Immaculate Conception

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This month we celebrate the Immaculate Conception, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Nativity, and we have heard the Annunciation narrative twice, including this past weekend. I would like to join NCR's Phyllis Zagano and Nicole Sotelo in meditating on Mary these days.

Mary is a stellar exemplar of the value of motherhood and of consecrated virginity, but the church has often done harm in limiting its understanding to those two feminine paradigms. Pope Francis's often misogynistic way of speaking about women has not helped matters much.

I find myself wondering with particular urgency what it means for Mary to have been immaculately conceived, preserved "from all stain of original sin." The apostolic constitution that defined the dogma in 1854 uses a language of spotlessness and physical integrity, as though the defining quality of Mary's purity were asexuality. But might we enlarge our understanding by looking at the Genesis narrative of the Fall more closely?

I attended a talk by Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R., who remarked that one of the hallmarks of our fallen nature is shame: a shame that enters human experience when Adam realizes he is naked, and which immediately inserts distance between us and God. God, whom the first couple experienced as all-loving and all-forgiving, now appears as a disciplinarian from whom we must hide those parts of ourselves of which we imagine God cannot approve.

Furthermore, Billy proposed that there is a horizontal dimension of sin -- not only in the "enmity" between us and the serpent, but in that between men and women. After all, as soon as God asks Adam why he ate the forbidden fruit, Adam turns not on the snake but on Eve; and so two human persons, created to be true spiritual friends, soul mates, flesh of each other's flesh and bone of each other's bone (Gen 2:23), suffer the sting of betrayal, the loss of solidarity, and, soon afterward, the toxin of inequality and injustice.

We can see Adam's inability to take responsibility for his own actions reflected in so many instances today: in the imputation of blame to rape survivors for their supposed imprudence, in the astonishing verbal abuse and misogyny that men with fragile egos unleash on women who rebuff their advances on dating sites (there are too many tumblrs that chronicle this sickening behavior to link to just one), or -- closer to our church -- in the inability of some male religious to see female colleagues as anything other than dangerous temptresses to be avoided if they are to preserve their vocations.

Perhaps Mary's immaculate conception means that she is preserved from that original sin which involves shame before God and the patriarchal distrust and diminishment of women by men.

In contrast to Adam, who hid his nakedness in shame, Mary knows that God looks upon her lowliness and "rejoices" in it (Lk 1:48). She does not experience God's gaze as judgmental, but as wholly accepting.

Moreover, while so many of us struggle with integrating sexuality and prayer -- imagining we must rid our thoughts of everything carnal before we speak to God -- Mary's first reaction to the angel's annunciation is to ask frankly about her sexual life (Lk 1:34).

Finally, Mary saw no need to ask the permission of her husband in order to pronounce her "Yes" to God.

The more I read Catholic news, the more I feel that Mary's freedom from shame is important for us today. 

Cardinal Velasio de Paolis recently entered the debate on communion for the remarried, expressing the traditional belief in "the need for the state of sanctifying grace in order to receive Eucharistic communion." The consequence of abrogating this principle, he feels, is not moral laxity in the communicant but "the danger of sacrilege and profanation of the Eucharist" -- as though God could look upon our lowliness with disgust, as though God wants our nakedness hidden in the garden until we are no longer at risk of contaminating the sacraments.

Or again: Maureen Mallarkey shrewdly examines the clinical, and even distasteful, way that many theologians talk about the "conjugal act." She cites Fr. Mario Pezzi, who claims, "There is no love without the cross. So 'making love,' as young people say, is pure falsehood. This is not a matter of love but of concupiscence. ..." Such deep pessimism about sex does not amount to a holy but, in fact, to a degrading vision of the human person. Granted that human relationships can be a crucible, why can't sex be seen as the love that springs from the cross, rather than as the cross that makes love arduous? (And what love would that be, for that matter? What ethereal, intangible, disincarnate love?)

Or again: Cardinal Burke recently asserted that "of course" he fears the Last Judgment. But is fear of God's wrath really such an obvious and necessary component of spiritual humility?

All of this pondering comes from my heart. I know that we need to take responsibility for our shortcomings, but oh, I could say so much more about the ways in which shame has made inroads into my own spiritual life, making some impossible perfection the enemy of the good. The church's sanitized ideals for moral living can make it difficult to be honest not only with others but with ourselves and with God.

That is why I see purity not in Mary's virginity, per se, but in her lack of qualms about suggesting that "from now on, all generations will call [her] blessed" (Lk 1:48). On the surface, this looks like arrogance; but I think she simply knows how profoundly she is loved by God. Moreover, surely she is referring not to her own abundant goodness, but to God's perfect love, which casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18).

Perhaps it is not being totally sinless, but totally overcoming shame about our humanity, that constitutes "fullness of grace."


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