"There shall be a root of Jesse": Advent hope and the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Yesterday was both the Second Sunday of Advent and the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Black Letter Day in the 1662 Kalendar.  It is a happy and meaningful coincidence of dates.  Cranmer's collect for Advent II is structured around Saint Paul's words regarding Israel's Scriptures:

Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning; that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.

It is a collect, then, which is grounded and rooted in Israel's hope, the hope which the Epistle's concluding quotation from the Old Covenant sets forth:

And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, in him shall the Gentiles trust.

Yahweh's fulfilment of this hope begins to draw near with the conception of the Maiden who will herself "conceive and bear a son".  The Black Letter Day signals that we are moving out of early Advent, that, in the words of the Epistle, "the promises made unto the fathers" are taking flesh.

The lack of liturgical provision for the Conception of the Blessed Virgin reflects the divine economy, the quiet, unseen grace which, from the womb, prepares the Maiden.  No grandiose dogmatic claims are necessary.   Her conception is no rupture with Israel.  The Daughter of Sion stands with Adam and Eve, with Abraham and Sarah, with David and Bathsheba, with "the people that walked in darkness", awaiting the "dayspring from on high".

But after the centuries of wilderness and exile, of a people who "hear ... indeed, but understand not: and see ... indeed, but perceive not", grace prepares the Daughter of Sion to be one that will "hear the word of God and keep it".

And so the Kalendar marks the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, acknowledging the grace which prepares her to receive the root of Jesse.  It is, as Thomas Aquinas insists, "unfitting" to describe this as 'Immaculate Conception', for "this would be derogatory to the dignity of Christ", for then she would stand apart from Adam and Abraham:

thus she would not have needed redemption and salvation which is by Christ, of whom it is written: "He shall save His people from their sins" (ST III.27.2).

The grace, however, is real, for "the promises made unto the fathers" are real, and the hope of Sion is real.  The Maiden, then, is sanctified, prepared to hear and receive the Word of Yahweh.  Hence, in the words of John Donne:

he exempted his blessed mother more than any from sin (Sermon III, Christmas Day 1625).

Through the long centuries of Israel's captivity and mourning, seers glimpsed the fulfilment of these promises and purposes, "as it is written".  The grace quietly, silently bestowed on the Daughter of Sion is preparation for the sign which "the Lord himself shall give". With the commemoration of the Maiden's Conception we enter into mid-Advent, called to a renewed and deepened hope in the purposes and promises of the God of Israel.

Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.


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