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Friday, December 6, 2019

2nd Sunday of Advent (and the Immaculate Conception)

Note: For the season of Advent, I've decided to focus these reflections on the Virgin Mary rather than the weekly Gospel.

On Mary's Immaculate Conception

There’s an unfortunate misconception about Mary, namely that she was a bit of a wimp. We tend to think of her as delicate, as someone who never spoke louder than a whisper. With her hands folded and head bowed, we’ve imprisoned a very fragile and lifeless Mary into our figurines and into our imaginations. Caryll Houselander was an old Catholic writer from the 1940s who talked about how, as a little girl, people encouraged her never to do something the Blessed Virgin wouldn’t do. The trouble was, she joked, “I simply could not imagine her doing anything at all.” The Mary in our minds is not very dynamic.

On account of this, the real Mary, the one who actually walked around, has become difficult for us to imagine. We forget that she was once a desperate refugee who escaped her hometown in the dead of night (Mt 2:14). We forget that Mary gave birth alongside animals (Lk 2:7). We don’t think of her as the kind of woman who, when she sings, sings about “scattering the arrogant in their conceit, throwing down the mighty from their thrones … and sending the rich away hungry” (Lk 1:51-53). Mary was no delicate little thing. When nearly everyone else fled for their lives ― even after they swore never to desert him (Mt 26:35) ― Mary remained with Jesus at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25).

This confusion about Mary, in part, comes from a misunderstanding about her “Immaculate Conception,” which Catholics will celebrate this week. We often point out that the Immaculate Conception refers not to Jesus’ conception inside of Mary, but to Mary’s conception inside her mother. Indeed, the teaching is that, from the first moment she was conceived in her mother’s womb, Mary was “preserved free from all stain of original sin.” But there is a second way of misunderstanding the Immaculate Conception that applies to our problem. We misunderstand Mary’s sinlessness if we think it makes her totally unlike us. 

We must not think that, because Mary was sinless, she was somehow unapproachable, that she floated a few inches above the dirt. No. Mary was as gritty as her neighbors. She stoked flames and carried water. We certainly don’t think of Mary as the kind of woman with whom you’d split 2 liters of homemade wine, but that is how much the average Israelite drank each day. I don’t know about you, but I can’t drink that much! 

Mary’s holiness does not make her glide above us. It is just the opposite. It is precisely Mary’s freedom from sin that makes her most approachable, most ordinary, most one-of-us. Holiness does not lift one above normal human life, but makes one more richly engaged in the ordinary world. Indeed, to be sinless is not to be inhuman, but to be most human. More than that, her holiness made her most able to endure and engage the harshest turns life can take ― she was a refugee; she endured the public crucifixion of her son. Indeed, this is precisely what makes her able to sympathize with the harshness of your own life. You can talk to her about it. She’s been through it too. 

Mary was a woman, a real woman. She was a mother ― a real mother ― who loved her real son, not in some ethereal and untouchable way that has no meaning at all, but in the same gritty way that all mothers love their children. In my experience, there is nothing delicate about mothers. Mothers are not to be messed with. She wiped Jesus up, fed him, searched frantically for him when he snuck off (Lk 2:41-52). It’s all very ordinary; it’s just like any other mother. Indeed, what makes it extraordinary ― what makes her immaculate ― is that all this ordinariness is directed toward and oriented around the most extraordinary of children. She was willing to give the entirety of her ordinary human existence to the flourishing of her Son. For this “all generations will call her blessed” (Lk 1:48).