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Our Lady’s Story
Luke and Matthew are the two evangelists who give us the most important information on Mary: Jesus was born of a woman but with no earthly father. The Virginal Conception is the name that we give to that fact. This is not the same, of course, as the Immaculate Conception. The Virginal Conception refers to the earthly begetting of Jesus- he had no earthly father. The Immaculate Conception refers to the begetting of Mary. She did have an earthly father and mother. But she came into the world without any sin or any trace of sin at all in her being. This is a deduction from her motherhood of Jesus, - she was the mother of God. Her sinless Son could hardly be born of a sinful mother.
Background to the Feast
We remind ourselves that the background to this doctrine is first found in the East in the seventh century (Andrew of Crete and John of Damascus). From there it spread to the West and “it is first attested in Naples and probably in Ireland in the ninth century, and for England in the first half of the eleventh century.” St. Anselm of Canterbury promoted it in England. (Pope Sixtus IV dedicated the Sistine chapel to her on Aug 15th 1483). There is a very rich history of popular devotion to sinless Mary up to the Reformation in England and in Scotland- as well as elsewhere. Very interesting is the way in which in the mediaeval world, where women had virtually no constitutional rights, they did have an enormous influence for good over their sons. This is well attested in the Scottish monarchy. Mary was understood as influencing and encouraging Jesus in his mission of care and kindness. Now women as mothers, especially as mothers of kings and influential men, used all their emotional and dedicated maternal compassion to urge clemency and forgiveness, and almsgiving in the kingdoms. Their devotion to the sinless Mary was the best illustration of what sinlessness was all about. It involved undiminished selflessness, caring without ceasing for those in need. Take care of the people who are suffering in any way, look after the poor, live loving relationships. It involves a constant stream of intercessions to make sure people’s lives are improved. Mary Immaculate was not honoured as a plaster cast effigy of purely aesthetic interest in mediaeval Europe. Those praying to her asked her to help them in all their earthly engagements, and to reach heaven and a benign judge when they died.
It was long before a solution was found to the controversy between theologians as to how Mary’s sinlessness and her need to be redeemed could have been reconciled. The Franciscan Blessed Duns Scotus said she had been redeemed in anticipation of Christ’s coming. What the Eternal Son, out of time, had done, was to prepare his mother at the moment of her entering time, to be sinless in bringing him into the world of time. The Dominicans rejected this reasoning and theologians remained divided over it. But they agreed that Mary was saved like everyone else, and that she is the mother of the Eternal Divine Son- Theotokos. Essentially the story is about him. Sin could not have touched him, the eternal Son of the eternal God, and as a human being his mother, in that most intimate of all relationships,- could not have been unworthy of him. She came into existence as the purest of creatures.
The few facts that we have in the Gospel piece that story together. Luke had presented her fiat, her saying ‘yes’ to being the mother of her Son, as a response freely made to her vocation. She had been called for a mission. She had wondered at why she had been called. She needed reassurance, and she was treated like a rational human being in asking for it. She accepted the vocation, and with it she accepted the implications of her choice. She made a lonely act of faith. She is not presented in the Lucan text as knowing the details of what was going to happen in his and her later life. We are short of biographical details. But we do have theological explanations. Mary’s story belongs to the story of her Son. And it also belongs to all human beings, to every human story. That is why she is presented as the first and best disciple of her Son. She was faithful through suffering. She had no privileges during her earthly life, not even the privilege of more information about what would happen to him. She suffered widowhood, and the loss of her Son, by a dreadful public execution. Her future was entrusted to others until her earthly days were over. But who is she essentially? The answer is the Mother of God- and as such was born sinless, and lived sinlessly. That is a way of saying that she was predisposed to love, and loved selflessly all her days. That was what popular devotion seized on. And the evidence of this is massively attested in prayers to her, in pilgrimages to shrines under her patronage, in infinite art forms, music and painting and dedications.
The only instance of her speaking of herself as The Immaculate Conception that I know of is what Bernadette of Lourdes experienced. Above her head in our little Lourdes shrine in the grounds, it is written in French. But seemingly Bernadette heard in the local patois in the Pyrenees. It sounds like a pure abstraction but Bernadette experienced Mary as a loving and loveable human being. That reflects the massively attested disposition of centuries – Mary’s femininity defined the best in womanhood for centuries. a loving mother who lived for others knowing that at her request her Son would care for them. It may seem all too human but The Word was Made Flesh was taken seriously for centuries- his mother nurtured him, and educated him, and shaped him. That is the human side of the story lived in faith.
A happy Feast to you all.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK