Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Immaculate Conception

March 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Other

I was once asked by a non-Catholic friend to give a talk to a group of London University students on the Immaculate Conception. They were completing a three year course on the production of films and videos and knew their way around the technology of the media.  They were intelligent and sophisticated. They did not seem to have much Christian faith but they were honest and open-minded. What they expected to hear was an exposition of the Catholic view of sexuality. They thought the Immaculate Conception was the doctrine that Mary was a virgin before the birth of Jesus, at his birth, and after his birth. To use a word like ‘immaculate’ suggested that Catholics thought there was something unwholesome, even unclean about sex.

What is the Immaculate Conception?
But the Immaculate Conception is not about the virgin birth. It is about Mary s own conception in the womb of her mother. It is about the very special way in which she was redeemed. By a unique privilege she was preserved from the first moment of her conception from any trace of Original Sin. The word ‘immaculate’ in fact affirms the wholesomeness of human sexuality. Mary was conceived in the normal sexual manner and that conception was free of the slightest suggestion of sin.

Original Sin
To see a bit more deeply into the mystery of the Immaculate Conception we need to reflect on the nature of sin. And sin may be Original or it may be personal. Either way we are talking about what separates us from God. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, lost the goodness in which they were created. They threw away the great privilege of sharing in the loving friendship of God. Genesis tells us that in the Garden of Eden Adam walked with God in the evening as a man might walk with a friend. After he sinned that no longer happened. His loss is what we call Original Sin. All human beings ever since have been deprived of God’s friendship. Our first parents squandered our inheritance. Original Sin has got nothing to do with personal guilt. We simply inherit it. Mary was preserved from it because God prepared her to be a worthy mother for his Son. She was never separated from God by sin. She was conceived in the same original innocence that Adam and Eve had. It is worth pondering what the French poet Charles Peguy said: “It is innocence that is full, it is experience that is empty.” The fullness of Mary’s innocence was to do with the love of God and with the presence of the Holy Spirit and his gifts.

A doctrine of presence
We should look on the Immaculate Conception as something positive and dynamic. It is a statement about presence more than about absence. Mary’s life went on as it began. The Lord was with her. The seed of that love which she received at her conception grew into a flowering tree. She became a woman whose life was filled with the love of God. Mary was always alert to the least promptings of the Spirit. If the Spirit moved her to go and do something that needed doing, away she went. She walked all the way from Nazareth to her cousin Elizabeth’s place just out of Jerusalem, because the Spirit showed her that a pregnant woman with an elderly husband would need a bit of help in the house.

Mary never sinned
It is sin that breaks or diminishes our friendship with God. But nothing ever got between her and her Maker. She was tested more deeply than any of us is likely to be, but she never blamed God; she never complained. She remained always loyal, always trusting, no matter what happened. She never sinned. The Protestant poet William Wordsworth described her as: “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

Why do we believe in the Immaculate Conception?
One of my student audience asked “How do Catholics manage to think up these things? Something like the Immaculate Conception?”  It’s not a matter of thinking them up. The Church is not a research institute like the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The last thing you expect to hear echoing in the corridors of the Vatican is a good loud Eureka.

The argument from the Church’s worship
When Pius IX defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1954 he formulated what the Church throughout the world believed. He pointed to the faith expressed in the solemn prayers of the Liturgy. He appealed to the age-old saying les orandi, lex credendi, “the way the Church prays is a reliable pointer to what it believes.” The faith inherited from the Apostles is found not only in the Scriptures. It is found in the living faith of the Christian people in union with their leaders, the Bishops. And the Church as a whole is always true to the teaching of the Apostles. Christ promised that He would be with His Church all days even to the end of time. And He gave to the communion of believers the gift of the Holy Spirit to keep them loyal to what He taught. The whole Church can never be in error because Christ always keeps his promises.

The argument from Scripture
There is no direct statement of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in Scripture. But the historico-critical approach does not exhaust its message. We have to take account of the way Scripture is read and understood in the Church. We have to read it as the Second Vatican Council tells us “in the light of a further and fuller revelation.” At least from the second century Mary has been seen as the Second Eve. And she can hardly have been inferior to the first. The first Eve was born without sin so how could Mary not have been born without sin as well? I am not discussing the question of whether or not Eve was an historical person. The comparison is between the two women seen as symbols. As Eve cooperated with her husband in the sin that lost God’s friendship, Mary cooperated with Jesus in regaining it. She was always on the side of God right from the first moment of her conception.

Unbelievers, non-Catholics and the Immaculate Conception
It is not only Catholics who believe in the Immaculate Conception. Many non-Catholics and unbelievers accept it as well. Luther, for example, had great devotion to Mary and kept her image on the wall of his study. Some Lutheran orders celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception well into the sixteenth century. Before Cardinal Heenan became a Bishop he was once being interviewed on BBC television. The interviewer was very scornful of the Immaculate Conception. Father Heenan asked: “Do you believe in Original Sin?” The question was dismissed with a laugh. “Well” said Heenan, “then you believe in the Immaculate Conception.”  If there is no such thing as Original Sin Mary must have been conceived without it.

What difference does it make?
When doctrines are defined by the Church they are defined not just because they are true. They are defined because they are true for our salvation. They help us to love God more and travel more securely towards our eternal home. In the presence of the mystery of Mary we are like a person in an art gallery before a great masterpiece. She is the finest creation to come from the hands of God. All classic works have the power to renew themselves in contact with each generation. It will be sufficient to share just a few responses. We rejoice in Mary’s privilege of being immaculately conceived because we rejoice always in the good fortune of those we love. It shows how lovable she was in the eyes of God. God saw in her innocence and love the same innocence and love that He saw in His Son. The Immaculate Conception encourages us to love her more. And we should pray for the grace of a true and deep love for Mary.

Domesticating the Spirit
We must not see Mary as a person removed from us by her privileges. They were given her for a life on earth, the sort of life that we all have to lead. Each morning she woke up, the main task ahead of her was to love God, to love Him in the way He presented Himself in the course of the day in the ordinary events of her life. And domestic chores took up most of the day. Mary was an ordinary Jewish housewife in a home of modest means. Her life at Nazareth was in no way extraordinary. She had to domesticate the Spirit the same as we do. She did the cooking for her two men, traipsed through the supermarkets looking for specials, cut Joseph’s hair and his beard (if he had one), put out a freshly ironed shirt for the Sabbath, oiled up his sandals, and kept a sharp eye on a lively youngster. And she had to look presentable when the family went off to the Synagogue. Always in her deepest thoughts was the unknown destiny God had in mind for her. She kept repeating what she had promised at the Annunciation.

The Immaculate Conception and New Zealand now
An age like ours, which so exalts science, readily forgets the power of the symbol. But for Catholics symbols have always meant as much as concepts. A symbol we need right now in New Zealand is a symbol from the third Chapter of Genesis, which Christian tradition has for centuries applied to Mary. It is the text that presents God addressing the serpent after he had seduced Adam and Eve: “I shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; it will bruise your head and you will strike its heel.”  Have not many of our countrymen, politicians, academics, captains of industry and commerce, lost the sense that there are things which are evil in themselves? No amount of honest confusion, or excusable ignorance can change the fact of evil. It is, for example, one thing to say gay is understandable. It is quite another thing to say gay is acceptable. That is not the thinking of the Gospel. Nor is it the faith inherited from the Apostles. In this country have not many reached the point where nothing is good, nothing is evil? Morality is seen by so many as relative. And isn’t that a symptom of the true state of New Zealand society? The great Cambridge scholar, F.R. Leavis, wrote many years ago that the health of a culture can be judged by its sense of absolutes. Where does that leave us as a nation or as individuals (within the Beehive or outside it?). We need the symbol of the woman crushing the head of the serpent as a reminder that between good and evil there can be no compromise. And it is a symbol that gives us courage. Mary is a powerful sign that it is goodness not evil, truth not falsehood, which will have the last word.

– Frank McKay SM

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