More Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflections


The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Sr. Christine Koellhoffer, IHM
Our Lady of Grace, Manhasset, NY
December 08, 2009

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Happy feast!  We’re so grateful to our Sisters here at Our Lady of Grace Center for inviting us to come together to celebrate this feast of the Immaculate Conception.

This feastday calls us to reflect on what Mary has to say to us as women and men of faith, and as Sisters of IHM.  And it’s an invitation to reflect on what our image of Mary is, and how we relate to her.

I suspect that for most of us, our images of Mary have evolved and become richer and more complex over time and with life experience.  So I’ve been reflecting on and revisiting a few of my early images of Mary:

2nd grade: I won a spelling bee.  My prize: a porcelain statue of Mary standing in utter tranquility with her hands folded and wearing a robe of blue and white with gold trim.  She was beautiful!  Now, it never occurred to my seven-year-old mind that an outfit like that wouldn’t have been something that a poor village woman like Mary could afford, and it also wouldn’t have been very practical in the dust of the Holy Land.  It also never occurred to me that she didn’t stand around all day with her hands folded, looking beautiful.  But that porcelain statue was pretty much my early image of Mary.

4th grade: A missionary from Japan gave us a holy card with a Japanese Madonna and child.  That blew apart my worldview, because it was the first time I saw God and Mary as “other”--that the Son of God and the mother of God could be from some place other than suburban New Jersey, could be from a culture and race other than my own, could be so much larger than my little world.  And that was the beginning of a major shift in my image of Mary.

High school:  I went on a field trip where we viewed images of Mary in art. I saw Mary wearing the features and dress of women from all over the world:

Mary, a teacher in her village;
Mary, a woman of the minority class;
Mary, mother of the disappeared;
Mary, a refugee;
Mary, a tribal leader;
And on and on and on.

This sounds something like “The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary” Elizabeth Johnson refers to when she asks,

“How do we, as a multicultural church, interpret and honor Mary today?”

Her answer:

“…we invite Mary down from the pedestal where she’s been honored in the past to rejoin us on the ground of the community of grace in history.” (“Mary of Nazareth”, America magazine, June 17, 2000)
Maybe I’ve been shaped by too many game shows, but when I read that we need to invite Mary down from the pedestal, all I could think of was giving a shout-out to Mary, “Come on down!”

Clearly, there was no pedestal in the life that Mary lived every day.

She was a poor Jewish woman of faith.
She was a partner of God, and she revealed God’s love as constant and compassionate.
Her vocation--to partner the divine in bringing about the reign of mercy and justice—is also our vocation.

As we celebrate this feast of the Immaculate Conception, we’ve just heard proclaimed the annunciation story in the gospel of Luke.  Joan Chittister suggests that we should probably find a word other than “annunciation” to describe this moment:

“Somehow or other”, she says, “‘annunciation’ just doesn’t say it.  Cataclysm, perhaps; prophecy, maybe.  But annunciation, never.  This, after all, was no routine summons.  This was an earth-shattering, life-changing, revolutionary call.  This was what happens when life is completely turned around, when the house burns down or the job disappears or the stock market crashes.”  

This was not life lived up on a pedestal.

Women theologians from the Third World remind us of this.  They’ve shown us the similarities between Mary’s life and the lives of so many poor women even today.  They’ve invited Mary down from the pedestal and held up an image of this woman, Mary, who sounds very much like someone we might hear about in the news today.  They note that Mary is a woman who:

  • Gave birth in a homeless situation
  • Fled as a refugee with her baby to a strange land 
  • Was on the move so that her family could escape being killed by military action
  • Lost a child to unjust execution by the state

Elizabeth Johnson notes:

“It does Mary no honor to rip her out of her conflictual, dangerous, historical circumstances and to transmute her into an icon of peaceful, middle class life robed in royal blue.”   (“Mary of Nazareth”, America magazine, June 17, 2000)

In other words, good-bye to my second grade image of that porcelain statue!

Today’s Gospel and this feast lift up Mary as someone who walked by faith, not by sight.

She asked questions.
She pondered things in her heart.
She furthered the work of the reign of God: to heal, redeem and liberate.

So today, as we celebrate our IHM feast, what are we being called to?

We’re called to relate to Mary as a partner in hope in the company of all the graced women—Sisters of IHM and so many others--and men, who have gone before us.

We’re called to be inspired by the way she mothered God so that we can also bring God to birth in our own world, in this time and place.

Over 50 years ago, Caryll Houselander created an enduring image of Mary in The Reed of God.  Over 50 years later, this image of Mary still translates as fresh and vibrant, and on this feast, we pray it as a blessing and a prayer for us and for our world:

“The circle of a girl’s arms
Has changed the world,
The round, sorrowful world,
To a cradle for God.

O Mother of God,
Be hands that are rocking the world
To a kind rhythm of love:
That the incoherence of war
And the chaos of unrest
Be soothed to a lullaby,
And the round, sorrowful world, 
In your hands,
The cradle of God.”