Saturday, December 8, 2018

Advent Reflections: Immaculate Mary

The Immaculate Conception,
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
Today, the Catholic church marks the feast of the Immaculate Conception. People who aren’t Catholic – and, in all fairness, a good deal of Catholics as well – think the Immaculate Conception refers to Jesus. That’s understandable, especially since the feast day falls during Advent in December. But in fact, this is the day the church celebrates its belief that Mary was spared from the stain of Original Sin. The church views her sinlessness as a necessary precondition for carrying the Son of God in her womb.

Now, you won’t find many bigger fans of Mary than me. But I’ve always found this feast day problematic, mainly because of what it says about theological hair-splitting and the corners those theologians paint themselves into. When you have to start carving out exceptions to your own rules, maybe it’s worth revisiting the validity of the rules themselves.

Without going into too much detail, I think the concept of Original Sin has caused a great deal of suffering throughout human history. It’s a faulty piece of theology that tries but falls short in its attempt to wrestle with the idea of why human beings do bad things and can’t seem to help themselves. Some denominations, to their credit, take a less harsh view than others on the matter. The Orthodox church, for example, doesn’t need to exempt Mary from Original Sin because its view is that although we’re all born with a tendency to sin, we don’t bear the guilt of our ancestors’ sins. Their sins are their own, and ours are our own. All we inherit from our forebears is our broken human nature. No need to invent Limbo as a place where unbaptized babies go when they die. No need to claim, Reformation-style, that all of humanity is totally depraved. And no need to exempt Mary from something she didn’t inherit.

Yet I don’t take issue with the Catholic claim that Mary was immaculate. The thing is, I believe we’re all born immaculate. No baby is born a sinner.

And still, Mary is clearly special. She was chosen from among all women for a reason. Some would argue that she was imbued with so much grace that she was able to resist the temptation to sin – a view I’m sympathetic toward, as a model for the rest of humanity to strive toward. Almost all of us will fail, yet it doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t try.

Indeed, both the Catholic and Orthodox churches are wise to find Mary prefigured in the Old Testament, such as in the sealed sanctuary gate in Ezekiel, through which God passed but no man could enter. The most striking connection is arguably to be found in the parallels between Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and David’s interaction with the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel. When you see the links between the two passages, it becomes evident that the writer of Luke intended to draw a direct comparison between the Ark and Mary.

  • 2 Samuel 6:9: And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?”
  • Luke 1:43: “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

  • 2 Samuel 6:14-15: David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the Ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.
  • Luke 1:44: “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy.”

  • 2 Samuel 6:11: The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household.
  • Luke 1:56. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

Thus is Mary the new Ark of the Covenant, the holiest of vessels where God dwells. And this is why the Catholic and Orthodox belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity also makes sense. It’s not that sex is dirty. It’s that once a vessel is made holy, it would be unfit to defile it by the mundane acts of humans. A communion chalice is unfit for pouring a soda into. Or if one were to find the Ark of the Covenant, one wouldn’t throw it in a garage and store tools in it. They’re sacred items that ought to remain so.

However, my reason for believing in Mary’s purity and holiness reaches deeper, into something one of the mystics of the church touched on some two centuries ago. Anne Catherine Emmerich, a nun and bearer of the stigmata, fell into many deep ecstasies during which she received visions of the Divine. In one of them, she recalled seeing the creation of Mary’s soul:
I had a vision of the creation of Mary's most holy soul and of its being united to her most pure body. In the glory by which the Most Holy Trinity is usually represented in my visions I saw a movement like a great shining mountain, and yet also like a human figure; and I saw something rise out of the midst of this figure towards its mouth and go forth from it like a shining brightness. Then I saw this brightness standing separate before the Face of God, turning and shaping itself, or rather being shaped, for I saw that while this brightness took human form, yet it was by the Will of God that it received a form so unspeakably beautiful. I saw, too, that God showed the beauty of this soul to the angels, and that they had unspeakable joy in its beauty. I am unable to describe in words all that I saw and understood.  
When seventeen weeks and five days after the conception of the Blessed Virgin had gone by (that is to say, five days before Anna's pregnancy was half accomplished), I saw the Blessed Virgin's holy mother lying asleep in her bed in her house near Nazareth. Then there came a shining light above her, and a ray from this light fell upon the middle of her side, and the light passed into her in the shape of a little shining human figure. In the same instant I saw the Blessed Virgin's holy mother raise herself on her couch surrounded by light. She was in ecstasy, and had a vision of her womb opening like a tabernacle to enclose a shining little virgin from whom man's whole salvation was to spring. I saw that this was the instant in which for the first time the child moved within her. Anna then rose from her couch, dressed herself, and announced her joy to the holy Joachim. They both thanked God, and I saw them praying under the tree in the garden where the angel had comforted Anna.
Her vision builds on the pious tradition that grew up around Mary’s early life, as told in extra-canonical works such as the Protoevangelium of James. Those stories tell us that Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, was raised in the temple, proved to be the holiest of children, and was betrothed to Joseph, an elderly widower, when she came of age.

It’s also notable that the Catholic and Orthodox churches tend to read Old Testament passages about Sophia, Holy Wisdom, on Mary’s feast days. The official stance of the churches is that Sophia, the Wisdom of God, manifested in the person of Jesus, but that we also ought to recognize the importance of the holy and feminine vessel through which he came into the world. Thus, the churches aren’t attempting to draw a one-to-one correlation between Sophia and Mary – yet there’s no reason, other than adherence to existing theological views, not to make such a connection.

I find that the book of Baruch helps connect the two in a way that other passages don’t. Here, Sophia is spoken of as the Wisdom that all yearn to obtain, and so God reveals her on Earth to his people – and not explicitly through a male person:

“Thus she has appeared on Earth, is at home with the mortals.”

Now, go back to the story of Mary at the Annunciation and ask how such a young girl, probably no more than 14, could have had the maturity, calm, humility, understanding, selflessness, and bravery to say yes to carrying to incarnation of God – a decision that surely made no sense to her and easily could have cost her her life, given the punishment at the time for women who became pregnant by someone other than their spouse. 

Ask why Elizabeth declared, upon seeing Mary, “Blessed are you among women.” Or why Mary herself proclaimed in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed. 

Or ask why the Protoevangelium of James revealed Mary as the holiest of young girls from her earliest years, and how Anne Catherine Emmerich’s vision of the creation of Mary’s soul ties into that narrative.   

Was it simply that Mary was given some kind of holiness exemption that the rest of us are deprived of? Perhaps.

Or perhaps there was something special about Mary from the moment her soul was created. Perhaps there’s a greater connection between Mary and Sophia than the church is willing to acknowledge. Perhaps Sophia ensouled herself inside Mary’s body.

Mystics throughout the ages have hinted at the idea but have shied away from outright saying it. It’s the stuff of heresy in “official” Christian thought.

Yet it would explain so much – and it would offer us an image of the Sacred Feminine that not only gives us a human motherly figure but also connects us to the Divine in the same way Mary’s Son did. If he was the face of the Father, so can she be the face of the Mother, whether we view the Mother as Sophia, the Holy Spirit, or simply the great feminine force that permeates all of creation and gives life to all things – in Eastern terminology, the Mother Tao. 

Thus would Christ be our yang and Mary our yin – two aspects of the Divine that complement and complete each other, revealing themselves to us in human form.

If we open ourselves to seeing the Divine Feminine in Mary, then we can say without hesitation that she was holy and immaculate indeed.

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