I was reading today some of the news coverage marking the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As more veterans die off, and there are fewer left to tell the story, it can be easy for us to forget the just how much this “date that will live in infamy” changed our country and our world. For many Americans, it affected their lives in ways they wouldn’t realize until many years later.
One of those Americans was a 22-year-old young man, not much more than a boy, the son of a coal miner in Pennsylvania. He had left home at 18 to join the Christian Brothers. Four years later, he was preparing to take his final vows for religious life.
But on December 7, 1941, all that changed.
He could have continued his formation, taken his vows, and spent the war praying and studying and teaching. But after giving it lots of thought and prayer, the young man submitted his papers and left the Christian Brothers. He enlisted in the U.S. Army. He ended up serving in Europe. Near the end of the war, he was one of the soldiers who liberated Auschwitz. After the war, he returned home. He became a schoolteacher, met a girl, fell in love, got married and raised a family.
And that is why I’m standing before you tonight.
That son of a coal miner was my father.
I think of that journey tonight and marvel at how God works—how he weaves together the threads of our lives to tell our story, yours and mine. God enters human history in the most unexpected ways, to fill us with wonder and astonish us with joy.
And this solemnity we celebrate tonight gives us the supreme example of that. We honor the Immaculate Conception—the creation of Mary in her mother’s womb—and we are awed once more at how God works.
God so loved the world that in the fullness of time, he gave the world his only begotten son. Yet we recall that he also gave us Mary—this perfect vessel to contain his son, a woman unstained by original sin so that, from the moment of her conception, she was immaculate.
In doing that, God set the stage for the beautiful event we just heard in this Gospel—the Annunciation, which brought about another conception, when Mary conceived Jesus in her womb.
To a skeptical world—or a puzzled teenager in Nazareth—it all sounds impossible.
But of course: nothing is impossible with God.
A popular carol from this time of year rejoices in the “wonders of his love.” This feast underscores the extravagant love that brought joy to the world. And it places at the forefront a humble peasant girl “full of grace,” the great collaborator in God’s plan for our salvation.
How could we not exult in this? “Sing to the Lord a new song,” the psalmist tells us tonight, “for he has done wondrous deeds.” He has made his salvation known!
This day, in particular, we remember it is a salvation that began long before the first Gospel was written.
It began before the empty tomb. It began before Calvary. It started before the miracles and the teachings. It goes back before Christ walked on water or fed the multitude, before the stable in Bethlehem, and even before the visit from an angel in Nazareth.
It is a salvation that in a real and tangible way began with the event we commemorate here and now: the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
This is where Mary’s story begins—and, in a sense, our story, too. Here begins the glorious chain of events that led to our salvation.
Attention must be paid. We need to remember this. We need to hold this “wonder of his love” close to our hearts, and keep recalling it—just like all the other great moments of our history, moments that define us and uplift us and that bear, somehow, the fingerprints of God.
Isn’t it all a wonder?
I’m sure my father never imagined the turns his life would take. I know he would probably be flabbergasted and amazed to see me here in a pulpit tonight, preaching, all these decades after he left religious life himself. In some ways, I think, I’m continuing the vocation he began.
But if Mary’s story teaches us anything about our own lives, it is that our God is a God of surprises.
He is also the Father of Possibility—the maker of miracles.
As we near the halfway point of Advent, during this season of anticipation and yearning, let us pause to give thanks for the miracle of Mary—an immaculate sign of God’s enduring love, a figure of steadfast hope, the woman who reminds us again and again that in God’s hands, truly, nothing is impossible.