Immaculate Conception Sermon: "The Love that Moves the Stars"
“In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.”
In celebrating Mary’s Immaculate Conception, we usually focus on how Mary is the new Eve, how Her obedience to God’s command, Her fiat, undoes the disobedience of the first mother of the living. Or we focus on the Scriptures’ presentation of Her as a new ark of the covenant, as the first tabernacle that held the presence of the living God made flesh. A less obvious aspect of this important feast, but one that is of the same importance, is that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin teaches us about God’s providence: that all His plans are truly plans of love.
We hear St. Paul tell us today that “in love, He destined us for adoption to Himself.” Love is not just an added reason for God doing what He does. It is not as if God thinks in His divine intellect of some good ideas for us, His creatures, and then puts them into practice, doing all this because He loves us, as if His love were something entirely extrinsic to the whole process. This is often the way we think about it: “Don’t worry, God’s plans might be difficult, and they might even include really painful suffering, but He does it all because He loves us.”
This is admittedly very difficult to understand. What God does in our lives and in our world often seems incompatible with any supposed motivation by love. But that is because we think of these two things as separate: What God does (His providence, or His plans), and why He does it (love). When we think of it that way, it’s understandable to question how the two can be compatible.
But love is not an extrinsic motivation for why God does the strange things that He does. Love is precisely what brings about God’s plans. This is the vision shown by those incredible lines written by the greatest of Christian poets, Dante, at the conclusion of the Divine Comedy: “Already were all my will and my desires / turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by / The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
“The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Love, in Dante’s vision, is not an extrinsic motivating reason for God’s action. It is the very force that brings about all that God does in the world. It is Love that moves the stars, the great potentates of the heavens that marked the time and were the foundation of all science and learning. It was the position of stars by which men of almost all of human history navigated the world, built the great pyramids and cathedrals, and planted the crops that ensured their survival. It was love, Dante realized, that “moves the sun and the other stars,” that orders the universe in peace and harmony. To say that Love “moves the sun and the other stars” is to say that Love moves absolutely everything.
No where can we see the ordering, directing, and providential power of this love more clearly than in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. God destined Her from all eternity to be the Mother of His Son, Jesus, and prepared Her for this divine mission by a singular grace given in view of the merits of the death and resurrection of Her Son, preserving Her from all stain of even original sin from the very moment of Her conception, not only out of love, not only because of His love, but precisely in love.
In Mary too, and especially in this greatest of all graces that She received, to be conceived without original sin, we can see the ordering of God’s love. To modern men and women, it seems repugnant to hear that God does not love all people and things the same. God loves all, we know, and our egalitarian spirit recoils at any suggestion that He could love one more than another. The normal repost to these objections is, “Do you really think that Christ loves you the same as He loves His own Mother?”
But while this might be a helpful way for us to understand this important truth, it is not primarily because of the divine maternity that God loves Mary more than any other of His creatures. It is because She is so infinitely worthy of love in Her singular human perfection. The order of God’s love corresponds to His own goodness: It is simply not good to love things equally that are not equally good. We love our family members more than material possessions not only because we have a natural obligation towards our kin, but because there is more goodness in the human person than in a material object. A God who loved a rock just as much as a plant, or a plant just as much as an irrational animal, or that irrational animal just as much as a human being, would not be a good God. That good ordering of love continues when we think about God’s love for human persons. There is a proper ordering of God’s love, at which Mary stands at the culmination.
Since God’s love is ordered, we can then understand how it brings order. The ordered love of God brings about order in the world, and the more that we cultivate openness to that order by living as closely as we can to the sinlessness of Mary, the more that God’s love will properly order our lives as it did Hers.
Returning to Dante, the Divine Comedy tells of his journey from being lost half-way through life, being shown the punishments meted out to sinners in Hell, climbing the mountain of purification in purgatory, and gradually ascending to greater and greater degrees of contemplation of the divine goodness in Heaven, eventually making it to the final sphere where all is bathed in perfect celestial light. Here, then, we can understand more perfectly Dante’s words: “Already were all my will and my desires / turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by / The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Through that pilgrimage of purification, the poet’s will and desires have become perfectly attuned to God. Does this mean He is less free? If his will and desires are just a wheel being turned by God, is he still really human?
Here we return to one of our constant themes: We must understand properly what it means to be free. We see in the Gospel today the freest and most perfect human act in the history of mankind: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” While St. Bernard beautifully describes all the angels in heaven waiting breathlessly for our Lady’s reply to the angel, filled with nervous tension as the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, they were never in doubt. She could not have answered otherwise, not because She lacked freedom, but because She is perfectly free. She, and those who like Dante in his vision of heaven also become purified of attachment to sin, are turned not like a rusty valve that resists craftsman’s force, but are “in equal balance,” with the perfect freedom that is able to be moved by the great and providential Love. The capacity to contradict this love is not Freedom, but freedom’s imperfection.
We honor Mary’s Immaculate Conception today because in it, and in Her, we see a vision of true freedom, of One whose docility to God’s initiative in Her life allows “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” to move Her as well. May Her intercession obtain for us the harmony and balance of soul, and the virtue of docility, to allow our lives as well to ordered by such great Love.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, A.D. MMXXII