A good number of us don’t particularly like surprises. For certain, it’s much easier to be on the giving end of a surprise than to be on the receiving end. We would much rather know what’s around the corner long before we catch a glimpse of the corner in the distance, long before we get within a mile of a glimpse of the corner. We want to be prepared for whatever possibilities may come, even when the possibilities are most improbable, even when the possibilities are quite simply impossible. Yet it is the nature of a surprise to catch us off guard, to take our breath away, to knock us off our feet. Our being surprised indicates we have glimpsed something undeniably real, something we may have already convinced ourselves can only exist outside the realm of possibility. But there it is, right before our eyes within reach in 3-D and Technicolor. We hold our breath for what might feel like an eternity. And when we eventually exhale, the universe is still in one piece, our hearts are still beating, and the forces of nature are still on the job – gravity, inertia, photosynthesis.
Surprises span the spectrum from birthday parties to supernatural visitations, from a winning lottery ticket to a less desirable speeding ticket, from getting caught in a snowstorm to getting caught in a snowstorm. The impact of a surprise can never be completely predicted. One person’s surprise can be another person’s daily reality. Surprises may momentarily raise the blood pressure, even cause the heart to skip a beat. They can understandably make us nervous and excitable. They might even rob us of inner peace, that is, until we make sense of the reality visited upon us. So we make provision for the unexpected. We purchase insurance – home, auto, medical, life. We keep emergency numbers within reach. We establish a network of friends and family to keep us sane and grounded. Even better, we attempt to control our environment so we don’t encounter anything unexpected. We keep our daily routine with only slight variations now and again. We accustom ourselves to patterns of behavior and even patterns of thought. We hang out with the same people, listen to the same music, watch the same TV programs, eat at the same restaurants and shop at the same stores. Better still, we attempt to create our own reality lest reality impose itself upon us without warning. We save up for college and retirement. We always have an extra ink cartridge for the printer, another house key strategically hidden under a rock in the yard, jumper cables and a spare tire. We make plans for vacation and shop for Christmas presents six months in advance. We plan the weekend by midweek, dinner before leaving the house in the morning, and responses to possible questions even before the conversation begins. Most of us like where we are in the world and would prefer to keep everything right where it is – predictable, orderly, with as little variation as possible, and definitely no surprises.
God on the other hand seems to love surprises. God would not be boxed in, not by anyone’s understanding of his nature and his ultimate universal plan, not by the images invoked by those who claim to know him well, not by the laws of the universe he had ordained from eternity. God is simply over and above predictability. To deny God this quality is to deny the very nature of God. Once we claim to have defined God with words or ideas or expectations, God has just escaped our grasp. Some of us are fortunate to catch a glimpse of God every time we attempt to understand the nature of God, to comprehend God’s plan of salvation, and to encounter God in person. But all our glimpses of God will never give us the whole picture. Even the best of minds will be unable to contain the immensity and incomparable majesty and glory that is God’s. It is like pouring all the contents of a gallon pitcher into a shot glass. There is only room for so much.
Today we are invited to contemplate a mystery which comes under the definition of a surprise – a human child untouched by evil, sin and death from the moment of conception, in the midst of a universe steeped in selfishness, greed and pride. No one ever born, no one yet to be born can escape the reach of the kingdom of darkness. No outpouring of love, hope and goodwill will be able to shield a child from the heritage of selfishness we inherit from our first parents. It is the birthright of every child in every generation to be subject to the power of darkness. Yet we believe God intervened so that this one child untouched by evil and sin may enter into the world, in anticipation of yet another child destined to conquer evil and sin, and destroy death forever. Is God capable of it? Ultimately, yes. Nothing is impossible with God. Would God have actually done it? The question arises from our perception of what God would consider most beneficial, not for himself but for those most dear to him – his only begotten Son, and through this Son all his other daughters and sons. It makes absolute sense that God would shield from even the slightest hint of imperfection and weakness the child who shares his very own nature. And what better way to make this happen than by providing for God’s own Son a mother who would also be beyond the reach of evil and sin? She of whom the divine offspring is to be born would have to be untouched by the sin of Adam and Eve. It seems more than proper, fitting and wonderful that God would bring this about. God would bestow glory upon his own Son, and in so doing bring honor to the woman chosen to be his Son’s mother. It is a wonderful surprise. It solidly affirms God’s goodness toward sinful humanity and his benevolent sovereignty over all creation. We cannot but be filled with wonder and awe. Because of sin, our relationship with God changed, but God’s relationship with us did not. “God chose us before the world began, to be holy and without blemish in his sight, to be full of love.”
But how does Mary’s immaculate conception benefit us? Because she was singled out for this highest honor, the woman who became the mother of God’s own Son gave her creator a share of her nature, the very nature we also share. Because of Mary, God’s Son is indeed a brother to all women and men. In honoring Mary, we honor God. She who was chosen to be his mother would be the most precious creature in all of God’s creation. And when we exalt her who is most precious to God, we also undeniably pay tribute to God. We believe the sinless Virgin Mary now enjoys a place of honor by her Son who sits in glory at the right hand of the Father. She is our advocate before the throne of God. When we who struggle with pride, selfishness and temptation call on her, she speaks directly to God’s heart on behalf of her other children. We all know the kind of power that a mother can wield. How wonderful that God’s own mother looks upon us with kindness? It is all God’s doing.