Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam, Prior
December 9th, 2013.
This idea of Mary being conceived immaculately goes back well before the ninth century, and was originally celebrated as the feast of the conception of Mary by St. Ann. Later in the 19th century, when it was defined by Pope Pius IX, he was only doing what councils of the church are always supposed to be doing––affirming and, in a sense, explaining something that is already held by the Church in its tradition, a tradition of which common ordinary everyday believers with the sensus fidelium are often the custodians, beliefs that theologians then try to square with their technical language. But what is really important for us to keep in mind, as we begin this celebration, is what we hear in the reading from the letter to the Ephesians, that God destined us to be holy and blameless in his sight.
In some ways, theologically this is one of the more complicated feasts in the church year. What we need to remember is that anything said about Mary is also about the Church; and anything said about the Church is also said about us, the living stones that make up the temple that is the Body of Christ. And anything said about us refers to all creation, which is groaning and agony while we work this out. But foremost, anything said about Mary is really telling us something about Jesus, something about how God so loves the world in Christ.
In some ways all of this goes back to Saint Augustine, because he had taught that all human conception was stained––and yes, there actually is an archaic, poetic word “maculate” which means “stained”––; all human conception is maculate, stained, by desire, by libido, by concupiscence. We are talking here about Mary’s parents really, at first, more than about her. Up until the 14th century, theologians assumed that Mary in some marvelous way had been redeemed of this stain of original sin just like all other human beings. But the sensus fidelium, the instinct of ordinary believers, was that her conception was actually un-stained by selfishness; it was a pure act of self-donation, a pure act of love. No one was sure how to explain that theologically: did this mean that she didn’t have to be redeemed? It was the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus who came along and articulated it simply thus: for Mary it was not through redemption from sin; she was redeemed by preservation from sin. She was spared that automatic impulse that happens in us human beings to grasp, to selfish clinging. That’s what Pius IX echoed in his definition, that Mary “had been preserved and exempted from the stain of original sin,” im-maculate. But I like the way my friend Fr Deiss put it, not in negative terms, but in positive ones: “She was without stain because she was resplendent with the beauty of God; she was without darkness because she was illuminated by the light of God; she was without sin because she was full of grace.”1
How this applies to the Church: the Church is also referred to as a virgin mother in the same way that Mary is. The church is a bride like Israel is a bride, as we read so often in the Hebrew Scriptures––for better and for worse. We had a rude awakening at Vigils on the first Monday of Advent when we heard in the first chapter of Isaiah2 that “the faithful city had become like a prostitute rather than a bride.” So the church is the stainless bride of Christ. As Lumen Gentium says (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II), in some way the Church is “already sealed by genuine holiness,” but it is an imperfect holiness, because the Church also “bears the likeness of this passing world,” as we’ve seen so often throughout history, and even recently in corruption at a pretty high level. Where Mary comes in, is that in Mary, in this one human being at least, “the Church has already reached perfection”; in Mary, in this one member of the Church at least, it “exists without spot or wrinkle.” But “the faithful”––in other words the rest of us––“still strive to conquer sin and increase in holiness.”3 Actually Lumen Gentium at this point refers to the Church not as “she” or as “mother,” but as “it.” I was taught early on that this is a useful linguistic device, that when we refer to that aspect of the Church that is already the stainless Bride of Christ, the virgin mother, the Church is “she.” But that aspect of church that is still imperfect is “it.” And so Lumen Gentium says, “It lives in the midst of a creation still groaning and in travail as it waits for the children of God to be revealed in glory…”4 In other words, it is waiting for us. But I see that not as an indictment; that’s a sign of hope.
It is instructive that the Church chooses for us to listen to this canticle from the letter to the Ephesians today,5 because it points right back to us. There is a little play on words right in the middle there: God chose us, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish is how it’s usually translated. The Greek word is amômos, and it could easily be translated, God chose us to be holy and “immaculate.” I think some compiler of the lectionary slipped a little joke in there: on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, we are reminded that God chose us to be immaculate! Why we hear the reading from the book of Genesis about the Fall of Adam and Eve is because, first of all, we are supposed to remember what we were created for, before the foundation of the world––to be holy and blameless, holy and without stain, holy and immaculate. We hear about Adam and Eve covering their nakedness, only to be reminded that in some way this is a redemption of the body, our bodies, a purification of desire, of redemption of eros, because it is now God’s pure longing––for us. And we hear it because with Mary and her place in this whole trajectory of restoring all things to perfect unity, humanity gets to start all over again, unhindered by this fatal flaw that is passed on from generation to generation, the flaw of selfishness, the flaw of disordered desire. (There’s a strikingly monastic Evagrian theme in there, no? Patheia and apatheia.) As we sing in the Preface for saints, in Mary, as in the saints, God “restores humankind to its first innocence.”
But we actually go one step farther: everything is dependent on this! Lumen Gentium picks up Paul’s theme that all creation is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies,6 and says that we are looking forward (and here is our real Advent theme) to when the time comes “for the renewal of all things”; we are waiting for the time when “the whole world, which is intimately bound up with humanity and which reaches its perfection through human beings”––or at least is meant to!––will be perfectly restored in Christ, a new heaven and a new earth as Peter and the book of Revelation promise, “a new heaven and a new earth in which justice dwells.” And that renewal starts with Mary. That’s why we say that Mary is the “honor, the glory, fairest member of our race,” the new Eve.
Like Mary, we are destined to be resplendent with the beauty of God. There is a light that wants to shine in our darkness, in our shadows of death, so that we can be illuminated by and filled with the transfiguring light of God. It is possible for us to be flooded with grace so that there is no room in us for sin. This is God’s doing, God’s loving us, God drawing us, because God’s grace is the same as God’s love, overflowing, inflowing. And this is not only for ourselves, but for the sake of all creation. What has happened in and to Mary, is what is happening in the Church, and therefore is meant to happen in and to us, and because it happens in us all of creation is affected by it.
And so, again in the words of Lumen Gentium, we “turn our eyes to Mary, who shines forth to the whole community as the model of virtues,”7 to see what we are supposed to become, what we are destined to be, holy and righteous in God’s sight all the days of our lives.
1 Lucien Deiss, God’s Word is Our Joy, 37.
2 Is 1:21
5 Eph 1:3ff.