“Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”—1 Sm. 16: 7
It’s hard to hope when your heart is laden with burdens too numerous to count. This time of year, every secular image is intended to evoke sentiments of nostalgia and merriment, warmth and fond memories. For many of us, the reality of how life has worn us thinly eclipses any thought or feeling of hope.
To celebrate such a high feast this time of year—the Immaculate Conception—is intentional, of course, by the Church. While we lose sight of ourselves and of who God is, there is a spark of the heart, uplifted by the knowledge that Mary was the only person conceived without sin. Untarnished by the ways we are downtrodden because of social and personal sin, Mary is this strange source of refreshment for us.
She is a mother to us, even and especially during these troubling times.
I think of what St. John Paul II wrote of the Immaculate Conception:
Mary’s heart was fully disposed to the fulfillment of the divine will. This is why the Blessed Virgin is the model of Christian expectation and hope… In her heart, there is no shade of selfishness: she desires nothing for herself except God’s glory and human salvation. For her, the very privilege of being preserved from original sin is not a reason to boast, but one for total service to her Son’s redemptive mission.
The virtue here is humility. As we meditate on the Immaculate Conception, thank God for creating a perfect woman to house His Son, and thank Mary for her continual yes to God, we can ask ourselves, is my heart fully disposed to the fulfillment of God’s will in my life?
Hope is a frail thing right now, perhaps for most of us. But it can be ignited in the most unexpected ways. Once, in Confession, a priest declared to me over and over with uncharacteristic zeal, “Ask the Holy Spirit to stir the flame in your heart.”
Stir the flame.
There is immense power in the humility to acquiesce to whatever God asks of us, as Mary did. To loosen the grip of control, to accept and even enter into the paradoxes surrounding us, including the ones that frustrate our own plans. To challenge the world by living a quiet example, modeled after the Blessed Mother, of exemplary virtue in whatever small and simple ways we are able.
The most profound impact we will make in our lives is the one we never know about, or at least the one that confounds us because we are clouded by an inability to determine our own value without God’s goodness and grace.
What is hope without expectation, anticipation, earnest vigilance, waiting with joy? We watch with Mary in her patient pregnancy, as we, too, are Christ-bearers. St. John Paul II additionally wrote of the Immaculate Conception that “she who knew better than anyone how to wait attentively for the Lord guides us and shows us how to make more vital and active our journey to the Holy Night of Bethlehem. With her, we spend these weeks in prayer and, guided by her bright star, hasten to make the spiritual journey that will lead us to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation with greater intensity.”
This earthly pilgrimage we lead is tried and tested every day. Our minds weaken, our bodies become infirm, and we easily slip from the strength of a faith that once rested upon ease and comfort. Mary’s life was not one of ease and comfort, but of immense fortitude. Walking with her, this Advent, waiting with her for the birth of Jesus, somehow increases our awareness of all that is good and beautiful and true.
We are surrounded by scraps of hope everywhere. It only takes a sigh heavenward for the Holy Spirit to reignite the cool embers in our hearts, that they are burning with a greater love for Jesus through Mary. Let us ask Mary to walk with us, and we with her, this Advent, that the Holy Spirit might stir the flame in us and awaken fresh hope in all that remains to unfold in our lifetime.
image: Column of the Immaculate Conception, Piazza di Spagna (Rome) / Shutterstock