One of the frustrating features of life is the constant feeling of never quite getting there. When I was simply professed, people said, 'Ah, but you're not solemnly professed'. When I was solemnly professed, I wasn't yet ordained. When I became a deacon, my brothers pointed out that I was only a deacon.
And when I became a priest and came to Rome, I discovered that a distinction is made between junior and senior priests! The same is true in all walks of life; no matter how far you get, you are never quite there.
Do we value seniority so much because it is almost God-like? God, after all, is terribly senior; he's been around since before the world began. That would be true if God were a creature like us, temporal. But God is not old or senior. He is eternal, and that does not mean he is older than all things. It means he is prior to all things. From our perspective within time, God is 'ever ancient, ever new'.
So in a sense, God is newer than the newest thought you've just had. Because God is paradoxically 'ever ancient, ever new', his action in our lives is similar. Even though everything grows old and dies, the action of God's grace makes us young somehow.
At the end of Georges Bernanos's Diary of A Country Priest, the junior priest lies dying. His mentor, the senior priest, tells him to fix his mind on Our Lady: Our Lady 'the youngest daughter of the human race,' Our Lady who is 'younger than sin'. Because she is full of grace, Mary is so young in the order of grace that she does not and never did have that deficit of grace we call original sin.
This great mystery, the Immaculate Conception, is what we celebrate today. No matter what her age is in the order of nature, in the order of grace Mary is so young that she is untouched by sin and unrestrained by death, the first-fruits of Christ's victory.
This unique privilege of Mary, completely unmerited by her, seems to make her a super-human, beyond the reach of us mere mortals. But this is a problem with our perspective. Mary is the complete human being, and we are the defective ones. We are the hollow men, the badly drawn boys and girls, incomplete like the stick figures on the door of a public convenience. But Mary is a human being as she ought to be, replete with and completed in grace, fleshed out, perfect in her voluptuousness.
As a song by Mary Black puts it,
'She is the perfect creature, natural in every feature'
Our Lady is perfect because she is most perfectly natural, and she is utterly natural because she is filled-with-grace. Mary is full of grace because Christ is the fullness of grace, and it is from his grace, as Scripture says, that we have all received grace upon grace.
The salvation of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, is a pre-sacramental salvation. Mary does not need baptism. From the beginning of her existence she was utterly filled with God's grace. And this is why the Immaculate Conception is so important for us. Mary's pre-sacramental salvation is a sign of our post-sacramental life in the Kingdom of heaven.
What this feast means for us is that Christ's love does not stop with us merely being forgiven sinners, but it will transform us as though sin had never been. Our redemption will not be simply the happy end of a fraught journey. In our redemption we will be somehow mysteriously freed from our history. Even our sins will form the weave of a completed holiness. There will be no more striving to get there, because we will have arrived.
As Mary already is, so shall the whole Church be, as Scripture says, 'without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and immaculate' (Ephesians 5.27).