicates she lived a life in which she knew she was freely and completely loved by God.” The Feast is thus an illustration that “within human nature God takes the initiative to surround the life of all human beings with love and fidelity.” Thus, it suggested, although we think about the doctrine of Immaculate Conception in terms of absence of sin, it is more importantly about the presence of grace.
The explanation resonated with me for two reasons. First, I have always thought that it makes an enormous difference whether we view our starting point as sin or grace. The reality is that our starting point is grace – we enter the world through the love of God and are gifted with God’s grace in each moment of our existence. Grace comes first, then sin. I think that is something we sometimes forget.
Second, while Mary is an important figure for Catholics and many other Christians for a number of reasons, the explanation makes the Feast about more than Mary. What makes Mary special is that she so fully lived in the grace of God. But that grace is something that is available to all of us and we are each invited to live as Mary did – as people (to paraphrase the bulletin) who freely live and move and make life decisions within that graced horizon. In this, as in so many things, Mary is a model for our lives.