On December 8, Catholics around the world celebrate Mary, the Mother of God, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This day honors how Mary “was redeemed from the moment of her conception.” In other words, Mary was perfectly free from sin, from the moment she was created. There’s a risk that Mary could seem even more unrelatable to us if we only think about the mere fact of her perfect freedom from sin. But, there’s even more to the Immaculate Conception than that fact: Mary’s freedom from sin meant that she could give a completely free answer to God. Reflecting on the Immaculate Conception, we can see how much God respects Mary’s freedom, and how much He respects our own (even when others don’t).
God Wanted Mary to Answer Freely
God had always known that Mary would be the woman He would ask to carry His Son. So, He prepared her for it.
In order for Mary to give her “free assent,” she had to be free of sin. Why? Well, to put it simply, sin weighs us down. It complicates our lives and our decision-making. It drives us to say yes to things we might not really want, or no to things that might bring about something good. In other words, sin makes us less free, moving us to make decisions out of negative emotions like fear, despair, or anxiety, or out of a worse motivation.
Imagining myself in Mary’s shoes, I honestly can’t see myself giving a free yes to God, even if I were to consent to His plan. I imagine I’d be motivated by fear, or by the remnants of my people-pleasing tendencies, or by some other less-than-ideal reason.
This brings us back to the Immaculate Conception: God “wanted the free cooperation” of Mary in sending Jesus to us. He created us with free will so that, if we choose Him, we do so of our own accord. God gives us a radical degree of freedom in our lives; We have the ability to cooperate (or not) with His plan for us. If God were to force us to say yes or no, He would not be loving – He would be a tyrant.
Catholics believe that God desires a loving and intimate relationship with us, one far from that between a lowly subject and the master she obeys out of fear. We see this in the story of God and the woman He asked to be Jesus’ mother. In such a crucial moment, God didn’t just want Mary’s yes; He wanted her free yes. God didn’t want Mary saying yes out of fear, out of coercion, or out of anything that wasn’t genuine love of and trust in Him.
God Wants Us to be Free, Too
Mary’s freedom is hard for me to imagine. Like all of us, I’m a wounded, imperfect person living in a wounded, imperfect world. I’m vulnerable to others’ failings and to my own. I don’t always give a free answer when someone makes a request of me. Sometimes I do, though, and those moments are beautiful. It’s freeing to say yes to helping someone simply because they need it and I have the resources, not because I worry what they’ll think if I say no.
This is where Mary’s Immaculate Conception can inspire us to live in freedom – the freedom God desires for all of us. What would it be like to make a completely free decision the next time that someone asks something of you? What would it be like to say yes (or no), confident that regret and resentment won’t follow?
None of this is simple, I know. It can take years of thought, prayer, therapy, and diligent work to reach a place of greater freedom. It takes greater self-awareness, discovering the motivations that lie beneath the surface of our decisions. It takes a courageous willingness to dive into our wounds and explore how they drive us to act. It takes an honest look at how we show up in relationship with others. It takes traveling down a hard, long road – but I hope Mary’s story can inspire us to persevere on that road.
In my own life, therapy and prayer have slowly uncovered the things that keep me from making decisions out of a place of freedom. As I’ve worked through the wounds left by my parents’ divorce and my mom’s addiction – sad realities that are the results of my parents’ own wounds – I’ve discovered the depth to which fear and self-reliance dictate my decisions.
My parents’ struggles left them unable to show up for me fully, and so I learned to rely on myself. It felt like the safer option as I grew up, especially when my mom brought me into harm’s way. The one problem with self-reliance is that I’m imperfect and limited – and so, perfectionism and neglect of my own needs became deeply ingrained in me to solve that problem.
Though I’m a grown woman and my mom has since passed away, self-reliance and perfectionism still feel like the safest options to me today. While years of therapy and hours of prayer have slowly – slowly – given me more freedom to take reasonable risks, I know that many of my decisions are still made by that part of me who went through something traumatic and didn’t know how to manage. It’s the same part of me who is terrified that it will happen again, who is hypercritical, quick to suspect others’ intentions, and exacting in her standards for herself and others – all because, if she does this, she can avoid being so deeply hurt again.
My relationship with God is far from immune to these wounds. I find it difficult to believe that God is good and trustworthy, that He will actually show up in my life, and that He will do what is good for me. I’m sure that many of my no’s are motivated by my fear and self-reliance. And as for my yes’s? Well, I know they aren’t all free decisions (though some are), and I’m still working on learning what’s behind them.
Like I said, arriving at a place of freedom takes a long, hard road. If you’re on that road, too, at least know that you aren’t alone.
God Always Respects Our Freedom, Even When Others Don’t
I haven’t yet addressed the elephant in the room: What if our response isn’t respected? What if someone isn’t looking for our free response, but rather a certain response – one that they want? Or, what if they don’t ask us at all?
Tragically, we know that these situations happen too often. Our no is ignored, belittled, violated, or twisted – or we’re coerced into saying yes before we can even utter “no.” This happens in smaller and greater ways, in lighter and graver matters.
I think of loved ones who are trying to forge their own path after growing up in a dysfunctional family, and whose family members won’t respect their new boundaries. I think of loved ones who have left manipulative relationships, whose partners belittled their needs and almost always acted in self-interest. I think of loved ones who have survived sexual assault, how their freedom to choose was of no concern to the person who harmed them.
If any of that has been your experience, I’m so sorry that you’ve been harmed in that way. It wasn’t right. If I may, I’d like to invite you to reflect on God’s respect for not just Mary’s free will, but also for our own.
The truth is, God didn’t just respect Mary’s free will; He respects ours, too, even the rest of us who weren’t conceived without sin. He created us with free will so that our yes to Him could be free, too. In doing so, God took a risk because He knew that we would often choose something other than Him.
Why take that risk? Simply put, so that we would have the opportunity to enter into a truly loving relationship with Him. Love can’t be coerced or forced; it has to be chosen. Having free will means that we have “the power … to act or not to act” because it’s “[b]y free will [that] one shapes one’s own life.” Our free will is part of our dignity as human beings, and God respects every ounce of our dignity.
Mary shows us what our free will is for: to choose everything that is good for others and ourselves, the fullness of which is God. The more we break free from the chains that bind us – the chains of fear, people-pleasing, self-reliance, addiction, or whatever else – the more freedom we have to embrace what is good. In order to give us that choice, God leaves open every other option, but He finds it worth the risk.
This year, as we celebrate the Immaculate Conception, I pray God will lead all of us into greater freedom.