A meditation for the feast of the Immaculate Conception

I hope it goes without saying that I’m thinking about the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s an old doctrine, hundreds of years older than its ex cathedra proclamation in 1854.

It occurred to me this morning, reading the couple of paragraphs offered by universalis, that being free from original sin didn’t just allow Mary to say ‘Yes’, but to say ‘Yes’ without selfish motives. The remark that sparked this reflection was not central, and I had forgotten it by the time I picked up my pen. But it was like a window being opened and letting in a draught, or the smell of a neighbour’s bacon cooking. In my imagination, the main barrier to saying ‘Yes’ to God is fear. After all, it is what the Angel Gabriel said to Mary: ‘Do not be afraid’; ‘Noli timere‘. It is also what Jesus said to Simon Peter in the boat full of fish: ‘Do not be afraid.’ Yet fear is not the only potential obstacle to Mary’s faithful yes–that is, if she were tainted by original sin. A faithful yes might also be spoiled by pride, by a calculation of what she might gain by it.

What a great bargaining position to be in! ‘Well’, she might say, ‘see what I have done for you, God…’ Talk about the opportunity for guilt-tripping your offspring. And when your son is God, imagine the power you might have as a parent. No, fear is not the only sin from which Mary needed to be free. Its partner in selfishness, pride, would have been equally disastrous. She might have said yes for the wrong reasons.

But she didn’t. She didn’t because of the mystery we celebrate today: her Immaculate Conception. If Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane shows us what a human will looks like in perfect cooperation with God, Mary shows us what it looks like to live without sin. It’s not what we think, I expect. It certainly isn’t what I think of when I dream of a life without sin. Sure, she ponders in her heart the remarkable experience of his birth and the days that followed; together with her husband, she took the baby to be presented at the temple, as the law required. The Holy Family made the trip to Jerusalem in the company of the faithful. And then, she scolds her son for staying behind without a word to his parents. She felt that worry and hurt so common to parents. She intervened to save a couple’s marriage feast–as the gospel reading for vigils today reminds us. Mary was the life and soul of that party, for certain–not the holier-than-thou sort of person I’d associate with the words ‘without sin’. And the one who said yes to God didn’t take no for an answer from him. ‘Do whatever he tells you’, she said to the servants.

So also she says to us: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ I’d like to think that the reward for doing so is ‘the best wine.’ But it seems unlikely that the servants had a chance to savour it. What they did get was a front-row seat at our Lord’s first miracle. I’m not sure what that means for me today, but I’d like to find out.

Hail Mary, full of grace…

Deo gratias.

Our Lady of Sorrows

pietaI confess to a certain amount of bitterness, when faced with images of a beautiful young madonna and her cherubic child. One such statue stands in a Lady Chapel which is otherwise one of my favourite places on earth. But before that very young woman I feel deeply sad: sad that my own babies are no longer babies, that the magical days of their toddlerhood are behind me. Not that those times weren’t exhausting and often vexatious. But amidst the thousand small things that the littlest ones need doing for them, there was magic. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I would miss those days, difficult as they sometimes were: I knew it.

Fortunately we have Mary rendered for us in a number of different ways (particularly in iconography), and she was not always the young mother delighting in her baby child. Motherhood also involves loss. Each new stage of development, while (usually) welcome, involves leaving behind traits of childhood–aspects of that precious way of being in the world that is unique to children. And when our children suffer, we suffer with them.

Looking at the pietà (by Giovanni Bellini, 1505), I see myself. The lines in her forehead show the passing of time, the work of motherhood, and decades of letting go. This, also, is motherhood. The painting invites me to join in this sorrow, this tremendous grief, to feel Mary’s sadness. Later, when small losses seem overwhelming, and the longing for my little ones bites deeply, I will turn to Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, and know that I am not alone.

Solemnity of the Anunciation

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
. . .
It is the solemnity of the Anunciation. So I went to Mass, and the readings for today have come to me not through my own reading and reflection, but in the context of the liturgy, and a homily. Part of me thinks it’s cheating to begin from someone else’s comments on the readings, and yet it is impossible not to do so.
‘What if Mary had said no?’ The priest reported the question; he didn’t pose it. In fact, he suggested that the speculation about what might have been rested on a mistake about who God is and how God acts. “God doesn’t need a plan B.” True enough. And after Mass, my husband had an exchange with the priest that was about Mary’s will and whether or not it was possible to for her to say no. Turns out the answer to that one depends on how you define words like ‘possible’ and ‘necessary’, though in the end I think they agreed.
The thing is, though, that “no one is ever told what might have been.” This is neither St Thomas Aquinas nor St Augustine, the two thinkers involved in the discussion about Mary’s will. It’s CS Lewis, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy has just asked Aslan a ‘what if’ question. His answer has stayed with me for years, as I have stumbled along trying, and often not trying hard enough, to be a Christian. However often and however badly I fail in my endeavor, ‘what if’ questions after the fact are never fruitful.

God doesn’t need a plan B. In eternity, there is no ‘might have been’ but an everlasting ‘is’, in which everything is in the present tense. From that point of view, wisdom can be seen as arranging all things delightfully, as it says in Wisdom 8: 1. From that point of view, all the crash-and-burn experiences of my life find their way into the tapestry of ‘all things’– arranged delightfully, worked together for the good (Romans 8: 28), having been wrought, however incomprehensibly, in God (John 3: 21).

So the invitatory psalm (Ps 94 [95]) invites us each day anew to ‘listen to his voice’ and to ‘harden not [our] hearts’. It is today that matters, today that affords me the opportunity to do God’s will. That is, more or less, what Aslan says next: anyone can find out what will happen. Let my ears and my heart be open, and my will freely to conform itself to his: and let it be done to me according to His word.

Tuesday of the 29th week in ordinary time / Blessed John Paul II

You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings,
     but an open ear.
You do not ask for holocaust and victim.
     Instead, here am I.

                                             Psalm 39 [40]: 7

.        .       .

‘Instead, here am I.’

Just letting that sink in… I often find it quite easy to get caught up in the complicated and flashy things I think I ought to do as a Christian theologian. You know, books and articles I ought to write, and the spiritual and mental toughness I ought to develop in order to be the person who can write books and articles, and give lectures, and still remain as humble as St Benedict says I should be.

Yeah, right. There is something completely naked and vulnerable about that statement: ‘here am I.’ Just me, nothing fancy. No extravagant sacrifice, no spectacular holocaust, just the handmaid of the Lord. I always liked the spectacular holocaust: Elijah vs the prophets of Ba’al (I Kings 18) has always been one of my favorite Bible stories, since I was a child. It’s like fireworks from heaven, and the good guy wins in a show of light and power. But that’s not what it is about at all. It is about the open ear that the Psalmist identifies as the real sacrifice, the real offering to God. God requires of us nothing more and nothing less than our attention, wholly fixed on him.

The bit about Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Ba’al in I Kings 18 that my mother didn’t relate to me when I was little, is the part where the prophets of Ba’al entreat their god, who doesn’t seem to be listening. “So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them” (18: 28). Not only do they harm themselves in their endeavor to get Ba’al to respond to them, but they do so in vain. There is no response. Elijah, on the other hand, calls on God to answer, “that this people [Israel] may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their heart back again’ (18: 37). The return of God’s people originates with God: God responds with fire to demonstrate that he has already rekindled the hearts of his people. It is not what the people do to get God’s attention that is the heart of the drama, but what God does to get their attention, to get our attention.

When I present myself, fragile and fallen as I am, God does not ask for my blood. When I come before God having done the wrong thing, or the right thing for the wrong reasons, or having done nothing when I ought to have acted, God doesn’t ask for my blood. God has already acted; it is only by the Spirit’s encouragement that I return at all. When I say “here am I,” it is because God has called me first, and even as I ask for forgiveness and the strength to walk in it, I do so because that grace has already been extended to me. That grace alone makes me the handmaid of the Lord, ready to do his will.

God does ask for my life, to be sure, but that is only so that he can give it back to me, in abundance. And then when I say the “I” in “here am I,” it is no longer I who live and speak, but Christ who lives and speaks in me, giving my life as he gave his, to the Father for the sake of the world’s salvation.

And that is an extravagant gift indeed.

Deo gratias.