Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
St. Mary’s, Riverside (2019, Lectionary 689)

Retablo de la Inmaculada Concepción, 1607-1613,
by El Greco
Held by Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, Spain

One of the most celebrated 20th-century preaching gurus
Was the Methodist pastor and teacher Eugene Lowry.

His breakthrough work was the 1980 Homiletical Plot.
In it, he argued that a common mistake most preachers make
Is giving away the plot way too early in the sermon.

Akin to Shakespeare, at the opening of Romeo and Juliet,
forewarning the folk that both of the lovers
will die in the final moments in sequential suicides…
Lowry argues, if you already know the plot
There is not much reason to see the play.

Similarly, he concludes, if you know
The outcome of the preaching in the first few minutes…
Why listen?

Instead of giving away the ending,
Something a good storyteller never does,
Lowry counsels, instead, to look for the problems in the text,
Find the discrepancies, expose the dilemma,
Unmask what he calls the “oops” in God’s Word…

Then, he surmises…you’ve got the hearers hooked
As long as you effectively unravel the puzzle
And surprise them in the end with a gospel knockout punch.

I have been a Lowry fan for a long time,
And part of my preaching preparation is looking for
the discrepancies, the problems, the oops
In the lectionary texts.

Finding the oops in the text
Always triggers a challenging and ultimately deep dive
Into the mystery of God.

The problem today, however, is not oopsing the text.
As a Methodist preacher, Lowry ordinarily confined himself
To finding the problem in the appointed scripture of the day.

But he did not have to deal
with the Roman Catholic calendar of feasts
which means he never had to grapple with the oops
in a feast like the Immaculate Conception…

So while in a sense here I am on my own
That doesn’t stop me from excavating the multiple
Oopses, uh-ohs, jeepers and ughs
That this feast elicits… at least in the soul of this preacher.

The first major oops regards
what is being celebrated,
multitudes of faithful Roman Catholics mistakenly believe
that the feast has to do with Mary conceiving Jesus
in a word: wrong
this feast is not about the conception of Jesus
but the conception of Mary, his Mother,
which the church dogmatically teaches
occurred without Mary being tainted by original sin…

now that we’ve got that cleared up, a few major oopses yet remain
first is “what does free from original sin mean”
and second “what difference does that make for us?

Let’s first tackle what it means that  
Mary was conceived without original sin?
The Church’s official teaching is easily found in the Catechism.
It notes that Adam and Eve had received
Original holiness and justice
For themselves and the whole of the human race.
They then committed a personal sin
Which deprived them of that original holiness and justice.

And somehow – and the church official admits this is a mystery
Not fully understandable. [1]
Their personal sin has mysteriously been transmitted to us
As a “fallen state” – leave us wounded in our natural powers
And inclined to sin. [2]

So when you go to an infant baptism, for example,
And the prayers talk about removing original sin
The church is not saying the newborn is personally sinful
But the child is born into a flawed world
Where sin and evil lurk –
And sometimes they are even taught the ways of sin & evil.

So baptism erases the state of original sin,
turns us back toward God,
commits family and godparents to guide the child
towards holiness and justice,
but it does not remove every inclination toward evil.

So Mary was born without that weakened inheritance from Adam and Eve,
thus we honor her, and keep her feast,
Celebrate this amazing gift
And name her under this title Patroness of the Americas.

But – and here’s another oops
This is something Mary had nothing to do with.
She didn’t earn this gift… this grace
It was a complete and preemptive bequest from God…

So is this like honoring someone because they inherited billions
Although they never earned it?
Or honoring someone because they inherited a title
Though they don’t live up to it?
Or honoring someone because they were born into privilege
But shared that privilege with no one?

Ironically, part of the surprise, and even grace of this feast,
Is the reminder that just because one was born without original sin
Doesn’t mean they are insured to live without sin.

Now that might sound a little odd…
But Mary was not the only human created without original sin.

While not “conceived” without original sin,
God created Adam and Eve without this inclination toward evil.

They were created in a state of original holiness and justice
But despite that…they gave into temptation, and fell from grace.

What sets Mary apart from Adam and Eve,
Why she is called the new “Eve”
Is that she is a model of godly collaboration
And continually said “yes” never “no” to God…

Not only when Gabriel announced
that she would conceive and bear a son,

But she said yes to God
when she was found with child before being married
and her own fiancé considered divorcing her in shame;

She said yes to God
when infants were slaughtered
while she and her family frantically fled into Egypt;

She said yes to God
When she and Joseph lost Jesus in the Temple
And when newly found 12-year-old announced
That he really had to be about another parent’s work;

She said yes to God,
When in those hidden years at Nazareth
She gave her beloved Joseph over to death;

She said yes to God
When her only son left her for public ministry
And when he publicly wondered
Who was his mother and brothers;

And she said yes to God
When her only child was scorned, arrested
Tried, scourged, forced to carry the instrument
of his own death in public humiliation
And when she stood bravely before him
As the state executed her Jesus
And his inner circle abandoned him.

Mary is to be lauded, venerated and imitated
Because through an irregular marriage
Forced immigration
Hidden years
Widowhood
Apparently abandonment by her son
And the brutal execution of her firstborn
She steadfastly, quietly, persistently cooperated with
That gift of original holiness
The vision of original justice
And said yes to God.

Because of Mary’s unqualified and enduring “yes”
Human history has been graced with the gift of incarnation
The very wedding of divinity with humanity.
Not only in Bethlehem or Nazareth thousands of years ago
But in our own day, in the birth of every child
As God’s incarnate promise endures.

My notes tell me that I did tell this story once here…
It was about 15 years ago… so excuse me if I repeat myself
Every decade or so…the author writes, [3]

I was driving home from a meeting and the car started to choke.  I barely managed to coast into a gas station, at least I would have a somewhat warm spot to wait for the tow truck.  Before I could make that call, I saw a woman apparently slip on some ice and fall into a Gas pump, so I got out to see if she was okay.  When I got there, the young woman seemed more overcome by sobs than that having fallen.  She dropped something as I helped her up, and I picked it up to give it to her.  It was a nickel. 

At that moment, things came into: the crying woman, the ancient Suburban crammed full of stuff with 3 kids in the back, and the gas pump reading $4. 95. 

I asked her if she needed help, and she just kept saying “I don’t want my kids to see me crying.” She was driving to California and that things were very hard for her right now.  I asked, “were you praying?” She backed away a little, but I assured her I was not crazy saying, “God heard you and sent me.”

I swiped my credit card so she could fill the tank; while it was fueling, walked to McDonald’s, bought 2 big bags of food, some gift certificates for more, and a big cup of coffee.  The kids in the car attacked the food like wolves. 

She told me that she lived in Kansas City.  Her boyfriend left 2 months ago and she had not been able to make ends meet.  She didn’t have money to pay rent come January, and in desperation had called her estranged parents.  They lived in California and invited her to move in until she got on her feet. She packed up everything she owned, and told the kids they were going to California for Christmas. 

I gave her my gloves, a little hug and a quick prayer for safety on the road.  As I was walking over to my car, she said, “So, are you like an angel or something?”  I said, “Sweetie, at this time of year angels are really busy, so sometimes God uses regular people.”

And of course, you guessed it, when I got in my car it started right away and got me home with no problem.  I’ll put it in the shop tomorrow but I suspect the mechanic won’t find anything wrong.  Sometimes the angels fly close enough to you that you can hear the flutter of their wings.

Mary had the gift of saying yes
And so the gift of incarnation lives in the world.
But for that gift to flourish her yes needs an echo in our own
So that our darkening world might be flooded
With unexpected angels
That the flutter of wings from ordinary folk
Might never stop revealing new incarnations of God’s love.

Through Christ our Lord.


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 404.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 405.
[3] Some references on the Internet indicate that this piece was originally written by a physician at Metro Hospice in Denver.  I have yet to track down the original source.

4 comments

  1. Thanks, Ed.
    “What difference does that make for us?”
    Paul says it in the second reading:
    “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
    who has blessed us in Christ
    with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
    as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
    to be holy and without blemish before him.”
    Us? Without blemish? – that’s another way of saying “immaculate”!!
    Impossible!
    But no: With God all things are possible, as Gabriel says.
    Even Elizabeth, beyond the age, and Mary, a virgin, becoming mothers.
    We don’t live immaculate lives, of course,
    since our journey through means a spirituality of imperfection is characteristic of human lives,
    but we can still live truly forgiven, and so immaculate, every day.
    You mention an “irregular marriage” of Mary & Joseph.
    I don’t see anything irregular about it.
    Unique, yes, but not irregular.

    1. I am sure the marriage of Mary & Joseph was the subject of scandalised comment by the village gossips. Matthew’s genealogy with which he begins his Gospel is noteworthy for mentioning four women among the men. What distiguishes these women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheeba) is that they all transgressed the rules of sexual conduct. At the very least, Matthew is saying that God can choose his instruments despite what convention may dictate (for women).

      1. Yes, the four women in Matthew’s genealogy point to how “God can choose his instruments” of divine saving love. While with Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba it went outside sexual “conventions”, with Ruth it was because she was not Jewish.

        Marriage in Israel was quite different to what we usually expect today. It was a private contract between the families. When the couple were “betrothed”, the status of the woman was the same as that of wife (see Deuteronomy 22:23), even though they would wait about a year to start living as husband and wife.
        Joseph and Mary were “betrothed”. All that remained to do was what Matthew tells in 1:24: Joseph took Mary home as his wife. This would be strange to many people today, but, as near as we can say in today’s terms, they were married; they just had not started to live together.
        I have come across something similar, where a couple have the civil formalities of marriage first because of two jurisdictions being involved, and later have the church wedding, after which they start living together.
        So if there was “scandalised comment” in the village, it was because the gossips thought Joseph and Mary had not waited the normal time. Jesus was still seen as the son of Joseph: Matthew 13:54; John 6:42.

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