There are times when we need to be still and simply rejoice in the wonder and beauty of God. Today is one of those times. As it is Saturday, and Christmas is little more than a fortnight away, I suspect many will greet that remark with hollow laughter, but it is still true. We can cudgel our brains to understand the theology of this feast — Mary’s sinlessness, which did not exempt her from the need to be redeemed, Augustine’s theology of original sin and all the logical and frankly illogical consequences of that — but ultimately we are left on our knees, marvelling at God’s grace and its perfect fulfilment in that young Jewish girl whom we dare to call Mother of God. May she pray for us all, but especially today for the overburdened and the tired.
One of the problems with Marian feasts is that they are often misunderstood; another is that they tend to attract a lot of bad art. I cannot do anything about the bad art, but a few years ago I wrote a rather dry post summarising what the Catholic Church actually teaches about the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and if your ideas about it are a bit hazy, you may find the post useful: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/12/08/the-immaculate-conception-of-the-b-v-m/.
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 the ‘all-inviolate spotless robe of him who clothes himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate.’ Now, as it happens, earlier this year Michael Peppard published a fascinating article in The New York Times, in which he argued that a wall painting from the baptistry of Deir ez-Zor, Syria, now in the Yale University Art Gallery, might possibly be the oldest extant depiction of Our Lady. I cannot reproduce the illustration for copyright reasons, but you can read the whole article here.
We are so accustomed to images of Mary with floating drapery set against Renascence skies that we tend to forget the earthliness of earlier depictions — Mary reading as the angel arrives to ask her consent to be the Mother of God; even earlier, Mary drawing water from the well as Peppard suggests is the case at Deir ez-Zor and in many icons from the Orthodox tradition. It is when we forget what I call the earthliness of Mary that we forget or misprize her true greatness. The miracle of grace we see in her shows us what our frail and often grubby humanity can become. Today’s feast is not remote or arcane. It is an encouragement and a joy, and the fact that it occurs during Advent is a reminder that God wills that all should be saved through the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ. Let us give thanks for that.
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:
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.
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.