Yesterday, the Church celebrated the great solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It is interesting that the Universal Holy Days of Obligation associated with Mary all have to do with dogmatic principles. The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, celebrated on January 1st, treats the matter that was decided in the 4th century, when Mary was declared the Theotokos, the Mother of God. August 15th marks the final dogmatic Marian declaration, issued by Pope Pius XII, that of her Assumption, body and soul, into heaven.
December 8th, the Immaculate Conception, goes back to the dogmatic declaration issued by another Pius, Pope Pius IX, who, in 1854, solemnly defined that
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.Now, in order for us to understand the significance of this Solemnity, of this dogma, we need to also understand the reality of sin.
The readings the Church presents us in the liturgy for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception illustrate this point rather well. In the first reading, taken from the Book of Genesis, we encounter Eve alone in the garden. Adam, who was charged by God with protecting the garden, is absent. The serpent takes advantage of the absence of Adam and tempts Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. When Adam returns, Eve hands him the fruit and he, in turn, eats it. Suddenly, their eyes are open and they realize both their physical and spiritual nakedness before God. Thus, they go into hiding. When God seeks them, they reluctantly stand before him, ashamed of their nakedness. God then tells them that they have eaten of the forbidden fruit. A blame game follows. Adam blames Eve and then Eve blames the serpent.
What we tend to forget here is that in the beginning, God created man in His image and in His likeness. He created man sinless. Adam and Eve did not know sin. However, the serpent's temptation of pride, dangling in the form of forbidden fruit, seduced them. Thus, they fell into sin.
Yet, it is the sin, this "felix culpa" that the Church later on refers to in her Exultet (chanted at the beginning of the Easter Vigil) is what sets the wheels in motion for the coming of Christ, the new Adam. It is the promise of God that the seed of the woman will be the one to crush the head of the serpent. That Seed of the woman is Christ.
Now, in the Gospel reading, we fast-forward several hundred years later to a town in Galillee called Nazareth, where a virgin named Mary is visited by the archangel Gabriel. Interestingly enough, he does not address her in the beginning as Mary. He addresses her by which she truly is, "full of grace." In order for someone to be "full of grace", the rest of her soul must be completely empty. Mary is full of grace because she is freed from sin. As Pope Pius IX defined, because she was to be the Mother of God, Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin. God needed a pure, spotless vessel in order for His Son to enter the world. Thus, He created a new Eve, who would truly become the mother of all the living. Just as Eve emerged from the body of Adam, the new Adam would emerge from the body of Eve, for Jesus' conception was a truly divine act, accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, as the archangel told Mary.
Being full of grace, Mary accepted unreservedly all that God offered her. "I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me as you have said," Mary responded. With this act of obedience, Mary begins to undo the knot of disobedience that Eve had tied so tightly around humanity. Like Eve, Mary had a free will. She could have said no. But, because she was full of grace and full of love for God, she readily accepted and believed, enduring even the painful Passion, Crucifixion and Death of her Son.
In the end, in that garden called Calvary, the scene begun at the Garden of Eden reaches its fulfillment. While death was brought about due to to disobedience of a man and woman in the midst of a tree, salvation is brought forth through the obedience of the new Man and the new Woman, in the midst of a Tree.