Searching for the Immaculate ConceptionDec 8th, 2012 | By Andrew Preslar | Category: Blog Posts
Today, December 8th, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The name alone is startling, and what makes it worse, the doctrine itself can seem severely abstract. Contrast this with the mysteries of the Rosary like the Visitation, the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Coronation; I have long seen and loved Mary in each of these aspects. Can’t you see the icons, with Gabriel and Elizabeth, in the cave at the manger with Joseph and the Bambino, at the foot of the Cross (and a sword shall pierce your heart), falling asleep but not seeing corruption, crowned at last, Our Lady, Queen of Heaven. But the Immaculate Conception?
On the one hand, this doctrine is seemingly all sharp-edged and stark, like a sword without a handle. There it is, but how does one lay hold of it? The words alone are martial; the two Ms (capitals whenever I imagine the phrase) and two hard Cs are plainly Gothic–too much so if you’ve grown used to the more subtle and womb-like contours of the Eastern Church. And what a hard-edged ecclesiology under-girds the definition. I believe it like kingdom coming, but the believing mostly seems to do with the authority of the Magisterium–no tame Church could throw down this gauntlet, at least not so late in the day. One thousand and eight hundred years after the Mother of God was assumed into Heaven, the people of God solemnly said Immaculate concerning her Conception. What a Church.
But what about Mary? After all, this doctrine is about her, who is neither a proposition nor a part of the Magisterium by which the Church on earth speaks its mind. Mary is the one whom the faithful seek as Mother, with the teaching Church as a guide, but not a goal. We would be at Jerusalem, above, where the Queen stands at the right hand of her Son, arrayed in gold (Psalm 45:9). We would by believing find her of whom the Church speaks. We are not looking for dogmas, as such. We want to know Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes. Thus, the search for the Immaculate Conception. You can call it faith seeking understanding, or certainty longing for sympathy, or imagination tracing those familiar images of redemptive history forward to eternity and back to the beginning of the redemption of this one person, the Virgin Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
As a kid, I was vaguely aware of the matter because of a running back named Franco Harris who once caught a football so strangely with such consequence that this moment in time was crystallized in the words “Immaculate Reception.” Personally, though, and without thinking, I always associate this phrase with an image of the appropriately named Lynn Swann pulling in a football one-handed, gracefully gliding in mid-air. But the Immaculate Conception? I thought that that referred to Jesus–you know, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son. Given all that was said about this Conception, it seemed that Immaculate might as well do for him. And then there is the blessed Baby born, of whom even modern day iconoclasts, tradition and sentiment triumphing over bad theology once a year, make little idols to prop up in their churches and homes. Idol Mary is there, and graven-image Joseph, with the porcelin ox and ass and some black dudes looking like sorcerer kings, but there is only one Immaculate Baby is this familiar picture. Even Protestants can’t altogether get rid of Mary the Mother, but Mary the Baby is really treading on Jesus’ turf–right?
But Mary was of course once a baby, and her parents are named Joachim and Anne. This is simply tradition and common sense. Bring a little of the latter to the former, and you can start to get a grip on the dogma: Mary had to have been a baby, an unborn baby, conceived at a moment in time. At what time (at that time?) was she defiled by sin? There is a parish in my hometown, Charlotte, dedicated to St. Anne. I’ve known that for years. But I never thought about who she is, nor what the conception of her daughter means. Until one day I did think about it, and contemplated the image of Mary, wrapped up like all babies were, with her folks in what looks for all the world like a medieval spa. (Its all in the icons, all in the icons; what do they teach the children without them?) And in fourteen years she turned fourteen. Enter Gabriel. But before that, there is a tradition that three-year old Mary was brought to the Temple by her parents, there to be consecrated to God. I have seen this also, a little child shining with spiritual loveliness, such as cannot be denied. So she was received. Eleven years later, Mary was told by the angel: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
When did the Holy Ghost begin to court the Blessed Virgin? At the Annunciation? No, that would be way too sudden. At the Temple? But whence the invitation to come thither? In the swaddling clothes? In the womb? “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” Part of the principle is in that passage. Mary prophesied too, you know. And the Bride of the Holy Ghost was closer to God, and therefore more lovely, than the prophets John and Jeremiah. She was beautiful, always. From the moment of conception. That is what all the icons are saying. That is why she alone nurses the baby Jesus at her bosom, and contains more than the cosmos in her womb. Theotokos. How else could one so radiant be identified? Immaculate Conception. If she had not said that to Bernadette, someone would have had to have said that to her. But of course: we did. Did I say that the doctrine has to do with a mesmerizing magisterium? Nonsense. Or, at least not common sense. We lifted up our eyes and saw Mary, and she was altogether lovely, and we knew our Mother, the Mother of Our Lord. Therefore, we believed and confessed, speaking the truth in love, which is a hard truth, a keen, biting edge, a fearful enigma of technical theology, and then we find her.