Sunday, August 21, 2016

Catholicism Explained - Thoughts on the Immaculate Conception

So, as I complained last week, I didn't cover the Immaculate Conception very well in last week's Catholicism Explained post. Which is a shame, because the Immaculate Conception is one of my favorite things to think about.

Therefore I have decided, instead of doing a structured CE post today, to ramble a little bit on why we flawed humans need the Immaculate Conception - why we need a woman who never sinned.

Oh, and here are links to our past Catholicism Explained discussions.


Mother Mary:



So, Catholics believe that God preserved Mary from Original Sin from the moment she was conceived, and that she never committed any sin throughout her life. That's rather a nice thought, but it doesn't seem to have much impact on our practical spiritual lives, does it? 

I think religious doctrines are like most of life's greatest blessings - we get so used to having them we don't realize they're there. We don't think about them anymore, don't take the time to appreciate how awesome they are. 

The fact that Mary was immaculately conceived can make a huge difference in our daily lives - if we let it. 

G. K. Chesterton once said that the best way to love anything is to think that it might be lost. So fellow Catholics, think for a few moments what it would be like to have no Immaculate Conception. Imagine that Mary was a sinful woman like any other. That there is no utterly pure Queen of Heaven towards whom we can turn our thoughts. That there is no impeccable mother to whom to run.

We could get along without her. Certainly, we could. We have an example of supreme holiness in God, and of supreme human holiness in Jesus. It's not like we're wandering in a desert with no signpost to guide us.

Jesus did indeed say, "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect." That is our vocation. We are called to nothing less than Godly perfection.

But God also knows that's a daunting image. 

A person looking up at the perfection of God is like an ant looking up at Mount Everest. There is an immeasurable and impossible gap between our imperfections and His perfections. We can imitate them, oh yes we can and yes we must; but it's hard. Our sinful hearts shrink and squirm away from the idea of becoming like God

We look around at this huge mountain and we see others, just as flawed as we, struggling up it as well. And although we are heartened by their progress, their valiance, their perseverance, we are discouraged by their weakness. We see them stumble. We see them falter. We see them fall. Even the most heroic, the most virtuous, have only climbed halfway up the mountain. Even the most saintly are marred by imperfections and sinful tendencies.

Jesus alone stands at the top of the mountain where man is called to stand. To see Him there is more than encouraging, heartening, hopeful. 

But still we can make excuses. "Jesus is God. Of course it's easier for Him to be perfect. Sure, He's a man, too, and He was tempted and everything - but He's got a divine nature as well as a human one. It's impossible for a mere human to become perfect like Him."

Now imagine that the Immaculate Conception exists again. Beside that pedestal atop the mountain, at Jesus' feet where all men are called to be, stands Mary. Her arms are outstretched, and she's smiling. She's saying, silently, humbly, "I am just a woman. I am a mere human, like you. I am not divine. I am not God. And yet I did everything God asked of me; I obeyed His will without reserve. I have become perfect, as my Father is perfect."

And suddenly the mountain does not seem so impossible. One of our own kind has reached the top. There she stands, reflecting God's radiant light as the moon reflects the sun. She is not God - there is still an immeasurable distance between her and Him - but she is untainted. She is sinless. She is white and shining and holy. She stands in that closeness to God for which all man was originally created.

She is our example. Our champion. Our hope. As long as Mary has lived the perfect life, perfection does not seem so hard. We don't have to say, "It's never been done before." We can say, "It has been done before; it can be done." 

And another, more practical, thing: while we are definitely called to imitate Jesus, we are not meant to fill Jesus' role. Jesus is the Savior of Mankind, the Word through Whom all was created, the Head of the Church. We're all supposed to develop Jesus' virtues - selflessness, charity, humility, chastity, obedience, etc., etc. - but we're not supposed to, say, found a Church and go around telling people "No one comes to the Father except through me." There are certain things that only Jesus could do. 

The Church is kind of like an army. Jesus is our general, our perfectly heroic general. We are supposed to copy his good qualities and bring them to life within ourselves. We are supposed to make ourselves miniatures of Him in that sense.

But can you imagine what would happen if every soldier acted like a general? If every private began to give orders as though he were in charge? It would be absolute chaos! 

As soldiers, we're supposed to love and imitate and obey our general, but we're not supposed to be exactly like our general. 

That's where Mary comes in: she is the example of the perfect soldier. The one who obeys orders without question, the one who submits her will totally to the will of God, the one who is nothing in herself and realizes that. 

I'm going to put it very crudely and use an analogy of poultry showmanship. Those who exhibit fancy chickens (as I do in 4-H) might be familiar with the Standard of Perfection, a book published by the American Poultry Association. It is said in the poultry world that "the perfect chicken has never been hatched." Nevertheless, every poultry exhibitor strives to turn out the perfect chicken. Perfection is what a poultry judge will look for in every show, even though he knows he won't find it. How does he know what the perfect chicken looks like if the perfect chicken has never been hatched? Through the Standard. Likewise, a poultry breeder will have to familiarize himself with the pictures and descriptions of chickens in the Standard so that he will know a good chicken when he sees one and be able to breed chickens with desirable traits.

If we're all the imperfect chickens and the breeders of imperfect chickens, then Mary is the Standard of Perfection. 

She's what a human is supposed to be - what every human is supposed to be, really. If it hadn't been for the Fall, every man and woman, including you and I, would have been immaculately conceived. Only in a fallen world is an Immaculate Conception a big deal. It's really supposed to be the norm.

The Fall not only deprived us of our own innocence, it took from us the chance to see what usual human innocence looks like. In His great mercy, God gave us that chance back. He gave us Mary.

Isn't that just like Him? 

Those are my rather random thoughts on the Immaculate Conception! Do you have anything to add? Agreement? Disagreement? Ramblings? Wonderings? 


4 comments:

  1. Cool thought! Very much agreeing! :)

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  2. I like how you did a companion post when you felt you needed to explain something in greater depth. Whenever you feel that you should do that, please do!

    But I’m not sure if “what would theology be like without a pure Mary” is the right question to ask. After all, isn’t that basically everyone outside Catholicism’s theology?
    I wonder instead what it would be if everyone believed that Mary was pure- a guide to perfection.

    I’m sorry, but I really don’t understand how it helps. Even if I see a standard of perfection, I can’t reach it. I’ve tried.

    I like the analogy with the poultry judging. It’s cute, and I love chickens! It also reminds me of the days when I would show my goats. I would train them and groom them to be as close to the standard as possible. But I knew that there would always be something lacking that I couldn’t change, even if I wanted to.

    I don’t think anyone expects a standard of perfection to be fulfilled, not unless something drastic happens. But the drastic did happen- Jesus didn’t stay at the peak of that mountain, he came down. Emmanuel, God with us-his spirit in us. The Fall reversed and Man once again walking with God.

    One more thing: Forgive me, but I really don’t understand how hope through Christ and hope through the Immaculate Conception can exist side by side. Because if both are true, doesn’t it make one or the other inadequate?
    (I’m sorry if that question sounded irreverent, but it is my honest concern with this topic)

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, I suppose this post was mostly geared towards Catholics (regarding the "imagining theology without Mary" bit). I'm sorry if it didn't help much. :)

      (And, ohh, you showed goats! Isn't showing animals fun?) :)

      I like your last question. It's not irreverent, it's just really good. :) Catholics don't put their hope in the Immaculate Conception, not the way they do in Jesus. We might find hope in it, the same way we find hope in spring flowers or a good story. But the one and only source of our hope is God -- Jesus, spilling His blood for us on the cross. Without Him, the Immaculate Conception wouldn't have done any good. But the Immaculate Conception was a preparation for Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, so we hail the way God prepared Mary as the beginning of our salvation, if that makes sense. Kinda like we celebrate John the Baptist or Moses or any of the characters/events in history whom God used to prepare the way, only on a bigger scale. Does that help at all?

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