Reflection: Feast of the Immaculate Conception
For a long time it has seemed to me that we here at the Motherhouse think of today’s feast as December 8, a feast of Mary, a jubilee day, long ago a reception day and a vow day. We know it is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception but we attend to other aspects of the feast.
With what we know about creation and the universe now, it seems to me we can look again at the event this feast speaks of, Mary’s conception, rather than simply ignoring it, since I believe we find ourselves thinking differently now.
Most of us learned as children the Genesis story we just heard. Adam and Eve, called the first human beings, were good and were happy in the garden. All was well. Then they wanted more. Eve tempted Adam, the story goes, to eat the forbidden fruit. God clearly is angry and condemns the two to crawling on their bellies and eating dirt all the days of their lives. This event is called “The Fall,” and the teaching was — and officially still is — that, as each human being is conceived, he or she inherits this condemnation, this evil, this sin.
Most of us probably think about Baptism as a sacrament that incorporates the baby into the life of the Church, rather than a way to get rid of sin. The Genesis story of the fall, and it is a story, not a snapshot of history, is a way to talk about the struggle of our ancestors as they came to faith. The story has its place. “The Fall” is a way to speak of evil in the world. But I find the teaching too literal, a teaching based on a story that is presented as historical fact and an action of God.
When Anne and Joachim came together and Mary was conceived, the teaching is that her conception was different from that of every other human being. For the rest of us, the teaching is that this act of conceiving a child involves passing on a sinful state, resulting from Adam and Eve’s disobedience, so that the child is not in God’s favor but is filled with what came to be called Original Sin.
I want to look at this feast in the light of what we have learned about creation and the universe. Meister Eckhart said that creation is a constant activity of God’s flow into creatures. He suggests we are not in the world looking for signs of God who is outside. Rather, we stand within God.
As we learn more about evolution and the universe and our small place within it, we might think of Psalm 139: “I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made, wonderful are your works.” We have come to think of God as so integral to all of creation. We think of God not as Creator who made each species one by one, but as Creator who permeated and continues to permeate all of creation as it evolved and evolves. In this context we can think of Mary as one of us, as truly our sister, to use the words of Paul VI. We can think of her growing up in her culture, learning from her parents and from others in the village, making decisions, and probably making some mistakes. Her response to the angel as given us by Luke, “Be it done to me according to your word,” has been and continues to be our own prayer and, we hope, our continued response. We may be faced with a major decision or a necessary acceptance of what is, someone’s request for help or someone needing kindness. Mary is one who has shown us a way. Today we think of those who celebrate their anniversary of saying in effect, “Be it done to me according to your word.” As we look to Mary, we can also look to these others for inspiration and encouragement as each of us continues to live our lives as best we can.