Monday, December 09, 2013

On the Immaculate Conception

Today, the Catholic Church observes the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. My father and his brother, Jack, derive waggish delight in querying this celebration: nowhere, of course, is there anything in the Bible about Mary's own conception.

My father and uncle, mind you, were both raised Missouri Synod Lutherans. That makes a wing of my family "arch-Lutherans."

So, here's the thing. The Church isn't celebrating a teaching but, rather, an event. As Herbert McCabe wrote, today we celebrate God's gift to humanity that "Mary was as holy as she could be said to be." It arose because, in and through the prayer and liturgy of early Christians, they realized that the shape and character of Jesus' life had an earthly source, a human model. Just as any parent teaches a child to speak, to eat, to get dressed, so also must parents do things like teach children manners, how to face adversity, and especially how to love. The insanely perfect way Jesus showed love for others - so perfect that we killed him for it - drew attention to Mary: what must have been the case in order for Jesus to love well? His mother must have loved perfectly, too.

Start with our experience. You know the adage, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Parent/Teacher conferences were inevitably illuminating - and sometimes sobering - when in the vast majority of cases I found that if I was teaching a kid who was a big jerk, his parents were also more than a bit jerky. Of course, I was blessed to teach vastly more great kids and it was not seldom that I'd meet the parents are realize why the kid was so great: very often (but certainly not always), great kids come from great parents.

Today's Solemnity is hardly about Mary. It's all about Jesus: what must his family have been like for him to have loved so boldly? The way Jesus loved, like the way he spoke and dressed, came to him from his parents. Jesus' ongoing "Yes" to the Father, to his Abba, was a "Yes" he was raised to say. Indeed, today's Gospel passage marks, for Christians, the "Yes" that changed history: Mary's "Yes" to God.

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato,
"Madonna with the Christ Child"
Gabriel does not impose anything on Mary; instead, the angel proposes. Such is her freedom to say "yes" even though she couldn't possibly know how that single word would change the course of history.

I love the painting on the right because Mary simply beholds her son - as new parents so readily do - and loves him. This is an image of human freedom, of having one's priorities ordered properly. She doesn't have to do anything other than be who she is: a loving mother, teacher and model, to her son.

The way Mary looked at Jesus over the years shaped the way Jesus looked at others. I doubt seriously whether Mary relished having to change diapers, feed at odd hours, or bandage scraped knees and cut elbows. And yet, surely, she must have shown great loving attentiveness because when Jesus is an adult, he too shows such loving kindness for others.

Very often, an image of Mary has been used as a cudgel to encourage women to be docile or subservient. Truly, this is a shame. I would offer Mary as the antidote to a great many of the ills and pressures facing women and men today. For, in our society, we place such a strong priority on achievement, on grasping success, on fitting into the image of success our society holds out for us.

Mary, by contrast, doesn't conform her life to any cultural norm or expectation. She has the courage to answer her vocation from the depths of her heart: her "Yes" does not carry the security of a 401k, a good job prospect, or success. Her "Yes" to God meets God's "Yes" to our human mess, to God's willingness to enter into our history to offer us a share in God's life.

Today's Solemnity looks at Jesus through Mary's lens: how did he learn to love freely and recklessly, to follow the Spirit in his heart? He did so because he was loved into loving. Mary shows all of us, men and women, the character of a redeemed life. The "yes" or "amen" we utter at the Eucharist looks forward to the day we are united, forever, at the Eucharistic feast of heaven. In Mary's "Yes" we see how humanity's perfect response to God brings into a sinful and fallen world God's "Yes" to humanity.

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