Tota Pulchra es Maria...
"Let us celebrate a solemn feast for the Mother of God. Rejoice, Anna, you childless one who bears no children; burst into song and shout you who have endured no birth pangs. Rejoice Joachim, because from your daughter a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and his name will be called Angel of great counsel, salvation for all the world, mighty God.
That child is truly God. Who, therefore, would deny the child-bearing of the Mother of God? 'If anyone does not confess that the holy virgin is the Mother of God that person is alienated from the Godhead.' This saying is not mine, though the words are mine. For I received this most divine heritage from father Gregory the Theologian.
Today the salvation of the world is begun. For to us in the holy 'house of mercy' is born the Mother of God from whom the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world desired to be born.
O worthy daughter of God, loveliness of our human nature, the one who makes amends for our first parent, Eve! O daughter always a virgin, for you no man was needed to conceive a child. For he whom you brought forth from your womb has an eternal Father. O earth-born daughter, by the life-giving embrace of God you gave birth to the Creator!
Truly you surpass in dignity all created things. For from you alone the supreme Artisan received his birth, the first fruits of our human clay. His flesh took form from your blood. Indeed, it was God who sucked milk from your breasts, and your own lips kissed the lips of God. The God of all the universe foreknew your dignity. Even more, God loved you and predestined you, the beloved one. Thus in these final times God brought her forth and made her the mother, the God-bearer, the nourisher of the Son and Word.
The whole bridal chamber of the Spirit is the entire city of the living God which the flowing waters make joyful; truly, I say, they are the rivers of grace of the Holy Spirit. You are all-beautiful, most intimate with God, O Virgin overflowing with divine graces! I aver that you are the holy temple of God, not adorned with gold and lifeless gems but shining with the Spirit rather than with gold. Instead of precious gems you possess the most precious pearl, Christ, that jewel of the Deity."
With such thoughts in mind, let us celebrate this day as we behold the first rays of the dawn of our salvation! The Magnificat antiphon for Second Vespers sings: "This day a shoot from the stock of Jesse has budded forth. This day, Mary was conceived without stain of sin. This day, she crushed the ancient serpent's head, alleluia!" The Gregorian chant for this antiphon echos and mirrors the antiphon for Christmas day, 'Hodie Christus natus est', clearly underlining the link between that great Feast of our salvation and today's Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Hence, St John Damascene can add: "Today the ears of the whole world are listening to news of joy. The heavens above rejoice, the earth beneath exults... He will tear to pieces the garments of our old mortality."
Today's joy overflows into the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, which keynote is rejoicing and the exultation of Israel in her redemption. Indeed, our Lady is present in this Sunday's liturgy both in the responsorial canticle, which is her song of exultation, the Magnificat, and in Isaiah's proclamation of joy, which echoes today's Second antiphon at First Vespers: "I rejoice heartily in the Lord... for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation." (First Reading for the Third Sunday of Advent, 'Year B')
As such, let us rejoice with all of creation and hymn the Mother of God, who on this day was conceived without sin, that she may pray for us who have recourse to her glorious intercession.
"Blest Guardian of all virgin souls,
Portal of bliss to man forgiven,
Pure Mother of Almighty God,
Thou hope of earth and joy of heaven!
Fair lily found among the thorns,
Most beauteous dove with wings of gold,
Rod from whose tender root upsprang
That healing Flower so long foretold.
Thou tower against the dragon-foe,
Thou star to storm-tossed voyagers dear;
Our course lies o'er a treacherous deep,
Thine be the light by which we steer.
Scatter the mists that round us hang;
Keep far the fatal shoals away;
And while through darkling waves we sweep,
Open a path to light and day.
O Jesu, born of Virgin bright,
Immortal glory be to Thee;
Praise to the Father infinite,
And Holy Ghost eternally. Amen."
- The Office hymn, Praeclara custos virginum (17th century).
The illustration above right of Mary Immaculate is from a 19th century hand-illuminated book in the archives of Ushaw College, Durham.