For many centuries December 8 in the Calendar of the Church has been observed as the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary; in the Roman Catholic Church since 1854 it has been the Immaculate Conception. My intention in writing this is not to enter into the age-old debate about whether or not the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin; rather, to reflect on the significance of this commemoration, in the story of salvation and in our story too.
The fundamental point here is that by grace God is preparing Mary from the first moment of her conception for the role in salvation he hoped she would fulfil, the bearing of God’s Son into the world. There are parallels with other biblical characters. God says to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” [Jeremiah 1.4] Paul writes, “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” [Galatians 1.15]
We see God then preparing Jeremiah, Paul and Mary for their roles, their relationship with God. What then about us? May we see God at work by grace in our lives, even from our very beginnings? Psalm 139 helps us here: even before we are born, there is a place, a unique place, for each of us in the mind of God. This is not to say that there is a predetermined blueprint for each of our lives, that we are programmed to make a particular response at a particular time. That is to deny the free-will which is ours, as made in God’s image. It does mean that we are never beyond the scope of God’s love and God’s understanding. We may make the wrong choice at a particular time, we all do when we sin, but God does not desert us. There is the opportunity to repent, to change, to make the right choice another time. Whenever we make a wrong choice, God is always ahead of us and will provide another opportunity in the new circumstances to choose again.
This Advent find some time to read prayerfully Psalm 139. It may then be helpful to draw a life-line – to look back over your whole life, or perhaps the last few years. Draw a line on a piece of paper and mark on it significant events, things and people which have had an important influence on the direction of life; times when you have made the wrong decision, times when you have chosen wisely. Discover the part God has had to play in all this and mark that down too. Don’t be worried – do this with confidence: God knows already, God made you and loves you as you are. Above all, as the Psalmist does, give thanks: thanks for the gift of life, for forgiveness and acceptance, for blessings and all gifts of love offered and received.