Apropos of nothing in particular: The Chronicles of Narnia
The first thing which kindles ardor in learning is the greatness of the teacher. What is greater than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom Glory Itself chose? What more chaste than she who bore a body without contact with another body? For why should I speak of her other virtues? She was a virgin not only in body but also in mind, who stained the sincerity of its disposition by no guile, who was humble in heart, grave in speech, prudent in mind, sparing of words, studious in reading, resting her hope not on uncertain riches, but on the prayer of the poor, intent on work, modest in discourse; wont to seek not man but God as the judge of her thoughts, to injure no one, to have goodwill towards all, to rise up before her elders, not to envy her equals, to avoid boastfulness, to follow reason, to love virtue. When did she pain her parents even by a look? When did she disagree with her neighbors? When did she despise the lowly? When did she avoid the needy? Being wont only to go to such gatherings of men as mercy would not blush at, nor modesty pass by. There was nothing gloomy in her eyes, nothing forward in her words, nothing unseemly in her acts, there was not a silly movement, nor unrestrained step, nor was her voice petulant, that the very appearance of her outward being might be the image of her soul, the representation of what is approved. For a well-ordered house ought to be recognized on the very threshold, and should show at the very first entrance that no darkness is hidden within, as our soul hindered by no restraints of the body may shine abroad like a lamp placed within.
~St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins
[Irenikon] Today's Feast in OrthodoxyDecember 8: Forefeast of the Conception by St. Anna of the Most Holy Theotokos
[Irenikon] Today's Feast in Rome
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION:
DOGMATIC DISSERTATION 10–May-2004
This essay on the Immaculate Conception that was already planned anyway, penned academically years ago as a capstone paper in Dogma 504. Here the answer to valid questions is expanded and forwarded to you all. Since Advent is liturgically very Marian in character, I pray that this humble work will help you to recognize her footsteps beside your own as she points to her Son's coming... here and hereafter.
On top of that, December 12th [December 11 in 2010] , is the wonderful feast of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose miracles have colored my life (and saved it, more than once!) It was contemplating her image some fretful years ago that all the rest fell into place for me about her powerful presence in the Covenant we call the Church.
Now flash back to 1988. Many of you will remember sitting with me through a homily at that time wherein the preaching bishop evidently could not distinguish between the Immaculate Conception (Mary's graced conception in the womb of her mother Saint Ann by the natural agency of her father Saint Joachim) and the Incarnation (the supernatural conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit after she consented). Even without this confusion-in-cryptic-heresy, either because they don't believe or don't understand it (in short: they don't own it as true) I haven't heard a homilist's valid sermon on the Immaculate Conception since our beloved prior and "Abunah" Father Cyril Karam, OSB, died... in 1990... and never before him either.
So, because you will probably never hear more than a mindless parroting of theological formulae and/or pietistic Maryolatry - on the one hand - or relativistic generic minimalism of "Christians are nice people, just like Mary" "merit"-manure on the other, I have decided to share my struggle over the power of this solemn feast of Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It has involved much study, several excellent courses in Dogmatic Theology and many hours of prayerful meditation. What follows, therefore, I hope, will command the attention which that long journey deserves: it is why I believe that the Catholic Church - after a similar wrestling with this controversial belief over centuries - finally declared this mystery not only credible but necessary for salvation. But the reasons may surprise you. But, the fact that this is not going to a "short answer" will probably not surprise this audience.
The operative word here is not "salvation" or even "necessary" but mystery... more specifically a Marian mystery: which means that its ancillary (helping) purpose is to point to Christ, His Savior-Personhood as God-Man and as Messiah-Kyrios (Lord) and to His Cross and Pascha by which alone all people may be saved (including Mary... but let's not here get ahead of ourselves).
Every assertion by the Church in Sacred Tradition which - at first glance - concerns the Virgin Mary really pertains in a fundamental way to Christ and the Church, either to affirm some truth about Jesus or to clarify some truth about us human persons who – just like Mary - needed and need to be saved by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hence, for example, the Arian heresy (and the Docetists, Adoptionists, Monarchianists, Socinianists, et al.) denied that Jesus is truly God and man from the Christic beginning, i.e. when the Incarnation happened, the moment the Eternal Word, God the Son, took flesh in Mary's womb.
The Church's vigorous response was to condemn the basic heresy by declaring that Mary was and is the Theotokos, [Deipara in Latin] " God-bearer" , in more common parlance "She who gave birth to God" or simply "Mother of God".
Point: This “new” title was not promulgated to honor Mary, but to affirm there was no time Jesus existed when He was not both God-and-Man inseparably, an idea that neither "Mother of Jesus" nor Christotokos ("Christ-bearer") - though scriptural in origin -could convey as these titles alone did not reflect the full truth which the heretics were denying. As all these Christ-distorting heresies reappear again and again in history (and especially in our own day) the Church answers them at every turn with the assertion that foils the lie and announces the truth about Jesus in proclaiming Mary as Mother of God.
Similarly, the Church's teaching and solemn liturgical celebration of Mary's Assumption into heaven body-and-soul after the end of her earthly life is - again - not primarily to honor Mary but to teach clearly this central truth about us: Mary is the daughter of two human parents, just like you and I. She was saved by the sheer gift of God's Saving Grace through Christ, in just the same way you and I shall be saved IF we respond in faith and receptivity to that One Grace - each in the unique role God gives us in His Plan - as Mary responded freely and willingly in her role, in what God asked of her in the unfolding of His Kingdom in Christ.
In sum: the Church is saying "If you want proof of what wonders God will work for you, that God is meticulously faithful to His Promise to you, that he has made you, O human being, His own son/daughter and will raise you up as Jesus promised, just look at what He has done for thoroughly human Mary! No, you cannot be the Mother of the Lord, but Jesus makes it clear that His Mother is not glorified by that physical relationship to Him of womb and breast, but because '...she heard the word of God and kept it with all her heart..' (Luke 11:27 ff.) This is the same Word God addresses to you and the same Christ-bearing privilege He affords you in Sacrament.
Now for the objections... or what appear to be so... from honest and faithful Christians. Even some of Our Lady's biggest "fans" in the Church's history refused to accept this “immaculate” idea, and mostly for the following theological or philosophical reasons(others for disingenuous politics not included.)So it is necessary to begin with: what the Immaculate Conception is not.
It is not Calvinist predestination (an idea condemned by the Church) which has God deciding even before their birth who would go to heaven and who would go to hell and (on this side of the divide) true Christians would "recognize" one another, be discernible by their material prosperity and have leave to exploit everyone else (hell-bound, after all) for their own gain: i.e., unbridled capitalism (and what gospel are we reading, Dr. Calvin???) Conversely, Catholics believe, in line with the famous Thomistic maxim: God wills all people to be saved; faith is necessary for salvation, therefore God gives all people faith. Point: No one is "less" or "more" gifted by God with faith, which cannot be "quantified".
It is not Pelagian self-serve salvationism (another heresy condemned by the Church) wherein somehow Mary "merited" special consideration "before" Christ's coming and was "saved" by some "alternative" salvation on her own "merits". This "not" is dismally complicated by the uncritical use of the word "merit" and misleading word "privilege" in so many prayers concerning Mary and other saints and is the biggest anti-Marian gun aimed at Orthodox/Catholic Christians who venerate and supplicate the Holy Virgin by Protestants and their ilk.
"Privilege" means literally a personal exemption, a "private" and exclusive "law" that sets one apart and dispenses one from some obligation everyone else must observe. Some who hold an unexamined traditionalist view would here argue: "But isn't that the essence of this doctrine: that Mary is exempted from the law of Adam's sin unlike the rest of the human race? Isn't that the "privilege" God grants her because of her holiness?" This needs some pondering to be answered.
This seemingly innocent (and much-preached) approach is dangerously misleading. Mary is freed from the burden of Original Sin (it cannot be said too often) in the same way as all the rest of us: by the Cross and Pascha of Jesus. How, can this be if chronologically she precedes even Jesus' birth let alone His Passion? It really is very basic and totally congruent with Christian theology:
Simply put it into our faith-context and think about it with the tools Catholic theology and Sacred Tradition afford us: For example, how can the Church teach (and have us believe by divine command) that we in the 21st Century (or those in the 5th or 12th or 17th for that matter) re-enter(ed) the One Sacrifice of Christ at Mass and receive in holy communion His Living Body, Crucified and Risen, and His Precious Blood shed on Calvary in 28 A.D? Because there is no "time" with God. Days and months and years are our hang-up as earthbound mortals, not a limit on God. Every event in human history and especially, every one of His Saving Acts, is all-together immediately before God's "eyes" in one present "moment". Nothing is "past" or future" to the Eternal One even if we must put a calendar date-and-year in our earthly chronology.
In Liturgy God gives us total access to the living Mysteries at any "time" through the Priesthood of Christ in His Church, which extends His Incarnate Saving Self through all ages "until he comes in glory." That is how you and I, centuries after His Pascha, were "baptized into His Death" [Romans 6:3]. Mary is cleansed of Original Sin at the moment of her conception in Saint Ann's womb because in the “eternity” from which she was sent to that womb, the Saving Act of Jesus' Cross had already been completed and the Father's will for human redemption accomplished. She was immersed in that redemption at its "fount" in eternity where the Paschal triumph was fulfilled already, even if it would not “take place” on earth for another [+/-] 50 years.
When late Medieval theology freed itself from a casuist Scholastic fundamentalism, the contemplative heart of the Church distilled this insight from the "whole picture" (that ongoing reaching-for-fullness that is the essence of Sacred Tradition), the Immaculate Conception became the expression of what St. Paul's claim to human "predestination" really means. "For those whom [God] foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He might be the Firstborn of many brothers [and sisters]. And those He predestined, He also called; and those He called, He also justified and those He justified He in turn glorified." (Romans 8:29-30. see also Ephesians 1:5 -11)
There is a long and difficult conceptual history to the idea of "merit" and the concept of the root verb meruire has shifted radically (dangerously?) in spiritual vocabulary. In early monastic life, the term is linked with the verb promereo, root of the noun "promise", a pledge to do a requested task or be a specific agent toward some goal.
It is not an accolade for some deed accomplished or praise for some endemic personal quality, but "promise" looks forward to some goal "not yet" realized, a commitment to a specific course of action "so that one may obtain", "in order to gain", "to serve the goal" (often used in Roman military contexts), all of which convey the idea of preparing, receiving, striving, questing after some treasure of the heart that is "not yet".
In this sense, Scripture and Tradition portray Mary as one certainly open to the fulfillment of the Promise, and when her role is requested of her, she voices her receptivity ("merit") with "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, Be it done to me according to your word." Later deformation of "merit" by theological legalism in the Middle Ages, however, gave it a meaning quite at odds with Christian salvation, making it a kind of "running tally" of gold stars for good behavior which could then, at last, be turned in as "payment" for the forgiveness of sins in a gross distortion of "weighing a person's deeds" (an image very prominent in art of that period).
This distorted type of "merit" is a "bargaining chip", not a good act done to glorify God and turn others' hearts to Him. But, honestly, how many Catholics (or others) do you know who understand their relationship to God in this superstitious legalism, the "God owes me!" mentality?
None of us children of Adam "merits" or can "merit" anything; on the contrary, it is only by God's impulse of grace that we can even desire Him or his will. If by "merit" we mean a free-willed "yes", a commitment to let God fulfil this desire and work His wonders in us, then one understands the ancient attribution of this promise-seeking "merit" to Mary: her consent to God's will. And if we understand "privilege" to mean the unique preparation God gives each of us (talents, personal gifts, earthly circumstance and opportunity), then we not only understand in an orthodox way the "ways of the Lord", we have also hit upon the real meaning of this feast for the followers of Jesus: what Mary is by her Immaculate Conception [called from eternity, "predestined" and gifted, justified and conformed to the Image of Christ], we are by Baptism. And, like her, our consent is pivotal to God fulfilling all these graces in our lives. It is the core meaning of Advent and of the discipleship to which we are called.
Why then is this essential? Because to deny God's unique call to each of us, His giving of "every gift necessary" to take our unique place and accomplish our unique purpose in building His Kingdom, is to deny the fundamental God-Human relationship of the Covenant. This doctrine is about you and me, human as Mary is, and about the "wonders He has done for us... Holy is His Name!" (Luke 1:49)
Protestants cannot accept Mary at all (increasingly, not even as the Virgin Mother of Jesus!) let alone grasp the Covenant theology offered by Liturgy-present and Sacrament-reality, hence they reject this teaching. But what about the Orthodox Churches? Their "real" objection to this doctrine is presented that it was not decided by a council of the whole Church, but "devised by medieval piety" [it would seem some of their own ancient patristic texts have gone missing!] and then "defined" by a pope without a Council by virtue of a personal "infallibility" they reject a priori (with some traditional validity).
However, the more compelling reason is that Orthodox Christianity has a different concept of the Fall of Man and the human condition vis-a-vis the sin of Adam affecting his descendants. "Original Sin" is Saint Augustine's term and concept of the Fall, a Western Church Father with little effect in the East. Hence, that "Mary was preserved from Original Sin" has little congruence with the "how" of salvation in Orthodox theology. And all the fallacious use of "merit", "privilege" terminology and so forth which serves to separate Mary from the human race further alienates Orthodoxy from this idea (as it did some of Mary's biggest fans in the early medieval monastic period: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Vincent Ferrer, et al... and, frankly, me too.)
However, Orthodoxy would never presume to deny God's unique call and gifting-for-the-task - either for Mary or for any of the rest if humankind - nor the necessity that Mary be saved by Jesus' Pascha like the rest of us and that she is Mother of God by His design, nor the eternal "moment" that is the Saving Act of God and which the Divine Liturgy makes present, nor that she - in virtue of her cooperation with His grace - was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life to share before the rest of us the fullness of the resurrection, and from there intercedes for us.
It's just proof that our semantics have hardened, our theological formulations have ossified, so that they no longer breathe with the "whole picture" of the Covenant, nor bow with trembling humility before the tremendous mysteries about which depth any verbal/conceptual formulation is woefully, frustratingly inadequate.
So... "remembering our Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed and Glorious Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, Help of Christians, with Saint Benedict and all the angels and saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole lives to Christ our God!" *[Ektenia (mod): Liturgy of St.John Chrysostom]
...Because for THIS the Lord "predestined" us!