This weekend, the Church gives us a double whammy. We have both the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the Second Sunday of Advent. Some holy days of obligation are dispensed or moved when they fall so close to Sunday, but the Immaculate Conception is an exception.
As the Immaculate Conception marks the beginning of our salvation, as Mary is conceived without sin in preparation for her vocation as the Mother of God, and as the patronal feast of the United States, the solemnity is always binding. And so, as much as it might surprise our non-Catholic friends or provoke those of weaker faith, the observant Catholic is obliged to participate in Mass on both the Immaculate Conception and Sunday.
With this double whammy, which is admittedly a regular occurrence every few years in the sequence of the calendar, we should nevertheless ask: Does the Immaculate Conception and the Second Sunday of Advent have any shared themes? Is there some unitive message that we can discern from both holy days that can help us in our journey of faith?
Last week, as we started the Advent season, we moved from Mark’s Gospel to Luke’s Gospel for our Sunday proclamation from the Bible. Last week, we heard some of Luke’s version of Jesus’ prophecies of the end times. Such readings are common at the beginning of Advent. They’re reminders to us that the Lord will return again and that we are to have a “joyful hope” as we await his return. This week, however, the Gospel reading shifts from the end times to the emergence of Saint John the Baptist in the historical coming of Jesus Christ.
As last week’s Gospel reading was to prepare us for the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus, this week’s reading leads us to share in the historical preparation for the coming of Jesus in the womb of Mary, and eventually his birth in Bethlehem. And so, we see the figure of Saint John the Baptist and we hear his call to us: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Of all the people of Saint John’s age, and of all the people throughout human history, no one has made the paths of the Lord more straight than Mary of Nazareth.
And here is our connection, namely, the Immaculate Conception of Mary and Mary’s preeminent role in the immediate anticipation of the Lord’s birth. The one who was prepared now becomes the one to prepare. Mary was preserved from all stain of sin from the moment of her conception so that she – the personification of the hunger of the Hebrew heart for redemption – could be the one to see the signs of the times, offer her own obedience to God through the Archangel Gabriel, allow her own person to become the Ark of the New Covenant, and declare on behalf of Israel: “My soul proclaims the greatest of the Lord… his mercy is from age to age… he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”
Mary’s Immaculate Conception made her a fitting instrument of grace and witness to the ways of God. She carried and brought forth the eternal Son of God as our savior. In this way, and through her constant faith in God, she would be the archetype of the Baptist’s cry to make straight the paths of the Lord. And this shows the intimate connection between the Immaculate Conception and the Second Sunday of Advent.
Of course, Mary’s vocation in the plan of salvation did not end with her earthly life. As she announced and prepared the way of the Lord on earth, so she continues this role into eternity. Mary is aptly described, therefore, as Our Lady of the New Advent. As she literally embodied the work of the first Advent of the Lord, carrying Christ in her immaculate womb, so she embodies the Church’s solemn waiting for the Lord’s Second Advent as she awaits the realization of his everlasting kingdom. In this witness, Mary offers us a perpetual encouragement and a message of hope in our anticipation that the words of God would be fulfilled.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Saved by Hope, described this role of Mary. He wrote, addressing Our Lady: “Thus you remain in the midst of the disciples as their Mother, as the Mother of hope. Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to his Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!”
Therefore, as we celebrate these two liturgical events, the Immaculate Conception and the Second Sunday of Advent, we are invited to see their interior complementarity and be inspired and helped by our Mother, by Mary, Our Lady of the New Advent.