Father Stefano Cecchin Reflects on Our Lady's Sinless Conception
By Antonio Gaspari
ROME, 6 DEC. 2011 (ZENIT)
This Thursday around the world Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Why do Catholics venerate her so much? And why is her conception so important?
ZENIT asked these and other questions to Father Stefano Cecchin, of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, secretary of the Pontifical International Marian Academy.
ZENIT: Why is Mary's virginity so important?
Father Cecchin: Mary's virginity is an essential part of Christian faith in as much as it is the guarantee that Jesus is the "Son of God" who became man in the womb of a woman. Joseph, "Mary's husband" (Matthew 1:20) is not Jesus' real father. Because Mary, Matthew's Gospel continues, conceived Jesus without having any relations with her husband (Matthew 1:25). What was generated in her is the "work of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:20), for this reason Christ is man, in as much as he was born of a woman in regard to his humanity, but at the same time he is God in as much as this procreation came about by the action of the Trinity in Mary. Mary is a real mother, hence Jesus is a real man; Mary is a virgin, hence Jesus is the Son of God: this is a synthesis of the Christian faith.
ZENIT: Who was Mary?
Father Cecchin: Mary was a virgin, "promised bride" of a man of the house of David called Joseph (Luke 1:26). The Gospels don't give us too many other details. We know only that she was a relative of Elizabeth, believed to be a descendant of Aaron and hence of a priestly family (Luke 1:5). We see her to be an intelligent woman, who before giving her assent to the Angel wished to understand what God was asking of her. Always attentive to the Word, she kept it and reflected on it in her heart. A solicitous mother, she ensured that the child be wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in the manger. Anguished, she searched for him for three days until she arrived at the Temple where she found him among the doctors: we hear the last words of Mary and the first of Jesus in Luke's Gospel. At Cana, she is concerned that the spouses had no wine and fearless she turned to Jesus convinced that he could resolve the problem. So she invited the servants to do "whatever he tells you." We find her beside the Crucified who entrusted the Church to her, in which we find her, after the Lord's Ascension, together with his disciples. This is the Mary we know from the Gospels: the woman always ready to hear the Word and to put it into practice — the most beautiful example of a true follower of Jesus.
ZENIT: Why was she called Mary?
Father Cecchin: Mary is a very ancient name that is found in the different languages of the Middle East. It seems to derive from the Egyptian Myrhiam which means "princess." Other interpretations translate it as "Highness" (we have been visited by a sun that arises from on high, that is, from Mary), or "Mare amamor" or to be bitter, because of the sufferings she would endure with the Passion of her Son. Some Fathers of the Church interpret her as "Star of the sea." The Bible mentions Myriam, Moses' sister. In any case, the Gospels do not give us any explanation of the reason behind her name.
ZENIT: Why was she chosen by God to bring Jesus into the world?
Father Cecchin: The Virgin herself answered this question: "Because He has looked upon the humility of his handmaid" (Luke1:48).
ZENIT: What are her virtues?
Father Cecchin: Blessed Pope John Paul II reminded us that: Mary "shines forth to the whole community of the elect as a model of the virtues" (Redemptoris Mater, 6). This is so because the Church looks to her as the perfectly fulfilled creature, in as much as "no one has responded with a love greater than hers to the immense love of God" (Pastores dabo vobis, 36). Her virtues are in consonance with her conception of Jesus, to her task to make that child grow in "holiness and grace," to her journey of faith that developed in following Christ, up to the moment of the cross and the joy of the Resurrection. Mary is a woman rich in virtues because she is fully "woman," that is, she is the one who has fully lived a human life.
ZENIT: Why do Catholics pray so much to Mary?
Father Cecchin: Because they are the disciples of Jesus who from the cross indicated that they should have Mary as "Mother."
ZENIT: How can we explain the feast of the Immaculate Conception to today's world?
Father Cecchin: Certainly, this truth of faith is not easy to understand! It is, however, the symbol of the exceeding love of God who desires "friendship" with man. After sin, in fact, God promised to put enmity between the woman and evil [represented by the serpent], between their descendants. With the coming of Christ, this promise was realized. The Mother of the Messiah could never have been a friend of the serpent. And it is precisely because of her mission as Mother of the Savior, that God granted her an anticipated grace in view of the whole work of Christ the Savior and Redeemer which, thanks to Mary's yes, was about to be realized.
Hence, Mary enjoyed our same redemption but for her it happened in a different way to show how Christ is truly the most perfect Redeemer, whose redemption operates before and after the event itself of the cross.
Today there is talk of the prevention of illnesses. Look, Jesus is the most perfect doctor who not only can heal the sins of the world but also prevent them: and He does this with his Mother — hence the celebration of this dogma, which, as all Marian dogmas, exalts Christ primarily. It is useful to be able to understand better the real character of the work of our redemption: the universality and power of Christ's mediation.
[Translation by ZENIT]