I. On The Immaculate Conception
Today is the peculiar Feast Day. It is one that I did not grow up with, though I have been challenged on it, pondered about it, vehemently denied it and even recently somewhat affirmed it. It has often given me the greatest perplexity.
Today is no ordinary feast. It is not a day for a saint that is honored with fact and legend where the righteousness of a person is honored, but you can still take or leave parts of the story. Today is an all or nothing day. Today I sit at home and ponder while millions of others oblige.
It is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is a uniquely Roman Catholic feast day, though the teaching is also recognized by some Oriental Orthodox and Anglicans even if it is not dogma. Many Old Catholics and even a tiny sect of Lutherans have recognized this teaching as well, though also without the force of dogma. It has even found its way into Islamic debate, but without original sin, this “dogma” cannot have the implications it would in Christianity.
My life experience has been a Protestant one evolving from a fundamentalist childhood up to a point of what is termed “evangelical catholic.” Nowhere in Protestantism does one escape biblical exegesis, a stumbling block in the acceptance of the Immaculate Conception. With scripture alone and individual liberty guiding the conscience, it takes a while to wrap one’s head around this teaching, which relies on a logic that Protestants tend to have a hard time with. (Protestants either tend to distrust reason in matters of faith or when they come to terms with it, throw out huge chunks of the teachings of their churches.) Like most Protestants, and a few Catholics, I grew up thinking this dogma was about the virgin birth and not about Mary’s lack of sin. And when I did discover this, I could not comprehend Mary’s need for a Savior, which seemed to make the teaching a no go. Only later did I find out this was not the case. For those who don’t know, the Immaculate Conception teaches Mary is conceived sinless, but on account of the “merit” of her Son.
In time, I grew to ponder the dogma. I still do immensely, but I cannot start with it. This is why the merit of Christ found in the teaching is so important and anyone who wants to make a case for it especially to most non-Roman Catholic Christians need to start in that place.
II. On Advent
This time of expectation does not escape the giddy, even though hidden in celebration is an acknowledgement of how Christians must address the grimmest things.
Two days exemplify this. On one, a jolly bishop loads candy into the boots of Dutch children and in another a young woman wears a wreath of candles bringing pastries and coffee to her Swedish family and friends. Lovely customs, especially for those who love sweets, but hidden in these stories are accounts of human trafficking and starvation.
Nicholas, it is said gave up wealth to pay the dowries of three young women rescuing them from lives of what would have been forced prostitution. Lucy spends her dowry to help the poor and in medieval legend carries food and gifts over a frozen lake to the starving people of Varmland. Such sacrifices, though difficult to comprehend by societies that worry about, horde, and spend wealth on themselves, give considerable merit to final admonition of many Lutheran churches, “Go in peace. Remember the poor.”
In addition to thinking on the lives of great saints, Advent is also the time of the “mysterious and unexpected.” People like Nicholas and Lucy are at least comprehensible, even if their acts go beyond what are expected of average Christians. But there is grace greater than this that goes beyond all we can comprehend.
In a small village safeguarded by a star, a young woman under the protection of a man who remarkably affirms her chastity finds her way to a stable where she births the Savior. Is she free of all sin, even original sin? Perhaps, though that would be a remarkable grace. But is it any more remarkable than the pierced side of her child washing clean the transgressions of billions and in his dying and contorted frame giving the world sacred food for 2000 years? Such things demands our ponder
Though we should not do so, we can ignore the likes of Nicholas and Lucy with their fanciful beautiful stories and kind acts that give to the poor, if we wish. We can even ignore the candy, gifts, pastries, cards, cheerful drinks, rich foods, marriage proposals, mistletoe kisses, companionship shared with our families and friends and music that ranges from Bach to Perry Como if we want. I don’t know why we would want to, but we can. What cannot be ignored is the mysterious and unexpected. On the Babe of Bethlehem and his Mother, we must ponder, even if it something we cannot comprehend.
It is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a perplexing day for me. It is Advent, a time of perplexing expectation. I cannot say anything more here with the limited tool of language, but I will conclude with words that are not my own, but are found in the poetry of Jeanette Lindholm and often sung at Advent set to a tune by Robert Farlee.
“ Unexpected and mysterious is the gentle word of grace.
Ever-loving and sustaining is the peace of God’s embrace.
If we falter in our courage and we doubt what we have known,
God is faithful to console us as a mother tends her own.
Of a momentary meeting of eternity and time,
Mary learned that she would carry both the mortal and divine.
Then she learned of God’s compassion, of Elizabeth’s great joy,
And she ran to greet the woman who would recognize her boy.
We are called to ponder mystery and awaiting the coming Christ,
To embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life.
God is with us in our longing, to bring healing to the earth,
While we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior’s birth”.