Thou hast prevented him with blessings of sweetness
If, using only the tools of twenty-first century English, we attempted to understand the meaning that the psalmist intends to convey with this line then we would probably come up with some strange interpretations. In sixteenth century English, however, ‘prevent‘ does not so much mean ‘stop‘ as it does ‘forestall‘ or ‘get in ahead of.’ So what David (to whom the psalms are traditionally attributed) is saying is that the Lord provided blessings before the person for whom they were provided had shown up. The Church has always regarded psalm 20 (or 21 in Protestant bibles) as a Messianic song so the ‘him‘ in question is Jesus.
Upon His incarnation the first, and certainly the sweetest, of the blessings prepared in advance for Him which Our Lord encountered was Mary His mother. She was, as it were, the Father’s gift to the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Since God does not use humans as automatons but respects their freedom before Our Lady could become the Father’s gift she had to first make of herself a gift to the Son, which, with the aid of the Spirit, she did not only at the Annunciation but through the whole course of her life beginning in the womb of St Anne, her mother.
It is fitting that as it was with the Son so it also was with the Mother, that is, the Father prevented her with blessings of sweetness. One of the traditional prayers for the Mass of the Immaculate Conception talks of the Lord’s grátia præveniénte or anticipating grace. By this grace Mary was, from the moment she was conceived in St Anne’s womb, preserved from the stain of original sin. This was not only a singular blessing for Our Lady but a watershed moment in human history. From the beginning God held in His mind the archetype of a human child coming perfect from His hands but until the time of Mary no such child had ever existed. All children before her had inherited the Original Sin of their parents and so the perfection in Creation which God desired was marred by our human imperfection. In Mary though the first perfect child of God appeared in the flesh at the moment in which all human life begins, that is, at the moment of conception.
It is also fitting that the first child to be fully made in the image and likeness of the Creator should be a girl child. It was to woman that the promise had been made anent humanity’s incessant war against the serpent- “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head” (Genesis 3:15) Mary was the first light to breach the darkness that had overlain humanity since the Fall, she was the herald of the defeat of Satan and she was to be the mother of the Saviour who would redeem mankind from servitude to sin and fear of death.
The Church rightly celebrates the Immaculate Conception in order to give honour and praise to the glorious Mother of the still more Glorious Son and to give thanks for the salvation and liberation which the economy of God worked through them. More than that, though, like all the dogmas of Christianity it is not merely an abstract truth to be noted it is a personal truth for each of the baptised which we are called upon to make present in our own lives, to incarnate through our practice of the faith.
How can we do this? God does not change His ways, if He has prevented both the Mother and the Son with blessings of sweetness then He has done so also with us. Through the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation (confession) He has granted us the gift of being cleansed from the stain (if not fully from the effects) of Original Sin. We can be restored to some degree to the immaculate state which the Creator intended for us. Whenever we are newly baptised or shriven we are filled with grace, that is the time for us to turn our eyes to Immaculate Mary and to follow her example. That too is the time to turn our hearts and our lips to the Theotokos in prayer that she, the mediatrix of all graces and our most loving mother, may send us the gifts of the Spirit which we need to keep us in the path of purity.
Immaculate Mary is our exemplar and protectress. Most of all she is the mother of God, the mother of our Saviour. It is because of Him that she was made Immaculate, it is through Him that she was Assumed into heaven, it was in Him that she placed her hopes and it was upon Him that she poured out the purest and strongest love that ever a human creature has felt or expressed. Being Immaculate meant that Our Lady was a mirror of the perfections of her Divine Son. We honour her the most when we imitate Him to whom she gave birth.
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The picture is from a Book of Hours, fol. 97r, early 16th century. School of the Île-de-France, Paris. Language: Latin. Script: Littera batarda