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Voices Online Edition
Winter 1990: Volume V, No. 1

Why the Immaculate Conception?

by The Rev. Paul Mankowski, S.J.

Pure. Whole. Intact. Entire. Spotless. Stainless. Sinless. unsoiled. Unsullied. Unblemished. Uncorrupted. Immaculate!

I live in an age, and a country
, wherein the largest singe cause of death of infants under one year of age is homicide. I live at a time when, according to those who claim to know these things, Ronald McDonald has surpassed Jesus Christ in popularity among children. I live at a time when the best known moral theologians have despaired of leading people to a more virtuous life, but are principally concerned to insulate the sinner from the consequences of his sin; logic has give way to latex as the preferred medium of instruction. I live in a country where, this very day, in the time between my rising and my standing here before you, 4,000 of our fellow citizens, 4,000 human beings with an eternal destiny, were summarily killed by abortion. I live at a time when most promises will be broken, most vows will be repudiated, most marriages will fail. I live at a time when it is virtually impossible to go through a day without using some commodity which, however innocent in itself, is not hawked in terms of some base or venal allure. I am promised prosperous and intriguing companions by the folks who brew my beer; and those who sell my shaving cream are at pains to assure me that it will provoke the women I encounter into sexual frenzy. (The last claim, I might add, is an exaggeration.)

It may seem pointless at such a time, in such a place, to hold up the Virgin Mary, and especially her
Immaculate Conception, as a source of nourishment for our lives as Christians. For her perfection can appear so remote from the moral sweatiness and squalor in which our personal struggles occur that it recedes entirely into the background; it is swallowed up by our furious temptations and enthusiasms, and so is lost to us. This remoteness is widened, and not helped, by a way of speaking which would present the Virgin Mary to us as "the representation of an Ideal", that is, as an abstraction, or at best a personified Virtue, like the Roman goddesses of Wisdom or Moderation. Thus, she, who begins as a real flesh-and-blood woman, "a virgin, betrothed to a man named Joseph", as today's Gospel has it, becomes an the end an abstract noun, a figure of speech.

And of course it's not hard to see why in and of itself a personified Ideal is of little consequence to the moral or spiritual life. To use an analogy from a more trivial world, we might imagine a mythological golfer who scored 18 in every round he ever played, yet few instructors would "hold up" such a figure as an example to his pupils, and even fewer players would tell themselves in preparing to make a treacherous shot, "Stead now. Remember that the Great McTavish always did the 530 yard fifth hole in one stroke,..." Ideas can be beacons to guide us, but they are seldom fires at which we can warm our hands; they may be necessary to our thinking, but they don't strengthen the will. In terms of discipleship, humanity in order to be spurred on to a companionship in godliness. If you think about the two or three saints to whom you yourself have the deepest devotion, is it not the case that part of what attracts and fascinates you about these saints is what you can recognize a certain kinship in the kind of fragility they possess, a fragility against which their heroism blazes with particular glory in your eyes, in your heart? Isn't it the case that, since you can see God's work in their weakness, you can come to accept the possibility of God's working in your weakness too?

Perhaps then we're in a little better position to understand the unique complications this presents in terms of the Virgin Mary. She says, "My soul glorifies the Lord ... for He has looked with kindness on His lowly servant." Now isn't there a voice in the back of our heads which whispers at this point, "lowly? We should all be so lowly!" That is, we assume that Mary's perfection would have been as obvious to her as it is to us, and it seem a trifle stagy in such circumstances to pretend to true lowliness. Now I apologize to those of you who have never been vexed by this problem, but I think it is common enough to be worth trying to free ourselves from it.

It seems to me that in speaking of the Virgin Mary as sinless, as immaculate, we all too often means that she was constitutionally incapable of sinning, that the was no more capable of sin than a man is capable of giving birth or an oyster is capable of flight. There are some difficulties here. First, we are told in the Letter to the Hebrews that "we have not [in Jesus] a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, but without sin." (4:15) There is then a theological difficulty in attributing to Mary that freedom from temptation which her own Son did not cling to. Further, if we speak of the Virgin Mary as constitutionally incapable of sin, it is all the more difficult to discover in her the humanity which is by its very weakness transparent to God's power. Consequently, in an age like our own especially, she is all the more likely to be treated as precisely that sort of Ideal which cannot warm our affections or stir our courage.

One obvious, all-too-predictable solution, is to deny the Immaculate Conception and the sinlessness of Mary, under the fatuous pretense that by doing so, she will become more "human", and so more accessible to the rest of us sinners. Wrong on all counts, the most obvious being that a human who sins is less human after he succumbs that he was before. Still, there is a persistent, though imbecile, way of speaking in which some public figure who has an adulterous affair or a personal foible come to light thereby reveals a "human side" of himself. In fact, it is in keeping his commitments and displaying evidence of virtue that a man is most fully human; in giving in to temptations, even trivial or petty ones, he becomes that much more bestial.

When we fall, we fall from a human dignity, not an angelic one; our skid may well end at a level of animal savagery, but we never "tumble down" into humanity. It was natural indeed that the Legion inside the Gerasene demoniac pleaded to be cast into swine -- not because pigs are of themselves wickeder then men, but because the elevator, so to speak, was already at that floor. There is no point, then, in exploring this avenue further. I think the way out is more direct. A friend of mine is fond of saying, "Whenever I hear the word 'dialogue', I reach for my dogma." Let us, in the same spirit, reach for our dogma and see if it has anything to say to us.

Pope Pius IX's Dogmatic Definition of 1854 runs thus: "The Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of omnipotent God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.... " First, it should be noticed that the grace given to the Virgin Mary was "in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ." That is, in and of herself, she too was in need of salvation and was saved through the sacrifice of her Son, although it worked "retroactively" as it were, so as to affect her even at her conception.

A very partial analogy might be drawn with a woman afflicted from birth with a progressive terminal disease, whose own child grows up to be the scientist who discovers the cure for the disease, and so heals the mother. But let's not push that too far. The second point, and this is the one I want to stress, is that it is original sin from which Mary was preserved at her conception. The contamination which we all inherited from Adam, namely, estrangement from God with its consequent warping of our human appetites, as well as death itself, did not touch her. The fittingness of this "singular privilege and grace" was, to my mind, well expressed by the English bishop Langdon Fox, who asked, "How could Mary be said to have been made fit to stand in the relationship of Mother to the all pure God if the Devil could claim, and claim truly that once, even if only for moment, she had been in the state of Original sin?" that is, if the devil had her in his control even briefly. Be that as it may, it should be clear that freedom from original sin does not bring with it an incapacity for actual sin. After all, Adam and Eve were both created without original sin; it was in fact their first actual sin whose effect we call "original" in their descendants.

Now the upshot, it seems to me, is this. The Blessed Virgin Mary lived her life in the state in which Adam and Eve lived before their sin. She was as capable of sin as they were; her life, to this extent like ours, was a series of choices between good and bad, self and other, God's will and her own. her glory, for which all generations will call her blessed, is that in every instance she said, "I am your servant. Let it be done to me in accordance with your word." She, who was full of grace, said, "Your will be done, not mine." When she praised God because He had looked on her in her lowliness, she was not feigning humility. She was uniquely aware that it was God's grace, and not her own merit, in virtue of which she had been set apart. And the consciousness of the gap between her humanity and God's power was uniquely acute in her case.

C.S. Lewis remarked somewhere that we are not to imagine that Jesus had an easier time with temptation than we. In fact, he said, Jesus Christ was the only one who ever felt the full strength of temptation, because He was the only one who never gave in to it. He said by way of explanation something like this: "After all, you don't discover the true strength of the German Army by laying down and letting it roll over you; but only by standing up to it and fighting it at every turn." If I might extend (and correct) C.S. Lewis here, I would say that the Virgin Mary is, apart from her Son, the only one who really knew humility, since it was she who, in every instance, chose obedience, who let God's will trump her own, who refused to be duped into trusting in her own resources.

We might illustrate what this means from the Gospel: I once heard another Jesuit talk over coffee about a homily he had to give at a summer camp for retarded children. The Gospel text on which he was to preach was the account of the Rich Young Man. Unsure how he was going to communicate the message to his congregation, this priest somewhat despairingly brought out a simple coffee cup after reading the Scripture. He said, "You see, the rich young man's cup was already full of all the things he had, and so Jesus couldn't give him anything; there was no room." I still think that to be one of the most striking exegeses of that passage I've ever heard. And, when it is reversed, the same image can be applied to Mary. Her cup alone was genuinely empty; she alone had room only for God, for herself, no element of possessiveness or self-will, which took up the space made for God's love. She alone was truly an earthen vessel, a repository, she whom the archangel Gabriel called "full of grace."

Her humility, her lowliness, was not a sham. Alone of our race, she could point to her humility without an admixture of hypocrisy. The lowliness was hers; the glory was God's. Far from being aloof from the pain of decision, she is the only one of us who ever felt the full sting. If you think I am laying it on a bit thick here, I'd invite you to try living for ten minutes genuinely unconscious of your own dignity, genuinely reliant on God. It hurts like blazes.

There is a strain of feminist Mariology which feels repugnance at the dogma of the
Immaculate Conception because it views the notion as demeaning to women. Orthodox theologians were so scandalized by the particularly feminine dimension of sinfulness (according to this school) that they found it necessary to cook up the idea of an immaculate conception in order to sanitize the event of the incarnation. I hope I have shown that this way of thinking has got things exactly backwards. In articulating its belief that Mary was free of original sin, the Church is thrusting the Blessed Virgin into the heart of the problematic struggle of temptation and grace; it is the opposite of insulation. It is not some angelic perfection, but her humanity which is vindicated by Pius IX's definition - her dependence on merits of Jesus Christ, her constant reenactment of the drama of Adam's choice, a drama which is no less dramatic for its happy ending, a drama which ultimately includes us all, in the vision of the Woman clothed with the sun, crushing the serpent at the worlds' end.

Every true Christian instinct points to this; all orthodox devotion to Mary rejoices in her triumph, because she was conscious of that profound humility of which we have ourselves only the faintest inklings; whether she is pictured at the foot of the cross, or with a child at her breast, or as the queen and bride arrayed in splendor, the prefigured bride without spot or wrinkle, it is our fragility in which we give thanks for God's love, God's grace, God's fidelity to us in Her.

Pure. Whole. Intact. Entire. Spotless. Stainless. Sinless. Unsoiled. Unsullied. Unblemished. Uncorrupted. Immaculate!

Father Paul Mankowski, S.J. is a scripture scholar who teaches at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.The foregoing homily was presented at Women for Faith & Family's Immaculate Conception Mass and festival held at St. Roch's Church in St. Louis, December 8, 1989.

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