Monday, December 10, 2012

Conceptions, maculate and immaculate

December 8th was the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

A Dominican priest whose blog I read preached a very doctrinal sermon that day, clearly explaining the meaning of the teaching, etc. He said most of the Catholics at Mass, people in their 50's, told him they had never heard this before. I am sure there is a lot of Catholicism they never heard before. Hell, even in Ireland, the bottom has fallen out.

Hey, I may not practice, but I know the content.

The Immaculate Conception is not about Jesus, but about his mother; not about virgin conception without a man involved, but about a unique quality of the otherwise very ordinary act of sexual intercourse of Mary's parents, traditionally named Saints Joachim and Anne.

The Meeting of Joachim and Ann at the Golden Gate
15th century (?)

This image, once very frequent, shows them embracing at The Golden Gate at Jerusalem. It is not hard to see that what is being euphemistically depicted is the conception of their daughter. They had sex in the usual way, but the child they conceived was most unusual from the first instant of her existence in utero.

In Catholic dogma --and this is a technical term meaning teaching central to the Faith-- she was the first human being since Adam and Eve who was not embedded in their Original Sin. This is what makes her conception immaculate, unstained. The Virgin Mary, in Catholic dogma, was always sinless.

It was a teaching late in being clarified and solemnized. 1854, to be exact.

And it had a long and somewhat less than clear history. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans, for example, were unfavorable to the idea, at least as they knew it in the Middle Ages. People like to use this kind of gradual and controversial history as a reason to dismiss it. Were that so, then both the Trinity and the Incarnation, the fundamental Christian dogmas, would likewise be ruled out of court. They got worked out with enormous controversy over hundreds of years. That's apparently how people do it.

This teaching forces you to deal with the underlying issue of Original Sin. Ex Cathedra has always said that it's the only Christian doctrine that's empirically obvious and requires no faith to believe in. Just ride the 24 bus in San Francisco. Duh.

But Original Sin is a complex business, and very much runs against the grain of modern Western culture. It is not a personal fault, but a kind of species-wide birth defect. Even the ancient Apostolic churches of the East don't talk about human sinfulness in this way. The concept largely derives from St Augustine's reading of St Paul and his battle with the monk Pelagius. Real Protestants --actual Lutherans and Calvinists (and Anglicans, on paper anyway)-- utterly rely on it to make sense of their religion.* It's the reason for infant baptism.

The odd thing about the Immaculate Conception and the sinlessness of Mary (and later, of her Divine Human son) is that it makes them seem inhuman, precisely the opposite of what you'd expect an Incarnation to be about. Because every other human we know is deeply flawed. As the Catechism used to put it, born alienated from God, destined for death, darkened in intellect and weakened in will. The alienation is the substance of the matter, the flawed nature of mind and heart is its effect. As is death.

The hidden point here is what Jung called empirical man, mankind as we know it, is more properly thought of as humanoid, an approximation of humanity. Adam and Eve, before their sin, were the archetypal humans, humans as they were meant to be. Jesus and Mary, a new sinless Adam and a new sinless Eve**, are thus the first real humans since then. They appear somewhat inhuman to us because the rest of us are flawed in the factory ; the point of the Gospel is to make humanoids into humans as they were originally meant to be: the image and likeness of God.

The primacy of the image of stain (macula) and purity rather gets in the way. If it had been called the feast of the Free Conception, it might be less problematic. Heady stuff. And psychologically tricky.

So Mary --and this is tradition, not an abacus-- is, from the first instant of her existence, in a state of communion with God and her intellect and will are unfettered by the effects of sin. Unlike the rest of us, she was born with a clear mind and a free heart. Why? In order to be a proper mother to an incarnate God in starting out the human race afresh.

Shame I don't practice. This coulda been a good talk :).

*And it's the reason Liberal Protestantism doesn't make any sense: it offers a solution to a problem that it has dispensed with. Sorta like trying to take Buddhism seriously without buying into karma and reincarnation. Without the endless and merciless cycle of rebirth, what problem would Buddha have to solve? Without that, Buddhism is merely a wise psychological program for disciplining unruly thoughts and emotions. Without Original Sin, Liberal Protestantism is merely an unwise political program for social improvement.

**The obvious difference is that the first Pair were Man and Wife, the second are Mother and Son. Interesting archetypal psychology.


Anonymous said...

Far better than the sermon I heard at Mass.

Terry Nelson said...

See how good you are!

OreamnosAmericanus said...

Thanks to you both.

lax-goalie said...

It IS a good talk.

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