"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

The contrarian in me loves writing about this topic. Defined as dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was opposed even by St. Thomas Aquinas and is still widely misunderstood and reviled throughout what used to be known as Christendom. Indeed, the only non-Catholic, non-clerical author I've ever read who expressed actual enthusiasm for the Marian dogmas of the Church is Carl Jung, the great 20th-century psychologist who introduced such ideas as "the collective unconscious" and the anima/animus distinction in each human being.

On the Feast of the Assumption I quoted what he had said about that feast, but I can't find right now what he said about this feast. No matter: the themes are rich enough. But rather than try to top the many wonderful things that have been said about this reality by far holier people than I, I shall just present the thoughts that percolated in me soon after the precise, humble, and economical homily given by the pastor of my local parish.

What our world most lacks today—and this includes most who consider themselves some sort of Christian—is the love and joy that spring from the lively sense that God wants to marry us. Most of us feel, deep down, that what we call "reality" is harsh, ugly, and unforgiving; that the next guy, or even those closest to us, would not hesitate to screw us if they believed the benefit would far outweigh the cost; that the taint of evil in the world is so great, and the corresponding injustice and suffering so pervasive, that the best we can hope for in this life is some fleeting moments of pleasure before facing judgment—for good or ill—in the next. (As a Catholic co-worker of mine puts it: "Life is hard; then you die; then it really gets serious.") It's hard to feel one is worth anything in such an environment. Hence the frenetic, enslaving quest for power, prestige, and possessions among those with the talent and good fortune to attain them; and the similarly frenetic, enslaving quest for "a high," be it sexual, narcotic, or whatever, among many who aren't so fortunate. We're always trying either to prove we're worth something or to dull the pain that results from our inability to construct and/or sustain such a proof. And it's all very understandable. Whether we believe in a literal Satan or not, we cannot help often feeling that Satan is, in Jesus' words, "the prince of this world"—the world in which we live whether we like it or not.

In fact, Satan is just that. The Good News, the Gospel, is that God became man with the mission to break that doleful reign. He succeeded by suffering the worst we could do only to rise again in glory. Those of us who believe as much and seek, however haltingly, to respond accordingly are "the Church," whom St. Paul calls his Bride. Thus Paul's advice about marriage:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5: 25-27).

Now the prototype of the Church is the Mother of Christ and thus of God: Mary, in whom the Holy Spirit begat the man Jesus. As the first Christian, and the one who is pre-eminently what each Christian is called to be, Mary is the first person whom God has "married." In light of St. Paul's words, then, it was fitting that she be preserved, by the foreseen merits of her Son, from that state of congenital alienation from God which the Church calls "original sin." (Not from all its effects, of course: I can't help thinking she had foibles and, despite the pious speculations of some traditional Catholics, surely died as the Orthodox believe.) God's wife must be holy and without blemish, as the Church Triumphant, the Bride of Christ, will be on the Last Day. The resulting nuptials will be eternal—and far better than sex.

The advantage of contemplating all that is that we are reminded how it's already begun: in Mary, in the lives of other, lesser saints, and in each of us to the extent we walk with Jesus. The light thereof is that of love. It is supernal and infinitely powerful: it "shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:4). Nonetheless, the darkness often seems on the verge of overcoming it. When I start feeling that way, it helps me to remember the scene from The Lord of the Ring when Samwise, mourning over Frodo's apparently lifeless body, looks up at the stars and realizes that, whatever his and his master's fate, what is good and beautiful will go on, out of evil's reach and never be extinguished. He was, and we should be, content with that knowledge. So long as we're on the right side, what happens to us in this sphere of struggle, pain, and loss—this "vale of tears," as the Salve Regina puts it—doesn't matter much. What matters is that we be one of those points of light. Mary, conceived without sin, is the greatest such point next to the Sun of Justice himself. If we let her be our Mother too, we can become more like her than we can now imagine.
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