Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
May the joy of our Lord’s Advent grow in your heart! Our Savior is coming as the infant King. The great and the worldly cannot recognize his power, but shepherds and foreign travelers and even animals adore him. Born in a stable, he becomes poor for us, so that we might inherit the riches of his kingdom of heaven. The mystery of God made man for our sakes continues to inspire our faith and love, especially in this joyful season.
Mary, ever-virgin, our holy mother, knew what lay before her in the manger. She was humble enough to see clearly the great work God was working through her. Her faith in the Savior was strong. Her quiet joy at being so close to God gave her courage. We can imitate her humility and her faith and receive the same strength in our life.
On Dec. 8, we celebrate the solemnity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. This is the mystery of Mary being conceived without the stain of original sin in the womb of her mother, Anne. With this unique grace, God prepared Mary to accept without reservation the unique vocation of being the Mother of God made man.
Because she was sinless and pure, she could offer God a total “yes” when the Archangel Gabriel announced this plan to her. Unlike us, she was perfectly free to give everything back to God, holding nothing for herself.
Moreover, because her own human nature was untouched by sin, she could give the same perfect and sinless nature to Christ in her womb. In this way, Christ was “like us in all things but sin.” Our human nature is wounded by original sin. Christ’s human nature was unwounded, because Mary’s was preserved from the wound.
Therefore, he could heal us, which he still does through the sacraments of the church, beginning with holy baptism, and especially in the healing sacraments of confession and the holy Eucharist. By the grace of all the seven sacraments, we become whole again, and by being united to Christ, we make our way home to eternal life with him in heaven.
Because Mary was without sin, her love was without limit. She loved God perfectly, as fully as it is possible for a person to love. She loved Christ, her divine son, and therefore suffered with him in his passion, although she knew it was necessary because of sin.
She loves us, too, who are united with her son and therefore are also her spiritual children. She longs to see us persevere in bearing our crosses, too, so that we can join her and Christ in heaven. She intercedes for us, moved by her motherly love, and trusting absolutely in the mercy he pours out on us.
Nor does Mary only remain in heaven to help us from afar. Over and over again, she has returned to earth, appearing especially to the humble, the poor, to children, to give the same message of repentance, of turning to her son, of receiving his mercy.
On Dec. 12, we celebrate one such apparition, which we now call Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1531, at the hill of Tepeyac (now part of Mexico City), Mary appeared to an Aztec peasant who had been baptized as Juan Diego a few years before. She sent him to the local bishop with a request for a new church to be built on the hill. The bishop did not believe Juan Diego and wanted proof.
A few days later, Mary gave Juan Diego a large bunch of roses miraculously blooming in winter. Wrapping the flowers in his tilma, or cloak, St. Juan Diego brought them to the bishop. When the tilma was opened to remove the flowers, the now-famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was found miraculously imprinted there.
Not only the bishop, but many millions of indigenous people soon believed. This same tilma, with its inexplicable image unfaded by time, hangs even today in the basilica church that was then built in Mexico City.
The message of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the message of the Gospel. Christ, our infant king, came to us to save us from our sins, so that we might live forever with him in heaven. He died and rose at Easter and gave us the church and the sacraments, so that the means of salvation might reach the whole world.
He is found not in the palaces of the rich or in mastering the ways of the world, but in the homes and hearts of the poor, simple, and humble good men and women who love him, and who listen to his Gospel and his holy mother, Mary. We must become more humble, like Mary, like the baby in the manger, so that we may become pure of heart and strong in faith. If we do, then our heart, too, can be a stable where the infant king is adored, and he will rule us with his gentle, healing mercy.
Amid all the hectic preparations for what the world calls “Christmas,” please try to make more room for that blooming winter rose of faith, our interior peace and prayerful preparation to receive the coming of Christ.
May the joyful blessings of this Advent season bring you grace and peace! “To Jesus, through Mary!”
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City