Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
DECEMBER 8, 2016 (SOLEMN PROFESSION OF FRANCISCAN FRIARS MINOR)
The prophets spoke this invitation to joy because of God’s saving presence among His people and especially because of the coming of the messianic king. Well, all these invitations to joy reach their climax and their fulfillment when Gabriel appears to Mary. What is the first word that Gabriel says to Mary! In light of the prophets’ invitation to joy , it should not surprise us. Gabriel’s first word to Mary is an invitation to joy. He says to her: “Chaire!”, that is, “rejoice.” The Greek chaire is translated into Latin as “Ave,” and into English as “Hail.” I like the Spanish translation, “alegrate”; it’s closer to the Greek. The word is “rejoice.” Gabriel says to Mary “Chaire, kecharitomene!,” “Rejoice, full of grace!” Gabriel appeared to announce to Mary the fulfillment of messianic promise and announced to her the most high dignity of being called to be the Mother of the Messiah, the Lord. He could not but invite her to rejoice. It was the greatest good news ever communicated in human history. God was inviting the new daughter of Zion, the young virgin of Nazareth, to deep joy as He called her to be the mother of His Son. And on behalf of the people of Israel and of all humanity, Mary said “yes.” Mary accepted a wedding proposal, the proposal of divine love with her own spousal love. She welcomed in a quite special way the joy foretold by the prophecies, a joy which reaches its peak at the Annunciation. Pope Benedict XVI once said that the New Testament really begins with the dialogue of Gabriel and Mary. He said: “We can therefore say that the first word of the New Testament is an invitation to joy… The New Testament is truly “Gospel,” the “Good News” that brings us joy. God is not remote from us, unknown, enigmatic or perhaps dangerous. God is close to us, so close that he makes himself a child…”. This is the joy of the season of Advent.
Notice the name Gabriel uses when he invites Mary to rejoice. He calls her “full of grace,” in Greek “kecharitomene.” Mary is invited to rejoice primarily because God loves her and has filled her with grace in view of her divine motherhood. Saint John Paul II once said that “full of grace” is the name Mary possesses in the eyes of God. Today we celebrate the beautiful truth that Mary was filled with God’s grace from the moment of her conception. This is an extraordinary dogma of our faith, explained so wonderfully by the Franciscan theologian, Blessed Duns Scotus, who was so instrumental in the Church’s growth in understanding of this mystery. We celebrate our Blessed Mother today, as the woman filled with God’s grace, “entirely holy and free from all stain of sin, adorned from the first instant of her conception with the radiance of an entirely unique holiness” (LG 56). And in our second reading today, we are reminded that the sanctifying grace bestowed upon Mary at the first moment of her existence is bestowed in Christ on all believers.
Today, three of our friars, Brother Peter Marie, Brother Joseph Maria, and Brother Mark Maria, make their solemn profession of vows. They do so on this joyful feast of the Immaculate Conception. This is truly a day to rejoice. We rejoice that these three men have responded to God’s love and grace and, like Mary, open themselves to His will. The Immaculate Conception is a mystery of grace. The Incarnation of the Son of God is the greatest mystery of divine grace. The vocation to the consecrated life is also a mystery of grace and would have no meaning except for the truth that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, an event made possible by the assent of the young woman of Nazareth who said those incredible words: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
Brother Peter, Brother Joseph, and Brother Mark, I invite you to hear in your hearts today and every day the word of the prophets and of the angel Gabriel: “Chaire,” “rejoice.” I love the joy of our Franciscan Friars Minor and Poor Sisters of Saint Clare. It is not and cannot be a superficial joy. Mary responded to Gabriel’s invitation, but not with superficial joy. In fact, the Gospel tells us that initially she was greatly troubled by what the angel said and wondered what the greeting meant. That’s why the angel needed to say to her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” We need to hear those words sometimes. How often Pope John Paul II would say those words to us: “Do not be afraid.” We do experience fears and trials in our lives. We have crosses to bear. But these things should never extinguish our joy, the joy that comes from faith and trust in the Lord. It is the joy of Mary and the saints and martyrs. It is the joy of Saint Francis. It is the joy of the Gospel, the joy of following Jesus, and yes, the joy of living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. So I say to our three brothers today not only “chaire,” “rejoice,” but also “do not be afraid.” It’s your faith, a gift of God’s grace, that inspires you to take to make your perpetual vows and to overcome the fear of making this definitive lifetime commitment. So many young people today are finding it so difficult to make a definitive lifetime commitment, so evident in the decline in the number of marriages. They need and we need to hear the words of Gabriel to the young Mary when he announced to her her vocation: “Be not afraid.” And Mary responded with courage, her fiat was a daring and courageous act of faith. Brothers Peter, Joseph, and Mark, in the context of today’s culture, I think your fiat today, your perpetual profession of vows as Franciscan Friars Minor is a daring and courageous act of faith. But it is a “yes” that will need to be spoken every day. And Mary, to whom you make a fourth vow of consecration, will always be with you to help you to speak that “yes,” especially when trials or temptations come your way. They came her way, but she always said yes, persevered in faith and in her vocation, including at the greatest trial when she stood at the foot of the cross and said yes to our redemption at the price of the suffering and death of her Son. There the Mother of Christ received another calling, to be our Mother, the Mother of the Church. Life prevailed; salvation was won for us. The Resurrection was and is the victory, the victory of love. And so we come back to that invitation to rejoice. What was announced in the protoevangelium in the book of Genesis was fulfilled: The Son of Mary crushed the serpent, won the definitive victory over Satan.
I wish to conclude with some words from Pope Francis. He writes: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades…. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”
Today our brothers are making vows that are the antithesis of what the Holy Father is talking about. It’s a life not caught up in its own interests and concerns, where there is room for others because it is life in a community of brothers and a life where the first priority is the poor. It is a life where God’s voice is heard in prayer, both individual and communal. It is a life in the Spirit where the joy of the Gospel is not only experienced within the community, but also spread through the works of the apostolate, especially evangelization. So brothers, I say to each of you what Gabriel said to Mary: “Chaire!” Rejoice! Like Saint Francis, may you be joyful heralds of the Gospel, faithful disciples of our poor, obedient, and chaste Lord! And may our Immaculate Mother Mary intercede for you always!