Friday, December 08, 2006

The ‘Immaculate Reception’, and the Immaculate Conception

After making the 'Immaculate Reception,' Franco Harris races for the goal line.

If you would like to view this famous play, click here: Immaculate Reception and then choose either 56k, 100k, or 300k.

(Immaculate Conception 2006: This homily was given on December 8, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 1: 26-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Immaculate Conception 2006]

Every pro football fan who witnessed this event on December 23, 1972 remembers it. It was one of those unforgettable experiences—in addition to being one of the most bizarre plays in NFL history.

They later referred to it as the “Immaculate Reception,” and it literally turned around an entire football franchise. Prior to this incredible play, the Pittsburgh Steelers had been the laughingstock of the National Football League—for 40 years! In fact, during the 4 decades prior to 1972 they had never even won a single playoff game. After the Immaculate Reception, however, it was a very different story. As our bishop, Thomas Tobin and Fr. Dean Perri (both big Steeler fans) would happily tell you, after December 23, 1972 Pittsburgh went on to win many playoff games—and 4 Super Bowls in 6 years!

The event itself took place with 22 seconds left on the clock. The Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-6, but they had the ball on their own 40-yard line. Unfortunately, however, it was “4th and 10”. For the few in the congregation who might not understand football, that means they had only one chance left to advance the ball 10 yards and stay in the game.

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw took the snap from center and went back to pass. Almost immediately, he was forced out of the pocket because of the strong rush of the Raiders’ defensive line. As he ran to the right and looked downfield, he suddenly spotted one of his running backs at the Raiders’ 35, a guy by the name of Frenchy Fuqua. So Bradshaw threw him the ball. However, just as Fuqua was about to catch it, he was hit hard by the Raiders’ defensive back, Jack Tatum. There was a huge collision, and the ball bounced off Tatum and high into the air.

At that point most people thought that the play—and the game—were over.

However, just before the ball hit the ground, a rookie running back named Franco Harris snatched it out of the air and ran 42 yards downfield into the end zone for the winning touchdown. Final score: Steelers 13 Raiders 7.

Now why do I recount this story of the Immaculate Reception on the feast of the Immaculate Conception?

Well, it’s certainly not for the purpose of confusing anyone—although this particular feast day is sometimes confusing! The Immaculate Conception refers to MARY’S conception in the womb of her mother, Ann. Some Catholics, however, mistakenly think that this feast refers to Jesus’ conception in the womb of his mother, Mary (which, of course, is actually the Annunciation—the event we heard about in today’s Gospel).

It’s fitting that the story of the Annunciation is read on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, because the Immaculate Conception prepared Mary for that decisive moment when Gabriel appeared to her and asked her to be the mother of the Lord. God saved Mary and preserved her “from every stain of original sin” (as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception puts it), so that she would be a pure and holy vessel—a pure and holy “tabernacle” if you will—through which the Savior would come into the world.

But that still doesn’t answer the question I posed a few moments ago: Why this story of the Immaculate Reception on the feast of the Immaculate Conception?

Well, it’s really very simple. . . .

Franco Harris received a tremendous “gift” when that football bounced off of Jack Tatum and into his hands on December 23, 1972. But what’s crucial to note is that when he received it, he didn’t just stand there—HE RAN WITH IT! Franco Harris took the gift he had received and he immediately ran with it toward the goal line.

Our Blessed Mother also received a gift on the day she was immaculately conceived in the womb of her mother, Ann—the gift of sanctifying grace: the gift that her Son, Jesus Christ, would win for the world by his passion, death and resurrection. But what makes Mary such a great inspiration and role model for us is that she took that gift and “ran with it”! And not for just a few moments, like Franco Harris! Mary “ran” with the gift she received FOR THE REST OF HER EARTHLY LIFE!

That’s because she was never “tackled” or “knocked out of bounds” by personal sin! Not even once!

When we come into this world at birth, we are not preserved from original sin as Mary was; we are not “immaculately conceived”! But we do receive the gift that she received—the gift of sanctifying grace—into our souls when we’re baptized. And we’re supposed to “run” with that gift in the same way that Mary ran with hers, by living a life of radical, complete obedience to God and his word.

But we don’t. Even after original sin is taken away, we suffer from what theologians call “concupiscence” (or the inclination to sin). And so, unlike Mary, we do sometimes stumble on our run to the goal of eternal life (by committing venial sins); at other times we may actually go completely “out of bounds,” so to speak, by committing a mortal sin.

Just think, for example, of how many Catholics commit mortal sins by failing to come to Mass on a holy day like this! It’s scary.

Let me summarize it all in this way:

Franco Harris got one chance to run with his gift to the goal line; Mary, our Blessed Mother, only needed one chance to run with her gift toward the kingdom of heaven.

Thankfully, we all get lots of chances; in fact, we get as many chances as we need to run toward our spiritual goal of eternal life with Jesus Christ. That’s the good news of God’s mercy!

But it’s not automatic. The only way to get back onto the field and into the running after we’ve committed a mortal sin and gone “out of bounds” is through perfect contrition or through sacramental Confession. Hopefully we all understand that.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us. Pray that we will always be honest with ourselves, and in that honesty recognize when Satan has knocked us out of bounds through mortal sin. And pray that after we come to this recognition we will have the good sense to repent, and make a good Confession—and get back in the game and on the run, so that someday we will happily reach our goal, as you happily reached yours.