The Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

Murillo immaculate conception
The Immaculate Conception by Murillo

Let’s start with what the Immaculate Conception is, rather than what it is not. In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary ‘in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain (labes) of original sin.’ In other words, unlike the rest of us, and entirely because of the merits of Jesus Christ (i.e. not her own), she was endowed with sanctifying grace from the first moment of conception. (Sanctifying grace is conferred on us after birth, through the Sacrament of Baptism.) In the narrowest sense, the doctrine refers to original sin only and makes no claim to Mary’s having remained sinless. Of course, Catholics do believe that she was personally sinless, and the Council of Trent placed under anathema anyone who teaches otherwise.

Although belief in the Immaculate Conception can be found early and was probably being celebrated liturgically in Syria by the fifth century, later generations have tended to confuse the doctrine with the virginal conception of Christ and even gone so far as to assume that Catholics believe Mary had no need of redemption. As Ineffabilis Deus makes clear, Mary was redeemed as all are, by our Saviour Jesus Christ, yet in her case the manner of doing so was exceptional.

In the Middle Ages the doctrine was much discussed. Theologians of the stature of St Bernard and St Thomas Aquinas expressed reservations about the formulae used and it was not until Pius IX, at the behest of a majority of the bishops, instituted a committee of enquiry (1851 to 1853) that the solemn definition given in 1854 took final shape.

Where does all this leave us today? People sometimes remark on the apparent absence of devotion to Mary in Benedictine monasteries. By that they really mean the absence of devotions (plural). Hopkins likened Our Lady to the air we breathe, and among monks and nuns I think that just about sums it up. We are privileged to live in a world of sign and symbol, where Mary and the saints are very close to us and highly honoured for their own closeness to God. Let Hopkins have the last word:

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

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The Annunciation

The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

Loveliest of all Marian feasts, the Annunciation reflects  a moment of unequalled faith, both on the part of God and of Mary. That God should put such trust in humanity, and Mary such trust in him! One cannot fail to be encouraged. We are, as Hopkins rightly perceived, not mere carbon but immortal diamond, capable of holding within ourselves the immensity of God.

I think it is the little details of the story that make such an impact. We see Mary almost thunderstruck by the angel’s message. As so often, awe comes out of a dazed kind of doubt or disbelief. A momentary questioning, followed by a wondering acceptance of so great a destiny. How many of us would be reckoning our lost hopes and fears rather than embracing what God asked of us?

Mary is a model for all who would be contemplatives in the way in which she treasures things in her heart. She is a model for every Christian, male or female, in her readiness to embrace the demands of the Word. On this day, above all others, she is a reminder that youth can do great things for God, that age and experience count for nothing beside love of God. It is a day for wonder and gratitude, a day for reaffirming our love and trust. It is also a day for rejoicing that God has such great love for us.

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Religious Mockery

Yesterday was a busy day so I didn’t have time to do more than register a blog pooh-poohing the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and the Church’s canonisation process. They are hardly to be equated, but the blogger took her information from a former Catholic and seemed to think that was good enough to link them both in the magical mystery realm.

Quite apart from the fact that I don’t think it’s a very good idea to take one’s understanding of anything theological from someone who has rejected both the theology and its presuppositions, I was surprised to find I was upset (about the Eucharist, not the canonisation error where the ignorance shown was laughable and did indeed make me smile hugely). Religious debate has always seemed to me good and valuable but mockery is hard to take when what is being mocked is God himself. I can’t think what the equivalent of  the title “Transubstantiation and Santa Claus” would be, but I know no one in the monastery would use it of anyone’s religious beliefs. The blogger did not mean to give offence or cause hurt, which is important to remember. I wish I had had time to go into the questions raised but I didn’t, and it is the nature of blogging that yesterday’s post is one with eternity.

So why am I going on about religious mockery today? In this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, that blog post was a reminder that we have a long way to go before we Christians really understand and respect one another. St Benedict in his Rule never lets us forget that reverence for God must spill over into reverence for people and for all that is. Even the goods and utensils of the monastery are to be regarded as sacred altar vessels, capable of holding the mystery of God. Mockery, scurillitas, is something he condemns again and again because it is fundamentally opposed to reverence. If we are to to learn how to appreciate the gifts God has bestowed on us, we must learn how to revere one another, how to respect one another’s beliefs.

Yesterday I really understood why.

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Tota pulchra es, Maria

Murillo: The Immaculate Conception
Murillo: The Immaculate Conception

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is often misunderstood. What the Church teaches is that Mary was “preserved exempt from all stain of original sin by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race.” That means that Mary’s sinlessness is a direct consequence of the redeeming work of her Son. Put another way, Mary was as much in need of a Redeemer as any of us, although she was without sin.

So many people think they have somehow to earn God’s favour and are cast into gloom every time they sin. Perhaps today’s feast can therefore be offered as an encouragement. Sinlessness does not equal redemption. We are redeemed by grace; and God’s grace is wide enough and deep enough to embrace us all, no matter how badly or often we sin. That doesn’t mean we should sin with impunity, so to say, but it does remind us to drop, once and for all, any of our lingering  ideas of D.I.Y. salvation.

It is a pity that Mary has inspired so much bad art and, dare I say it, lazy theology. Once we have grasped that everything the Church believes and teaches about Mary is meant to help us focus on her Son, all makes sense. The Syrian Fathers, in particular, are lyrical in her praise, but they, too, want us to look beyond her to God himself when they call her “all-inviolate spotless robe of him who clothes himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate”. To him be all glory and praise for ever. Amen.

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