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By Dan Valenti (Dec 10, 2008)
Eden Hill is one holy place to be on Dec. 8. I realize this is a tautology: the Hill is like that every day. December 8, though, is special for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. For the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, this feast day is eponymous, since they have derived the name of their Congregation from this unique aspect of Mary.
For the Marians, the feast is an "anniversary" day marked with the reverence of a Holy Mass, the festivity of a birthday party, the camaraderie of a picnic, and the joyfulness of a favorite song.
From outside appearances, you might not realize this if you were on Eden Hill during the day on Dec. 8, as I was. That's because employees who work on the Hill for the Marians have the day off. There's hardly anyone around, except for Marians. Of course, that's like saying there's hardly anyone in the locker room except the players.
Inside, much happens, not the least of which is the accrued good that stems from the celebration of three Masses at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, at 8 a.m., 2 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. In addition, the Marians celebrate a daily private Mass inside the monastery attached to the Shrine, and a Marian priest says Mass for the Oblate Sisters at the convent on Eden Hill. That's five Masses coming from this holy spot. I have long seen Masses as spiritual investments. They produce a return on the initial sum. When we invest our time in this highest form of prayer, we receive returns of grace at a fabulous, even incalculable, rate.
Also inside, the Marians enjoy a meal together, literally a feast for lunch, cooked by the sisters. This time, it was a noontime repast of ham, with all the fixings, including red and white wine.
Since I live a mere 2/10s of a mile from the Hill, I wandered up for the 8 a.m. Mass on Dec. 8 then stuck around to do some writing. It's a good day for work, when I can be undisturbed, with no phones ringing, no e-mails to answer, or people to see.
Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, celebrated the 8 a.m. Mass at the Shrine. That made me 2-for-2 with Fr. Seraphim over the past couple days, since he had also said Mass Sunday, Dec. 7, at St. Joseph's Church in Stockbridge. Saint Joe's is a part of St. Mary's Parish in nearby Lee, Mass., and it's the church my wife and I attend.
"Drawing" Fr. Seraphim for Mass two days in a row is like winning a spiritual lottery on successive mornings. It's like shooting dice and rolling 7s and 11s each first time out. One thing that I find interesting about him is his unchanging manner of celebrating Mass. I have seen him preside at Mass countless times before thousands of people and before a mere handful, as was the case at the 8 a.m. Immaculate Conception Mass. It doesn't make a difference how many people are there or who they are.
No matter the venue, no matter the attendance, Fr. Seraphim celebrates Mass with the same even-keel solemnity and care. You would think he was saying his first Mass, especially the way he articulates the prayers and his precise body language and movement. For example, when he blesses people, he doesn't rush through the sign of the cross as I've seen other priests do. He traces north-south-east-west with geometric accuracy.
Father Seraphim's Masses are celebrated with an appreciation bordering on gravity but never getting there, a recital done in the manner of a proclamation, with profound humility replacing any hint of bombast. His priestly manner lends a sense of stability and permanence to the celebration.
To boot, Fr. Seraphim, who currently serves as "Fr. Joseph" in his role as director of the Association of Marian Helpers, is one of the world's pre-eminent authorities on the message of God's mercy as Jesus revealed it to St. Faustina Kowalska. He is also a man with much to say (though he can be a man of few words!) about Mary.
This morning, in his homily, Fr. Seraphim called Mary God's "miracle of mercy." He pointed to Mary's intercessory role on our behalf to her Son, Jesus, and also made a vital point about sin.
Give Him Your Sins
We often beat ourselves up over our faults. A sense of guilt can lead to anger and cause us to fashion God in the image of a severe and unyielding judge, fast to punish and hesitant to forgive. Mary, Fr. Seraphim said, shows us the way to Jesus, The Divine Mercy, who provides a gateway to the limitless compassion of God. It is then that we see the true nature of God as Love, full of compassion for us, His creation.
We come to realize God wants our salvation even more than we do ourselves, Fr. Seraphim said. Neither is God "afraid" of our sins, nor do our transgressions drive Him away. On the contrary: Sin attracts God to us all the more. It's an amazing example of spiritual counter-intuitiveness, just as Jesus came to earth not for the righteous but for sinners. We don't have to be perfect to approach God. We have to be human. Indeed, many times in the Diary of St. Faustina, we read that the greater the sin, the more entitled we are to God's mercy.
Father Seraphim told an instructive story about St. Jerome. It seems that Jesus visited Jerome and asked him for a gift. Jerome offered his life of sacrifice and prayer. Not enough, Jesus said. No matter what Jerome offered, our Lord replied that it wasn't enough. Finally, Jerome asked Jesus pointedly what He wanted: "How about giving Me your sins," Jesus answered.
Mary, sinless from birth, provides for us a source of inspiration and hope, Fr. Seraphim said. Through her intercessions with Jesus on our behalf, she can lead us to grace. In a online meditation written earlier, Fr. Seraphim wrote that Mary's "sinlessness can greatly encourage us, since it foreshadows the 'Church in splendor,' the bride of Christ (Eph 5:26-27). We are surrounded by sin in our world. So that we would not despair, God gave Our Lady to us as a gift. Through her purity, we see what is in store for us. We are all called to holiness and purity."
A Renewal of Vows
The 7:30 p.m. Mass on Dec. 8 is special in that the members of the Marian Congregation renew their vows. The celebration drew a crowd of friends and supporters of the Marians who wanted to share the Holy Day together.
The Dec. 8 community renewal is a simple yet powerful moment. Marians on Eden Hill join their brother Marians everywhere in the world in pledging themselves, again, to God. For the rest of us, their renewal of vows is a reaffirmation. It becomes an exterior sanction of sorts, "permission" for us to move beyond our solitary conceptions of God to freely join with others in seeing in our individual expressions of soul the shared brotherhood and sisterhood that is ours as His adopted sons and daughters. It's quite a thing to witness.
Father Anthony Gramlich, MIC, rector of the Shrine, served as principal celebrant at Mass. Concelebrants included Fr. Seraphim, Fr. Tony Nockunas, MIC, and Fr. Victor Incardona, MIC. Participants in Mass included Brs. Michael Opalacz, MIC, Ken Galisa, MIC, Albin Milewski, MIC, and Ron McBride, MIC.
Mary: the new Holy of Holies
In his homily, Fr. Anthony centered on the perfection of Mary.
"There is something inside us that desires perfection," Fr. Anthony said. "And yet, not one of us is without sin. We reconcile this in our desire for God to create an Immaculate Conception, a human being who is sinless and perfect. God fulfilled this desire for perfection, and her name is Mary. She is holy, immaculate, perfect, and without sin. This is an awesome gift of grace, for God to have given us Mary."
Father Anthony said Mary's perfect state echoed the Holy of Holies from the Old Testament, as a place that held God's law. Similarly, God sent Jesus to Mary by asking her to be the Mother of God. When Mary agreed, she was sanctified with Jesus Himself within her. She became the new Holy of Holies as spouse of the Holy Spirit, bearing Jesus in her pregnancy for nine months.
"How much more should we honor Mary, the new Holy of Holies, who contains the Son of God in her womb, the Immaculate Conception"? Fr. Anthony asked. His question was rhetorical.
Following Mass, the Marians hosted a gathering in Memorial Hall downstairs at the National Shrine. Fittingly, refreshments were served — spirit, having earlier been nourished, joining with refreshments for the body.
"It is wonderful to share this day with our friends," said Br. Albin as he playfully urged the guests to have more to eat. "We [Marians] are celebrating this day as our anniversary. It is a day to rejoice and to give thanks to God for the Blessed Mother."
Dec. 8 came to a close with Eden Hill sleeping under a white half-inch mantle of snow, fallen the day before and preserved throughout the sunny day and dark night by temperatures that didn't make it out of the teens. Though it was cold outside, on the inside hearts had been warmed by a celebration of the woman who was, and is, in the words of Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC, "the greatest manifestation of Divine Mercy that God has given the world. ... This is so due to the fact that the privilege of the Immaculate Conception is a pure gift flowing from God's goodness."
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of "Dan Valenti's Journal," which can be read at thedivinemercy.org.