In 1896, a famous preacher named Charles Sheldon published a novel called In His Steps, about a small Kansas town that decided to try and live by a simple credo … summed up in four short words. What Would Jesus Do? Sheldon’s book went on to be published in 21 languages around the world, and the central idea of it became one of the most familiar slogans in popular Christianity. You find it – or its abbreviation, WWJD – on tee shirts, bumper stickers and wristbands. As insincere and superficial as all this seems to be, the underlying question remains valid.
But on this solemnity, when we focus attention on Mary the mother of Jesus, maybe we could ask WWMD? What Would Mary Do?
Mary is the first disciple, and in her life and in her choices, we see how completely she answered God’s call. When the angel Gabriel arrives in Nazareth, and tells Mary that she is about to conceive a child out of wedlock, she takes very little time to agree to the proposition. She is young, remember, probably 12 or 13. She’s not married, and she is not from a wealthy family. We would not be surprised if a girl in that situation replied, “This really isn’t a good time for me, can you get back to me in 10 years?” She does remind Gabriel that she is a virgin, but she does not deny his request out of hand. She takes a deep breath and simply places herself in God’s hands: “Behold. I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
A generation later, her own Son would echo her words when his disciples asked him how they ought to pray and he gave them the most famous prayer ever composed: “Thy will be done.” Clearly, Jesus had paid attention to his mother’s instruction as he grew up: he was his mother’s son.
We are Mary’s children as well, so there are lessons we can learn from her. When the life we have planned suddenly takes a turn we didn’t expect…when the job falls through or the loan is rejected or the pregnancy test doesn’t turn out the way we’d hoped…we might ask ourselves WWMD? What would Mary do?
Mary herself lived in turbulent times that were stressful for a great many people, so it seems logical to ask how she would have reacted. Mary faced an uncertain future with the one thing that was truly her own: her trust in God. “May it be done to me according to your word.”
Many people think that that moment, when she agreed to become the mother of Jesus was the “Immaculate Conception.” That is incorrect. Today’s feast isn’t about Jesus’ conception at all, it’s about Mary’s. Beginning in the late 4th century, the Orthodox Church began celebrating the 9th of December as “The Conception of Anne”, which is the name given to Mary’s mother. Mary was seen to be especially deserving of the honor of bearing the Messiah, and so we call her “immaculate” and “pure” and “virgin most holy”. Mary is where the story of our redemption begins and in a very real way, she makes salvation possible.
Honoring Mary as the Immaculate Conception is important for Americans because it is under the protection of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, that this country has been placed by the first Catholics who came here. Her title is one of great promise. It signals the very start of God’s plan for our salvation. It is – literally – pregnant with possibility.
This solemnity marks the day when the impossible became possible, when the human chain of sin was finally broken. A woman was conceived without sin, to bring into the world its savior. The mystery of grace and salvation came into our midst and everyday we are invited to share deeper in that mystery: to believe, to trust, to surrender ourselves somehow to God’s will. It’s a daunting invitation and there are days when we just can’t manage to surrender in this way, but God extends the invitation nonetheless. In every moment of doubt and uncertainty, when it seems like all our choices are bad, when every option is somehow wrong, we can turn to Mary’s example and find a way to move forward. Speaking from personal experience, Mary has protected me and kept me safe during the scariest and darkest times of my life. There is abundant solace and security to be found under the mantle of our loving Mother Mary.