Praying Vespers is beautiful, "like savouring a fine cigar" (as a friend of mine once described the Rosary), tho' strictly speaking I wouldn't know, never having smoked.
I was suddenly struck by the aching beauty of the second antiphon:
Vestimentum tuum candidum quasi nix, et facies tua sicut sol.
(Cf. Dan. vii, 9; Cant. ii, 14; vi, 9)
I felt something; an echo perhaps of Faber the hymnographer's emotion, as he penned –
O Mother! I could weep for mirth,
Joy fills my heart so fast;
My soul today is heaven on earth,
Oh could the transport last!
I think of thee, and what thou art,
Thy majesty, thy state;
And I keep singing in my heart–
Our Lady's beauty must indeed be as gleaming snow, effulgent as the sun: for she was conceived immaculate, and has never known sin, that which alone makes for true, sad ugliness.
It is unsurprising that the Church sings thus of the Virgin, she closest by blood and by holiness to her God and Son, who, when transfigured, was revealed, insofar as mortal eyes could stand it, with face blazing as the sun on high, with garments made white as snow: resplenduit facies ejus sicut sol: vestimenta autem ejus facta sunt alba sicut nix (S. Matt. xvii, 2).
Anyone who has met someone really holy, living a saintly life, especially a consecrated virgin, cannot help but recognize a kindred spiritual beauty, gleaming from a pure heart (as when I recently paid a visit to the Carmelite nuns near Bunbury, W.A., and talked with Mother Benedicta in the parlour; or when visiting the Schoenstatt shrine in Armadale, and the sisters there). Even to the unvirtuous, virtue is attractive and appealing.
What then must be the radiant beauty of holiness in Mary Most Holy, the Theotokos Panagia, who alone of mortals has never sinned, no, nor even ever been stained with the primal sin of our First Parents?
It came to me (an illumination of the intellect, one may piously and humbly conjecture, vouchsafed by God the Holy Ghost) that in this way Our Lady is truly the spotless mirror of God's countenance (Speculum justitiæ), reflecting purely His radiance, unstained, fairer than the moon, marked alas though it reflect down through earth's night the brightness of the sun. So many sapiential texts of the Old Testament are rightly applied to the Blessed Virgin, precisely because in their fullest sense they apply to the Eternal Word, Incarnate as truly her Son. For she in her state as humble woman, yet by grace the highest of all creatures, is, after her Son in His sacred humanity, the fairest mirror of the Divine:
For she is a vapour of the power of God, and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God: and therefore no defiled thing cometh into her.
For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God's majesty, and the image of his goodness.
For she is more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of the stars: being compared with the light, she is found before it.
(Wisdom vii, 25. 26. 28)
A sometime fellow student of earlier years, now ordained (Fr Paul Newton), long time ago drew my attention to that wondrous sentence of St Paul: [Deus] elegit nos in [Christo], ante mundi constitutionem, ut essemus sancti et immaculati in conspectu ejus in caritate (Ephesians i, 18) – God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and spotless, immaculate, in his presence in charity. This is the call to all who have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into the Church, the Ekklesia, "the assembly of those called forth" as the Greek indicates.
This is the universal call to holiness, arguably the most important yet practically neglected emphasis of the Second Council of the Vatican (Lumen Gentium, chapter 5). For as St Paul elsewhere says, the Church is to be presented chaste, holy, and spotless – immaculate – to Christ, as his perfected Spouse (Ephesians v, 27); and we as members thereof must be washed whiter than white in His the Lamb's Most Precious Blood (cf. Isaias i, 18; Apoc. vii, 14), entailing purification – purgatory – for us, whether in this vale of tears, or in the Intermediate State in the next life, that we may be found worthy to stand at the right hand of the Lord in the life of the world to come. Prayer, penance, confession, Holy Mass, good works...
But alone of all mankind, Our Blessed Lady, in consideration of her most august predestination to be the Mother of God, was redeemed in a more excellent manner than all others, not merely restored to innocence after actual sin, not just cleansed of original sin and sanctified in the womb (as is piously held to have occurred to Jeremias the Prophet, John Baptist, and St Joseph), but preserved even from that ancestral stain, in consideration of the foreseen merits of the most bitter passion and death of her most blessed Son.
Far from being, as Anglican divines of the time declared, the last madness of corrupt Rome, the definition by Blessed Pius IX of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 was indeed a cardinal moment in the resurgence of the Church in the 19th Century. A while back I purchased a lovely old book of Marian meditations, rhapsodies in purple prose, by the Oratorian Fr Kenelm Digby Best (intituled Rosa Mystica): it's not at hand, having been again borrowed by my parish priest for sermon preparation, but I recall how struck I was with its constant reversion to the praises of the Immaculate Conception as the acme of Marian devotion and Church triumphalism* (it being published on the golden jubilee of the definition).
*And yes, I regard triumphalism as a good thing, especially as we've had so little of it for so long; the election of His Holiness Benedict XVI, and his declaration recognizing the non-suppression of the Traditional Mass, were two triumphal occasions to savour in the midst of so much bagging of the Church, so much exposure of the filthiness of her skirts, so much sadness to see paraded her faults real and imagined.
Wordsworth was right: She is indeed our tainted nature's solitary boast. Behold the Immaculata! arising as the dawn, fair as the moon, elect as the sun (Cant. vi, 9): like a new, and true, and perfect
Venus (I make bold to say), whose beauty is entirely chaste, virginal and pure (unlike that pretended goddess of the pagans), and yet fertile beyond all human expectation, bringing forth without loss to her virginity no merely human son, but He who is at once God and man; and who has become the mother of all the faithful in the order of grace, the mother of an immense progeny, represented by St John, as given to her by dint of her Son's agony on the Cross. She is the Immaculate Conception: and Ever-Virgin; because Mother of the True God; and therefore assumed into Heaven body and soul, for how could the grave hold her whom the stain of sin's corruption never did?
And may we make bold to say with Holy Mother Church, repeating now the fifth antiphon of Vespers of this holy day:
Trahe nos post te, Virgo immacula, post te curremus in odorem unguentorum tuorum.
Yea, draw us after thee, O Virgin, O Immaculate, O Spotless One! Indeed we shall run after thee, drawn by the perfume of thy manifold graces, with which the Holy Ghost hath anointed thee as with unctions of sanctity.
... And Vespers concluded thus:
Deus, qui per immaculatam Virginis Conceptionem dignum Filio tuo habitaculum præparasti: quæsumus; ut, qui ex morte ejusdem Filii tui prævisa, eam ab omni labe præservasti, nos quoque mundos ejus intercessione ad te pervenire concedas. Per eundem Christum Dominum nostrum. R/. Amen.
This, today's festal collect, together with so concisely including the dogmatic definition of 1854 (such the concision of the collects of the Roman liturgy!), draws upon the more ancient collect appended to the Salve Regina: ...Deus, qui gloriosæ Virginis Matris Mariæ corpus et animam, ut dignum Filii tui habitaculum effici mereretur, Spiritu Sancto cooperante præparasti... – whose phrase emphasises that the Holy Ghost, Uncreated Grace, prepared our Lady in both body and soul for her sublime Divine Maternity, which is to speak of the Immaculate Conception implicitly, since He "abhors not the Virgin's womb" since alone of all humanity she is entirely full of grace, and therefore entirely kept from sin. In Suarez' lauded phrase, she "touched the hem of the Divinity" and was raised to heights beyond which no creature can pass: only the human nature of the Lord, enhypostatised in the Divine Person of the Son, is higher, because joined in one person to God.
To paraphrase, then, the Collect:
Lord our God, as it is thy will that we be holy and spotless before thee, grant unto us to come unto thee cleansed of our filthiness: at the intercession of she who was ever spotless in thy sight, preserved from sin by Christ's all-meritorious death, that she might be prepared as a spotless Virgin shrine wherein He might take our flesh, her Son and thine, evermore.