Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary – Solemn Vespers
Chapel of the Immaculate Conception – Mundelein Seminary | 7 December 2017
From 1963, when my mom was 5,
until 2007, when I was 15,
my Mom’s entire family – parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, everyone –
vacationed together at Pennellwood Resort in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Before it closed in 2007, Pennellwood was one of the last “American Plan” resorts
left in the United States.
American Plan resorts sat on large plots of land with cabins scattered around a central dining hall. Every family would have their cabin or cluster of cabins, and the entire resort, usually around 300 guests, would eat together 3 times a day.
Many of my earliest and best childhood memories come out of those 15 summers at Pennellwood.
One night there, when I was probably 5 or 6, there was a massive storm. I’m surprised I wasn’t already awake, since at that time nothing terrified me more than thunderstorms. Nonetheless, I was sound asleep when my mom came into my room to wake me up.
“There’s a really big storm outside,” she said.
“Do we need to hide?” I asked
“No, everything’s okay.”
What adult Ryan would have said after being woken up for no reason cannot be repeated in this sacred space, but surely little Ryguy just stared dumbfounded at his mother.
After a short time, my mom, rubbing her fingers through the hair I used to have, said,
“I just want you to know that I’m here.”
“I just want you to know that I’m here.”
That phrase has been the theme of her motherhood ever since.
When I tripped in a prairie dog hole and rolled down a hill on vacation in Colorado Springs when I was 8, she scooped me up and said, “I’m here.”
When she heard in advance I didn’t win Student Council President at Fox Chase Elementary in 2002, she was waiting at our front door when I came home. She held me as I balled my eyes out, saying “I’m here, I’m here.”
At Mother’s Day dinner in 2005 when my parents told my brother and me that they were getting a divorce and my dad would be moving out, I ran to my room and slammed the door; a minute later, my mom came in and knelt by my bed and whispered, “I don’t know if you want to talk, but when you do, I just want you to know that I’m here.”
We have heard in recent weeks
that there’s no such thing as a “ministry of presence”.
And whether this is really true
or is just another battle in the seminary’s war of words,
doesn’t really matter much in light of the truth
that there can be no ministry without being present.
And of course we know that only way we are able to be present to others in a spiritual, ministerial way is because we ourselves have been affected by the presence of another,
and, ultimately, because we are living in such a way that we allow ourselves, all the time, to be available to, and changed by, the Presence, the one who is the protagonist of history: God, perfectly revealed to us in the person of Jesus.
We know the scriptures.
We know that Israel was crazy.
We know that the people to whom the prophets spoke
struggled with praying like Jews and living like Pagans.
We know that the ping-pong match between covenant and fall, covenant and fall,
is not the way things were supposed to be.
We know that it was God
who, one day long ago, in total freedom
broke his own silence and spoke into the formless void
making himself present.
We can see that the first sin of Eve,
the mother of all the living,
was largely the result of Eve’s self-imposed distance from God,
a desire to be far from him in hope she might become more than him,
And that it was God who came looking for them in the garden,
and proving his presence once again.
We know that after every sin,
every broken promise,
every idol crafted,
every turn away,
God revealed his presence by speaking to his people:
You are my people. I am your God.
He was present, too,
in an angel named Gabriel,
who “was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.”
And, lucky for all of us,
Mary was there.
She didn’t run, she didn’t hide,
but she allowed herself to be fully present to the movement of God,
wondering “what sort of greeting this might be.”
In her nervousness, the angel comforts her
by reminding her of the presence of God:
“Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you”
“Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God”
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
This one whom you have come to know,
the one whom you love, and worship, and trust,
he is with you; and nothing is impossible for him.
In other words,
“Mary, I just want you to know that I’m here.”
Prepared from forever for this moment,
kept free from the stain of sin from the moment of her conception,
she says the words that all creation had groaned to hear,
“Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord,
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Behold, I am the handmaiden of God,
Behold, he is present to me and has chosen me,
and I, in my freedom, have chosen him.
I believe in him, and I trust him.
And just like that,
the power of the Most High indeed overshadows her,
and by her word, THE WORD becomes present to her,
and, through her, present to us.
All through Jesus’ hidden life in Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth,
at Cana and throughout his public ministry,
at the cross, at the tomb, and in the upper room,
Mary remains nearly silent,
and what she does say boils down to one basic sentence,
“I just want you to know that I’m here.”
Last year on Pilgrimage, when we arrived in Nazareth,
we spent the first night on the rooftop patio at the convent
when a candlelight procession began outside the basilica.
We could not see the procession,
but for almost an hour this mostly-Muslim town was filled
with the soft singing of pilgrims from every part of the globe,
gathering in this town once regarded as a place of little import,
to magnify the Lord and to rejoice in God the Savior
who became flesh in this place.
Who would have guessed that some 2000 years from the night (or day?)
when the angel appeared to Mary
that there would still be people who gather to sing “Ave Maria” –
that, really, all generations have called her blessed,
and recognize the One who is mighty and has done great things for us
and that, above all, his name remains holy and strong and trustworthy and true.
This is our time to call her blessed.
This is our time to imitate her faith, her trust,
and her desire to be fully present and engaged with the will of God.
This is our time to bring to the whole world
the truth and life of this man, her Son, named Jesus
who was conceived in that place;
born in Bethlehem; lived and ministered in Galilee and Judea;
who was crucified, died, and rose in Jerusalem;
ascended to the Father and now reigns on high.
He is the one whose name is blessed.
He is the one who has come to save,
who has conquered death and forgiven sin
and who brings us, even now, into a share in his own divine life.
Cardinal Mundelein and Joseph McCarthy knew what they were doing
when they designed this chapel.
Dedicated, of course, to the Immaculate Conception,
there’s no statue, no shrine, to her anywhere in here.
Yeah, alright, she’s in the painting,
but who wants to pray in front a painting?
The Cardinal knew this chapel didn’t need a statue,
because what it is represented here by the Litany of Loreto along the walls
speaks far more about Mary than a statue ever could.
All around us, she’s here.
She’s our mother.
She can crush the serpent’s head,
she tell the devil to go to hell,
she can whisper those sweet words of love that only moms can,
she can wake us up and save us from storms,
but her most powerful work is constant, and silent:
she’s here. She’s here.
And that’s enough.
When I’m tempted to give up in times of darkness,
I’m reminded: My mom is the Stella Matutina: the Morning Star.
When I’m feeling a little lusty,
My mother is the Mater Inviolata: the Inviolate One.
When I need courage,
My mother is the Turris Davidica: the Tower of David.
In a time of difficult discernment,
My mom is the Sedes Sapientiae, the Seat of Wisdom.
And all of this by the power of God.
All of this because of the God became present,
who made himself known in freedom.
The One who sent us his Son, Jesus
who became the savior of the nations,
all because one day,
a virgin in Nazareth was listening,
was present to God,
and said yes.
Daughter, virgin, tower, seat, vessel, house, queen,
Pray for us.