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The readings for today’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception take us on a journey. We begin with the Genesis account of the Fall in which women are cast in a very negative light. We move into the growing awareness in the Ephesians text that we are chosen and called. And then we are invited to enter into the deeply liberating and affirming account of Mary our sister’s total responsiveness to God’s grace in the Annunciation story.
In my country South Africa, people deeply understand the power of names and the importance of naming. If you ask an African person the meaning of their name it will always have significance and they will usually be delighted to share its meaning. Names are chosen with great care because it is believed that the person comes to embody the essence of their name and to name someone is a significant act of agency. In today’s first reading from Genesis, Adam names the woman Eve, but we notice that she is not given the power to name him. However, in today’s Gospel, Mary is empowered to name her own son - something that would not have been usual for a woman in the customs of the day. The power of naming that some feminist theologians have said was stolen from women is reclaimed.
From the first reading to the Gospel we also see another significant shift. The story of Eve eating the forbidden fruit connects women, sin and temptation in the narrative; an idea which sadly lingers, in Christianity. But in the Gospel, we see a woman graced from the moment of conception. Her courage and generous response to grace allows God to bring about the redemption of all of humankind in Christ.
As we celebrate this Feast of the Immaculate Conception we know that Mary was especially graced for her part in our salvation history. Pope Francis reminds us that she was preserved in advance from the fracture in communion with God, with others and with Creation. There is a danger though in thinking of Mary as remote from us - on some kind of distant pedestal of purity. We can forget that as it says in the letter to the Ephesians that we are also made and chosen in Christ to be holy and spotless. We like Mary are called to co-operate with God’s desire to bring life to the world through us. And that we are freed from that fracture in communion through our Baptism.
As a young uneducated woman - and one without status or influence in her society - Mary calls forth in us courage for our own “annunciation moments.” Those awe-inspiring moments when we sense God inviting us to something beyond anything we could have imagined. When we are being invited to deeply trust our own sense of what God is saying to us even when those around us do not yet understand.
I wonder what Mary felt and thought in the moments between the invitation and her yes. Was she tempted to say no? To feel she wasn’t worthy? To want to rewind to before this moment when life was simple. Perhaps to say ‘yes, but not yet’ - I’m not ready for this. While she was preserved from the original fracture and its consequences she was not immune from human doubts and fears.
How do we grapple in our own annunciation moments when our former understanding of our future is shattered and a new one is held out in invitation? We are at a time in our history and in our church when more and more as women we are being called to find our voices and speak from our experience of hearing God. To step in courageously as we hear God’s particular call to me trusting that the God we know is faithful.
Denise Levertov in her poem on the Annunciation writes that at times annunciation moments may be “turned away from in dread, in weakness, in despair and with relief. God does not smite them. Ordinary lives continue. But the gates close the pathway vanishes.” How tragic that seems. To refuse out of fear to allow all that God had longed to do in and through us.
On this Feast of the Immaculate conception can we ask Mary our sister to inspire us to consent to grace - even terrifying grace. To trust that like her when we say our “yes” the unimaginable can happen because nothing is impossible to God.
Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell is a South African Catholic laywoman who has been working in the area of Ignatian Spirituality for the past twenty years. She heads up the Spirituality work of the Jesuit Institute South Africa which is based in Johannesburg. She has a Masters degree in Educational Psychology from the University of the Witwatersrand and Master of Arts Degree in Christian Spirituality from Heythrop College, University of London. She has a doctorate in the interface between psychology and spirituality from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Her doctoral thesis was on shifts in image of God and self in women making the Spiritual Exercises. Her primary work in the Jesuit Institute involves the training and supervision of spiritual directors and the giving of retreats including the Spiritual Exercises.
She is a regular guest director at the St. Beuno’s Retreat Centre in North Wales and is an editorial correspondent for The Way Journal of Spirituality. Annemarie has contributed to several books, most recently co-authoring a book of Lenten Reflections: Long Journey to the Resurrection with Fr Nick King SJ. She has authored a number of articles relating to the training of Spiritual Directors in the South African context. Annemarie has contributed to international conferences and consultations in the area of Christian Spirituality in the United Kingdom, the United States; Rome, Spain, Ethiopia; Kenya and Zimbabwe. She is a contributor to the website Spotlight Africa, an online news platform which covers issues of relevance to the Catholic Church in Africa. She also does some work privately as a psychologist and life coach. She is God-mother to six children.
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