Friday, December 08, 2006

Immaculate Conception today.


Isn't that just about the creepiest religious picture ever? I found it on a Catholic Greeting Card site, and I'm assuming that it therefore have been originally created prior to the Great Schism of the 11th century... Catholic churches were not allowed to create icons of this sort for the following eight hundred years (and even today, their use is restricted to Catholic churches of the Eastern rites.)

The image is intended to represent the immaculate conception of Jesus within an immaculate Mary. Today is a feast day of celebrating the latter status, which is also one of the most controversial Catholic doctrines to other Christian churches. In 1854 Pope Pius proclaimed:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

To paraphrase my mother, once we've come to a psychological understanding of God, everything else is relatively easy; reconciling the first is more difficult than anything that will follow. Along these lines, and reading the Bible as a story, it is not difficult to find both cause and method for the Immaculate Conception. The cause is that, as the literal and housing for Jesus, Mary is a temple in the literal sense. In fact, given her literal role in the life of Jesus and her more metaphorical (if also direct) relationship to the church, as well as the Eucharist, it is probably more fitting to say that churches are representation of Mary. As such, and given the Bible's emphasis on spiritual cleanliness and purity, it is easy to justify why God would want an immaculate conception in the first place. If Christ, who is described as "like unto us in all things but sin," is to be born of a human, than it is in keeping with the "without sin" part that his mother ought to be free of original sin. This is significant not just because it provides an explanation, but because the explanation is elegant. It has simplicity.

Along these lines, there is also an easy explanation for "method," which is that Mary was created as Adam and Eve were created. They embraced sin by disobeying God and eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Along these lines, Mary faced the same option when approached by the angel Gabriel. "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your will," is an act obedience that contrasts with the disobedience of Adam and Eve. And here we have not only an elegant explanation, but one which helps to justify, in a more general sense, the reason for the Church's special veneration for Mary, and also a contextualization for the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ: Mary is not special because she was a decent person in the right place at the right time. Mary is special because she had a singular, unprecedented oppotunity, in which God had placed great confidence through long preparation, and through free will, seized the opportunity for the benefit of others. There is nothing in this situation to suggest divinity, in the sense that Catholics are accused of "worshipping Mary," but everything also suggests that Mary ought to be set apart from the rest of humanity. She is, along the lines of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, one who entered into special communion with God. She is unique among them because of the intimacy of her communion.



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