Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This week we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception — the fact that Mary was without sin from the moment she was conceived. St. Irenaeus — who died around 202 AD — developed a line of thought about Mary that is not only interesting in itself but also contains a helpful spiritual lesson for Advent.
One of the outstanding features of Irenaeus’ thought was his keen sense of salvation history, of how the different events fit together. Once, in order to explain this, he used the example of what happens when two knots have been tied on one string, and you have to untie the second knot first, before you can get back to undo the first knot: “For what was tied together once cannot be loosened except by untying the knot in reverse order so that the second knot be dissolved by untying it first and the first knot be dissolved by untying it second.”
Irenaeus used this metaphor to explain the relation between Adam, Eve, Mary and Christ. In creation, Adam was created first, and Eve took flesh out of Adam. In redemption, in precise reversal, Mary was created first, and Christ took flesh out of Mary. In the Fall, Eve listened to the voice of a fallen angel and became disobedient to God’s word. In redemption, in precise reversal, Mary listened to the voice of an angel and welcomed God’s Word. In creation, all humanity was united in Adam and inherited his sin. In redemption, in precise reversal, Christ became a second Adam and all humanity can share in His resurrection.
Irenaeus showed, very beautifully, how God brought about salvation precisely by reversing the knots of human sin. The Fathers of the Church often summarized this thinking by pointing out how the “Eva” of the fall is perfectly reversed by the “Ave” of the Annunciation.
It’s an elegant piece of theology. But I hasten to add: We miss the point if we stop there and don’t see its relevance for our own lives!
The truth is, we all have “knots” of sin in our lives — some we’ve inherited from our families, and some we’ve tied for ourselves. What St. Irenaeus shows us is that God is an artist when it comes to untying knots! God is not only willing to untie the knots in our lives, He delights in doing so. Mary, for her part, is also the “untier of knots” because she remains today what she has always been: the handmaid of the Lord, lending herself totally to God’s plans.
During Advent we prepare to celebrate the fact that Jesus came into the world to untie the knots of human sin. This week, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we pause to recognize Mary’s special role in that untying. As we do so, let’s be deliberate in presenting the knots in our lives to God — especially through the sacrament of Reconciliation. Where Mary started and remained all her life — without sin — is where we hope to end up. But there are a lot of knots that have to be untied for us to get there! Let’s approach God with great confidence, knowing that He delights to untie the knots of our lives.