Whose conception is it anyway?

There always seems to be a bit of confusion around this week’s Solemnity.  Despite falling in the middle of Advent, December 8 is not a celebration of the conception of Jesus—which would have meant a remarkably brief pregnancy—but of Mary.

Still, even if we remember whose life it is we’re celebrating, that doesn’t clear up every mystery about the Immaculate Conception.  I must confess that for most of my life even though I knew we had to go to church on December 8, I wasn’t exactly sure why.  It had something to do with one of those Marian dogmas, I knew, but most Catholics tiptoe around those nowadays for fear of offending the Protestants.  And even though I, being a somewhat contrarian lad, was prepared to pick Mary over the Protestants, I really had no idea why.

Even today, while I know a bit more about theology, I still have to admit to finding this particular Mystery particularly mysterious.  Among the writing I’ve found shedding light on the subject is an excellent essay titled “The Immaculate Conception” by the British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP.

McCabe begins by noting that December 8 is not the feast of a doctrine but of a person, Mary, and the spectacular way God worked in her life.  He then goes on to talk a bit about the doctrine’s history and its meaning.

Doing so requires some humility for a Thomist, since Aquinas himself denied the Immaculate Conception, as did a bevy of medieval theologians.  It was the Franciscan Duns Scotus who resolved the conundrum that had perplexed Aquinas and the others:  if Mary was conceived without sin, how can we say she was redeemed by Jesus?  Scotus answered that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure… or something like that.  McCabe puts it rather more elegantly:

The highest act of Christ’s redeeming power would be not just to cure sin but to prevent it in the first place.  Thus to be in this world and yet to be prevented from ever falling under the domination of the world is to be not less but more dependent on Christ our redeemer.  Mary is more thoroughly redeemed than we are and has greater, not less, cause for gratitude to Christ than we have.

Though the doctrine itself is not stated in Scripture and would most likely never have been articulated as such by Mary herself, it arose, according to McCabe, out of a profound Christian instinct, the recognition of Mary as radically holy and the need to somehow praise this holiness.  All our doctrines, McCabe argues, spring from this same instinct, the need to praise God, or in this case God’s working through Mary.  Doctrine, he says rather nicely, is “nothing but an interpretation of our need to worship.”

As McCabe describes it there was something very democratic in the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the fruit of popular devotion stubbornly growing despite the opposition of even the greatest theologians.  Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception should have become the patroness of the United States, a populist patroness for a democratic people.  McCabe describes the eventual acceptance of the doctrine by the Church as “a victory for the affective over neat rational systems… a very Franciscan thing.”  (And here take note, dear reader, of Jesuits and Dominicans together in a humble nod to Duns Scotus and the Franciscans—a remarkable feast this is indeed!)

There is even more, though, to this instinct for popular Marian devotion.  All of the Marian doctrines, so far as I can see, tell just as much about Jesus and the Church as they do about Mary herself.  McCabe notes a certain appropriateness in celebrating this feast in Advent, despite the confusion over just whose conception it is we’re commemorating.  This appropriateness is because the feast—and the doctrine—remind us that the appearance of Gabriel to Mary and the birth of Jesus that followed were not just accidental events in Mary’s life.  It wasn’t as if Mary won the lottery and all of the sudden—golly!—became the Mother of God.  As McCabe puts it, the Annunciation of the conception of Jesus “was the culmination of a coming of the Spirit in Mary that was from the beginning, from the roots of her existence.”

What does this mean for us?  Well, just as Mary’s Assumption is the beginning of our resurrection, of the “resurrection of all who are taken up into Christ’s resurrection,” so too does the Immaculate Conception tell us something about our own redemption.  Mary’s redemption comes from the depth of her being; it is not something external that just coincidentally starts when the angel shows up.  Her radical holiness—her being “as holy as she could be said to be”—is not the negation of her being; it is her deepest self.

There is a hope here for all of us, a great lesson about the mystery of God’s love, God who redeems us without destroying us, God whose redeeming love reaches down to the depths of our being.  As McCabe says,

At the moment we are forgiven sinners; we are forgiven but we are people who have been sinners, we have been subject to the sin of the world, moreover we have at times opted for the sin of the world.  Both things are true:  we have contrition for our sins even as we celebrate our forgiveness…

What we celebrate on the feast of the Immaculate Conception is that Christ’s love for us brings us further than this.  What he wants for us is not just that we should be forgiven sinners but that we should be as though sin had never been.  Redemption for us will involve a rebirth from an immaculate conception.  Our redemption will not just be the successful end of a journey, the triumphant culmination of the history of man, but in some utterly mysterious way we will be freed from our history, or our history will be taken up into some totally new pattern in which even our sins become part of our holiness.  We will somehow be able to accept them as God accepts them.  There will be no more sorrow for sin, no more remorse over the past, no more contrition; we will be radically and totally free…

Perhaps these reflections only add more mystery to this week’s Solemnity, but maybe it’s better that they do.  For perhaps as we celebrate Mary’s conception this week, we are also celebrating the hope of our own conception, our own rebirth in the New Jerusalem, beyond the pain of sin, when even sin’s memory no longer has any power over us, when there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, when the old order has finally passed away…



The essay referred to can be found in McCabe’s interesting collection of essays God Matters (Continuum).

16 Responses to Whose conception is it anyway?

  1. brettsalkeld says:

    McCabe is the most quotable theologian of the 20th century. Doctrine is “nothing but an interpretation of our need to worship”? Pure gold.

    I love his stuff on the Eucharist too. And the good news is that his popularity seems to be growing.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Debra Schluter says:

    I have been taught by my instructors at the Denver Catholic Biblical School that the Immaculate Conception of Mary is indeed scriptural — when the angel Gabriel greets her, he says “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” I have been taught that the language, the words used, in the past-perfect tense, can be understood better/translated as “having been filled with grace,” completely, perfectly. He does not say to her, Hail, Mary, sorta filled with grace, or half-filled with grace. I also love that I have been taught that Mary’s response is spot-on, considering the second-half of the greeting, “The Lord is with you.” As a young Jew, she would have been familiar with the greeting, as it is used previously in scripture as a greeting after which the person so greeted is asked to do some tremendous, difficult task. What could have gone through her head might have been, “Oh-oh,” considering the precedent! And in fact, scripture does say she was troubled at the greeting — and she does have a tremendous task ahead of her, as the prophet Simeon, in the Temple says to her when she and Joseph come to present Jesus — he tells her “a sword will pierce your heart.” Indeed. As a parent, I cannot imagine her agony at her son’s passion,crucifixtion and death. And then, just to add a little levity — one of my instructors kidded, what must it have been like for Joseph, as head of this family? He comes home and something’s amiss — ok, whose responsible? Was it you, Mary, full of grace, or you, Holy Son of God? Tough stuff! A blessed advent to you all.

    • brettsalkeld says:

      There are different ways in which a doctrine can be “scriptural.” Some doctrines are very explicit in Scripture and others are more implied. Others are simply “consonant” with Scripture, meaning not contradictory to it and perhaps in line with a general theme (or themes) of Scripture.

      Catholics shouldn’t feel the need to prove every doctrine is explicitly in Scripture with proof-texts. That is actually a radically fundamentalist Protestant way to read Scripture. We also don’t need to give the impression that the communities responsible for producing the New Testament could have fully articulated teachings that have since become binding on the faithful. Shoot, even the Trinity took 300 years to get sorted out.

      If anyone is interested in looking at how the Marian doctrines fit within the economy of salvation outlined in Scripture, I highly recommend Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, an agreed statement by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.

      • brettsalkeld says:

        Though I disagree with a given method of biblical interpretation, I should add that I am with you , Debra, on Mary’s response. Entirely “spot-on,” as you put it. The Magnificat is one of my favorite parts of the whole Bible.
        A blessed advent to you too.

  3. Qualis Rex says:

    Thanks for this, Anthony. As you well know from our shared heritage, there is absolutely a wafer-thin line between Mariology and Mariolotry; the latter I feel manifested itself quite heavily during the reign of the last pontiff. I will counter your childhood with mine; remembering very large statues being roled out by about 20 people to be moved from one church to another; along the way various people emotionally shouting their devotion, prayers and frustrations at the statue while others threw money and pinned requests to its base. Had I the slightest knowledge of Protestantism at this stage of my youth, I would have probably smirked and shook my head in vindication of Jack Chick’s teachings about all Catholics secretly being idolators. But what I see now (and have for some time) is a very human tendency to fall back on the basest of emotions; in this case comfort.

    It is much more comfortable for some people to simply look at Mary as a demi-goddess capable of going to bat for the “big guy” for them, very much like many children instinctively ask their mothers to ask their father for something rather than going to him directly for whatever reason. I am by no means playing down Mary’s biblical intercessory role, but simply pointing to a very common “fall back” position on Mary that I have seen, and one which I believe has also been tacitly allowed for centuries with a wink a nudge from the hierarchy.

    Personally, I am very devoted to Our Lady. But I think I prefer the more Eastern view of her; as the perfect servant of God. This is even echoed when one receives communion in an Eastern Rite church: “the servant of God [insert name] receives…etc” which is usually done under or in view of an icon of the Theotokos/Kidist Mariam.

  4. Joe Simmons, SJ says:

    Excellent insights, Tony. Thanks for the thoughtful elucidations! (Wasn’t Mark McIntosh a student of McCabe’s? If so, doesn’t that make us his students once removed?) Pax et bonum, JSsj

  5. If you had the ability to create your mother, what kind of woman would she be? I believe the Immaculate Conception is just that. Jesus being Divine had the opportunity to create his mother, and like you and I would have done, he made her perfect. There are two kinds of salvation, picking a person up when they fall and catching them in time so they don’t fall. Mary’s is the latter. If we are saved by grace through faith, who would you say of one the Divine calls FULL OF GRACE? Only that she is fully saved for NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD. It would be sad to be envious because God is generous to Mary, we all are made available the same graces to share in the joys of heaven, on earth and in the life after death. Happy Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe as well.

  6. thereserita says:

    “there is absolutely a wafer-thin line between Mariology and Mariolotry; the latter I feel manifested itself quite heavily during the reign of the last pontiff.”

    What a condescending/arrogant statement. Who are you to judge JPII’s relationship with our Mother? Simply bc you weren’t comfortable with the way he manifested that relationship? That makes your feelings the axiom by which we can distinguish Mariology vs Mariolotry.

    As a mom, let me assure that each child has a different way of expressing their love. One Valentine’s Day I rec’d a crumpled construction paper heart decorated with a message of love in chalk from one child & a one line typed message from another on my pillow before I went to bed that night etc. My point is that it would never be okay for one child to judge the others in the way they relate to me.

    Since I, as wicked as I am, know that the important thing is for them to get along & love each other (& us!), I think its a pretty good guess that Blessed Mother is displeased when we take it upon ourselves to judge the Pope for whom she obviously had a great love, in that she spared his life on May 13, 1981.

  7. Qualis Rex says:

    Theresita – how rude and condenscending of you to judge me. I did not “judge JP II’s relationship with Our Lady”, nor did I say HE did anything wrong. I was referring to the many Marian “cults” based on wayward apparitions, messages and teachings which have been denounced as such by the church, yet STILL garnored huge followings against the decrees of local bishops. This was rampant DURING THE REIGN OF THE LAST PONTIFF.

    Obviously, this is a topic which is making you too emotional to think straight or exercise good reading comprehension, so maybe you refrain commenting unless you can do so without resorting to ad hominem.

    • thereserita says:

      Apology is readily given if I misread the intent of your comment. In re-reading it, I’m still unsure exactly what your intent was but I’m more than happy to be wrong about my comment. Sorry! With all due respect, I honestly don’t think I’m the only one who is “too emotional” 🙂 Christ’s Peace this Christmas!

  8. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    Perhaps I should have intervened somewhat sooner in this one… it’s important that we not be too quick to take offense in these discussions, since what we all ultimately care about is the truth and not “victory.”

    Pope Benedict sent a letter to all seminarians this fall, and one of the paragraphs addresses the question you raise, Qualis, about the occasional excesses of Marian devotion (though it’s not dealing only with Marian devotion). B16 says:

    “I urge you to retain an appreciation for popular piety, which is different in every culture yet always remains very similar, for the human heart is ultimately one and the same. Certainly popular piety tends toward the irrational, and can at times be somewhat superficial. Yet it would be quite wrong to dismiss it. Through that piety, the faith has entered human hearts and become part of the common patrimony of sentiments and customs, shaping the life and emotions of the community. Popular piety is thus one of the Church’s great treasures. The faith has taken on flesh and blood. Certainly popular piety always needs to be purified and refocused, yet it is worthy of our love and it truly makes us into the ‘People of God.'”

    Obviously the process of purification the Holy Father speaks of is more art than science. Even if a give devotion is a bit exaggerated or even silly, and important question to ask, in my opinion, is: what direction is this headed in? In other words, some exaggerations seem more clearly on the road to right belief, while others can lead in no good direction. The first can be more safely tolerated with the trust that they will correct themselves, while the later might need to be challenged more directly. Since this isn’t a clear cut criterion, it’s important to approach such questions with patience and magnanimity.

    • Qualis Rex says:

      Hello Anthony, as an oft-labeled “rad-trad”, I am definitely agree with popular piety, especially in local festivals, celebrations and any/all outwards displays of religion (I think there are too few these days). And your quote simply underscores my deep and profound admiration for our beloved pontiff.

      Let me phrase this another way with a question: “Why do I loath Mohammedanism and Mormonism so much?” Well, top of the list is my extreme love for Our Lord, and I hate the fact that other groups have attempted to usurp His words, mission and ultimately faith. Both Mormonism and Mohammedanism bastardizes and contorts God/Jesus to fit their own diabolic ends; ultimately to steal souls. And this is the same with what they have to say about Mary (as well as several other biblical/Christian figures).

      Now, how much worse is this when a group such as the Bayside or the other-which-cannot-be-mentioned (without an all-out online brawl) make claims of Mary and attract followers who continue to participate in “popular piety” around these apparitions/cults even when the church has stated flat-out that they should not do so. To your point, where is this heading? In one instance, it headed straight away from the church, that much is clear. In the other, time will tell (but I think the writing is also on the wall there too).

      • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

        Qualis, it might be best not to speak of “loathing” other religions, erroneous as they might be. This could easily be mistaken for loathing their followers, which I’m sure you don’t mean. Christ died for them, too, and we have a responsibility to deliver that message to them not because we loath them, but because we love them. Perhaps a tad more temperance would keep us safer from falling over the precipice of error ourselves…

        I’m not familiar with the other groups you mention, though the point is taken. Following “private revelation” at the expense of the Church and her teaching authority will always lead one away from the truth.

  9. Qualis Rex says:

    Anthony, obviously you are the wise one here; me…not so much. And absolutely, I do not loathe ANYONE. It’s wasted energy in life. I especially do not loathe any adherents of other religions simply because they are followers of such. I pity them (and at times, am guilty of being exasperated by their willful ignorance). But I am absolutely in agreement that all of them, EVERY person walking this planet, is worthy of salvation. When I say I loathe these false teachings, it’s because they are just that; lies. I loathe lies and the damage they cause. And I loathe that so many people continue to suffer for these lies.

    So, yes, I will pray for temperance. I fully understand my words can often be misconstrued, and thank you (as always) for giving me the benefit of the doubt.

  10. […] insightful British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP, distinguishes between two different types of atheists in his excellent collection of essays God […]

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