Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

On this Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I want to talk to you about women, not just any women, certain specific women. Don’t worry, it’s not anything worth calling the bishop about. Some of you are already suspicious. What could I possibly know or say about women? I am well aware of the climate we live in, but this is a homily at mass, so the context is our Christian discipleship, living out our Christian faith, and the awesome role of the Immaculate Virgin Mary in the life of Jesus and all of God’s people. Whew! I know some of you were half-dreading, half-curious to witness first-hand the spectacle of me putting my foot in my mouth. Not today. Maybe you were hoping to take something of what I say to beat me with over the head on your way out of church. I am afraid I will probably disappoint you. Actually, I’m really going to talk about God. But you know me. I have to draw you in first.

I want to reflect on three relationships with the three most influential women in my life. I’m not saying there have been just three. I’m saying I want to reflect on these three. Some of you can’t even admit to three out loud because the one sitting next to you might not find that amusing. So these three women in my life have given me much insight into life and love and God, probably more than I have received from anyone else I have known. They have helped me gain knowledge, wisdom, and compassion not just toward other women, but more importantly, toward other people. And I am not only grateful because of their impact in my life, but also for all those others whose lives I have eventually been fortunate to touch and whose paths I have been blessed to cross.

The most influential woman in my life is the first to ever want me. If there have been others, I don’t know. But we’re not going there. This woman loved me even before I knew who she was, or for that matter, who I was. She took me to her heart, graciously welcoming me when I first showed up, wailing in discomfort and annoyance at having been rudely interrupted from my peaceful slumber. She took me in her embrace and softly whispered sweet nothings, assuring me that I was safe, comforting me, counting my fingers and toes. I was her fourth child, so she was not nearly as fearful or helpless. In the years that followed, she would nurture me and watch me grow up. She taught me to call on God in prayer, to be attentive to sacred scripture, and to embrace life’s many lessons. She took my hand when I first ventured into the world. She encouraged me when challenges seemed more than I could handle. And she was there to extend forgiveness when I acknowledged my failings and my stubbornness. Her impact on me has been extraordinary. Through the years I have met many wonderful women who have tried consciously or unconsciously to adopt me. But my response has always been the same, the job is taken.

The second most influential woman in my life gave me the most trouble, but who I love dearly despite our contentious history. She was bossy, demanding, fought dirty, difficult to live with, annoyingly persistent when she wanted her way, and constantly in my way. Wherever we were, she was in charge. And she made sure I knew it. I thought my time had come when my older brothers left home. But she would have none of it. She never wanted to hear what I had to say. And when I felt most alone and frustrated, she stuck her tongue out and heaped more guilt and shame on my misery and pain. She is older by just 15 months, and is also my only sister. When my family first moved to this country, I stayed behind in college-seminary. But she took control of her life and joined the US Air Force. It was a grueling experience as I gathered from her letters. But it was over that period of time when neither of us had family close by that we nurtured a friendship that we still treasure. And even though I always say that having one sister was more than enough, I have never regretted knowing and loving her. She taught me patience, kindness, forgiveness. And more importantly, she has never given up on me.

The third most influential woman in my life was born on Christmas Day at a military hospital in Montana when I was 23. I met her for the first time when she was 2. She is my sister’s first-born, and 8 months ago she became a mother. She has taught me to appreciate God’s blessings, to be always positive and grateful, and to aim high. She is tough and caring and determined. There is nothing she can’t handle. I am confident she will be a positive influence in the lives of many in the classroom and everywhere else.

I single out these three women in my life because I am curious about the impact of women in Jesus’ life. We know very little of his early life. Tradition tells us he had no sisters, but I can imagine he had female cousins and neighbor friends. In his adult life, his friends included Martha and Mary—the sisters of Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, and other women who supported his ministry, the Samaritan woman at the well, and many others whose names we will never know. Although we seldom hear of it, they surely enriched his life with their wisdom, experience, and perspective, both women and men, and they his. It just goes to show that without knowing it, or perhaps more intentionally than we know, these different people helped form the man that Jesus became, because they crossed paths with him, and traveled life’s journey for a time.

Tradition tells us the Virgin of Nazareth confided in the evangelist Luke, whose gospel account recalled intimate details of Jesus’ infancy. His encounters with poverty and rejection early in life, fleeing Herod’s murderous jealousy, knowing hardship from living a few years in exile in Egypt, then a life of obscurity in Nazareth, and the loss of Joseph his biggest male influence most likely while he was a teenager, could have sent him down a very different road but for the presence and vigilant care of his mother. Later in his ministry, we can see in his care for the poor and the marginalized her gentle and compassionate influence as well. We are all most grateful for his mother’s active role throughout his life, and we welcome her active role in our own.

On this Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we give thanks to God for choosing the woman who raised and nurtured our Savior. And we give thanks for all the women—mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, and friends—who raised and nurtured us, whose presence and vigilant care kept us out of trouble, whose hopes for our success saw us through many struggles, whose patience and persistence taught us how to make something of ourselves, and whose faults and shortcomings invite us to forgiveness and compassion. Mary raised a wonderful young man who would grow up to show us the face of the Father’s mercy, whose influence in human history is beyond parallel. And for all she was to him, and all she has done for him, we give thanks.

Rolo B Castillo © 2018