Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Immaculate Conception

Concerning the significance of the definition of the Immaculate Conception, the famous 20th-century American monk Thomas Merton wrote in his journal on November 10, 1947: “It seems to me that that definition was a turning point in the modern history of the Church. The world has been put into the hands of our Immaculate Lady and she is our hope in the terrible days we live in.”

Perhaps because this dogma had been so contested for so long, perhaps because its definition was such an assertive magisterial act against the political project of the 19th century, and perhaps most importantly because the doctrine of original sin is so opposed to the reigning spirit of the modern age and its utopian perfectionism, the doctrine and the feast of the Immaculate Conception have always seemed to have an especialy triumphalist air about them. 

But, of course, insofar as the feast actually highlights humanity's desperately inescapable need for redemption, the triumph belongs entirely to God himself - God who, as Saint Paul so powerfully expressed it, in love destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace, that he granted us in the beloved [Ephesians 1:6].

That Mary's Immaculate Conception is celebrated in Advent is an historical accident, which unfortunately may further contribute to the not uncommon confusion of the mystery of Mary's complete preservation from original sin from the very first moment of her existence with the mystery of Mary's virginity. (The use of the Annunciation Gospel in the Mass may also add to that confusion. The Visitation Gospel - including Mary's Magnificat - might have made a better choice.)

Like it or not, however, the feast falls in Advent and certainly lends itself to an authentically Advent approach. Thus, for example, the eminent Pius Parsch, sought to make the most of its Advent context. "During the time when we are awaiting the Savior," he wrote in The Church's Year of Grace, "when we are striving to arouse in ourselves a deep consciousness of the need for redemption, when we lovingly look up to Mary as our chiefest model, then indeed does this feast seem like the golden dawn before the rising sun of Christmas."

What I find so intriguing about the Immaculate Conception is that, while, considered abstractly it would seem to highlight a separation between Mary and the rest of us (for she alone - apart from Jesus himself - was ever conceived immaculate), devotionally the opposite seems to be the case. In fact, Mary's unique connection with Christ gives her a unique connection with us. The first to be freed from the overwhelming power of sin, the first to be filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, Mary became the first disciple and so led the way for us as well to become disciples gifted in turn with the grace of the Holy Spirit. So much so that, for example, Saint Augustine (Sermon 25) could speak of how she shares with us even her motherhood - the source and cause of her special place in the Church. We who have been reborn in baptism as members of Christ, Saint Augustine tells us, now by bringing others to birth in the same way have it in our power to become analogously mothers of Christ as well.

The parish church I am privileged to be pastor of was one of that first group of churches dedicated under the title of  the Immaculate Conception within one year of Blessed Pope Pius IX's dogmatic definition The fact of that date further highlights the persistent relevance of those modern and contemporary challenges to the Christian story which the Church fittingly responds by its proclamation of this ancient truth.

(Photo: Stained glass window celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the apse of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Knoxville TN.)

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