CNS PHOTO | MIKE HOYT
Through her Immaculate Conception, Mary is worthy to give birth to the Saviour and contribute to the restoration of creation.
One of the more striking images in the Old Testament is that of God with his hands in the dirt. In the creation story of Genesis 2, God forms the human being from the dust of the ground and breathes the breath of life into his nostrils (2.7).
It is a strikingly different picture of God than one finds in other religions where the Supreme Being or beings are often so ephemeral that they are almost beyond contact with humanity, let alone the earth. God is in the skies, but how can one so exalted be in the dirt?
This is not a once-only image of God deigning to create a human person from the earth and then retreating to his home in the heavens. Rather, in several places in the Bible, one sees the relationship between God and humanity as reverberating throughout the cosmos.
Most often, this is described negatively. Sin not only ruptures the relationship between humanity and God, it also upsets creation itself.
When Cain kills Abel, God responds, "Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength" (Genesis 4.11-12).
Then there is the story of Noah and the flood. Again, human sinfulness receives a blowback from the environment. Once the flood waters recede, however, God promises never to bring such a catastrophe again.
Part of his promise is a natural environment that works to the benefit of humanity: "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (8.22).
God's promise to Abraham is that his offspring will be "like the dust of the earth; so that if you can count the dust of the earth, your offspring can be counted" (13.16). Abraham's faithfulness to the Lord will bring the blessing of many descendants as well as land to call their own.
Pharaoh's sinful oppression of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, however, leads to a massive ecological upheaval. The rivers turn to blood and all the fish die; frogs and gnats and locusts overwhelm the country; all the people and animals suffer festering boils; great darkness falls over the land for three days; finally, every firstborn son in the land dies.
Paul's letter to the Romans provides the analysis: "The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now" (8.22). This groaning, however, is not the last word. "The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God" (8.19). Those who are filled with the Holy Spirit will receive not only a spiritual rebirth, but "the redemption of our bodies."
What does all this have to do with Mary, the mother of God?
It was in Mary that creation began to be set free from its bondage to sin. Mary received the gift of redemption even before her own birth and before her conception of the Word of God made Flesh. She was conceived without sin and, through that Immaculate Conception, sinlessness gained a toehold amidst the disharmony into which creation had fallen following the sin of Adam and Eve.
We are not incorrect in seeing today's ecological crisis in political and economic terms. It is right to seek political solutions to global warming and other forms of environmental damage.
At the same time, this crisis needs to be understood spiritually, in the light of humanity's rebellion against the God who has his hands in the dirt. When we sin against God, the earth will pay. Disharmony will reign, not only in our souls, but also in the earth itself.
The traditional icon of Mary holding her son has three golden stars – one on her forehead, one on each shoulder. These stars symbolize Mary's virginity in her body (forehead), in her soul (right shoulder) and in her spirit (left shoulder). The three forms are really one.
Too often, Mary's virginity is understood too narrowly, as her physical intactness. But Mary's virginity is, more basically, her freedom, her capacity for union with God. It was Mary's freedom from sin that allowed her to be totally open to doing the will of God.
Jesus is our redeemer. It is because God became man in Jesus that creation began to be restored to its original wholeness and harmony. Mary's virginal motherhood, however, was the human token of cooperation in redemption. As she is fully redeemed from the moment of her conception, so creation itself becomes restored.
St. Basil the Great wrote the hymn that begins, "In you, O woman full of grace, all creation exults."
Creation does exult in Mary. The reign of sin begins to draw to a close and, as it does, the earth ceases to curse us with plagues and groaning. God has put his hands into the dirt, and the dirt begins to sing with praise.