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2011
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The splendour of the trust and tenderness for God: the feast-day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary

Bethlehem, Milk Grotto, 8th December 2011

A very special moving celebration opened the feast-day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary this morning, 8th December, in Bethlehem, the small town in the Holy land and the heart of Christianity to which eyes are turned from all over the world in this period of Advent in the preparation for Christmas. Close to the Basilica of the Nativity, there is the Sanctuary of the Milk Grotto, a silent and peaceful place, dug out of the white tuff, where, according to an age-old tradition, the Holy Family sought refuge to escape the massacre of the innocents ordered by Herod and, whilst Mary was feeding the Child, a few drops of her milk fell on to the stone and turned it white. This holy place, turned into a chapel and looked after by the Franciscan friars, is a place of pilgrimage for many Christian and Muslim women, who still ask the Virgin Mary for the grace of motherhood and abundant milk to feed their children. Here, every morning throughout the period of Advent and the Christmas festivities, the Holy Mass is celebrated which can be followed live on the Italian channel Tv2000 and, in streaming, on the site of the Custody of the Holy Land. The Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament, an enclosed order of sisters dedicated wholly to the contemplative life, take part every day in this exquisite initiative. Since 2006, the Bethlehem community has lived in a convent, offered by the Custody of the Holy Land, next to the Grotto and the entrance of which leads into the splendid cloisters and, down a few steps, directly into the Grotto, next to where there is its small altar.

Here, on this feast-day dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Custos of the Holy Land, Brother Pierbattista Pizzaballa, came to celebrate Holy Mass, with the joy and emotion for the simplicity and delicacy of this initiative. The 13 sisters of the community of the Adorers, including 4 young postulants and one in temporary profession, distinguished from the others by her red habit and white veil, stood around the altar, along the rocky walls of the grotto. Some friends and collaborators of the Custody also attended the ceremony, finding room a short distance away, respecting the enclosure of the sisters. Accompanied by the delicacy of the Gregorian chant sung by the religious and their grace in animating and marking the liturgy, the Holy Mass took place in a climate of devotion and profound prayer, where everyone enjoyed taking part in such a particular event. At the end of the celebration, the sisters, accompanied by the Custos, went in a procession to the Chapel of the Adoration of the Convent, for a moment of intense prayer, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament.

At the centre of the homily by Brother Pizzaballa there was the dimension of the relationship with God, which is essentially based on dialogue and the dynamic of which allows penetrating the mystery of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In Genesis, man, after the sin, is afraid and hides, fleeing intimacy with God because he no longer knows how to relate to Him, having listened to another, the snake, which gives man another law and replaces God in the dialogue and relationship with His creature. Although God is not resigned to the loss of the relationship with man and comes to look for him once again, asking him where he is (Gen 3, 9), “in the heart of man there remains fear and doubt […] The relationship with God remains a struggle, a journey that is no longer taken for granted, the outcome of which is no longer sure. He remains a man in flight, who hides. And there remains a God who always has to start looking for man again, speaking to him. This question, “Where are you?” crosses time, centuries and history, always in search of man, trying to reconstruct this interrupted dialogue. God stubbornly continues his project of relationship and love and goes to seek Abraham, the Patriarchs, Moses, David, the Prophets… until Mary is reached.” Mary, conceived without sin, immaculate from her origin, is the creature that is able to reconstruct dialogue and relationship with God in their fullness, who can become intimate with God through the most limpid trust and total openness of her heart, without hiding or uncertainty. “And Mary truly listens, that is, she lets herself be convinced by the truth of God, by what God tells her, simply, that she must not be afraid: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God” (Luke 1,30)”. And the grace and the benevolence of God conceals the immense gift of the relationship with Him, there is the trust that fuels the dialogue of life, that opens to holiness. Because being immaculate means being in perfect communion with God, shining with His holiness to the very essence of one’s being. Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Mary, the Mother of Christ, tells us that Grace is greater than sin, that God’s mercy is more powerful than evil and can transform it into good. Unfortunately every day we have the experience of evil, which appears in many ways in relations and in events, but which has its root in the heart of man, a wounded, diseased heart that cannot heal on its own. The Holy Scripture reveals to us that at the origin of all evil there is disobedience to the will of God, and that death has taken supremacy because human freedom has yielded to the temptation of the Evil One. But God does not fail in his design of love and life: through a long and patient path of reconciliation, he has prepared the new and eternal alliance sealed in the blood of his Son, who to offer himself in expiation is “born of a woman” (Galatians 4, 4). This woman, the Virgin Mary, benefited in advance from the redeeming death of her Son and ever since conception she was preserved from contagion by sin. Therefore, with her immaculate heart, she tells us to trust in Jesus, He will save you.”

This is the paradox of an Authority which entrusts itself to a gift, to the selflessness of gratuitousness: God, that is the original language, entrusts His Word to the tenderness of a woman, Mary, faithful to listening to the original words and to her vocation of accepting the Truth in herself. Mary’s “yes” therefore becomes the answer to the revelation of God in His Word and allows man to plunge into the totalizing experience of the revelation, thanks to which what by its very nature is inaccessible, unpronounceable and inaudible, becomes a point of contact and intimacy between God and His creature. The tenderness of Mary, which makes the new duration and the new fidelity of the relationship faithful, brings back the souls that are near and allows healing wounds, or putting evil “back to the sidelines” to offer new room for hope. She truly is the immaculate terrain of tenderness, permeable to the Truth, tender to the transforming action of the Spirit, open to He who is deeply linked, in communion, to oneself and to the self of every creature.

by Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Marie-Armelle Beaulieu

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