Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cosmic Drifters

Original sin is the collapse of what man is, both in his origin from God and in himself, the contradiction between the will of the Creator and man’s empirical being. This contradiction between God’s ‘is’ and man’s ‘is not’ is lacking in the case of Mary, and consequently God’s judgment about her is pure ‘Yes’, just as she herself stands before him as a pure ‘Yes.’
Daughter Zion, 70
Reflection – Well, the great feast is coming! Hope you have all your preparations done – all the decorating and special food and shopping… After all, it’s only two days away!
Oh, you thought I meant that other feast – whatchamas! No, no—I mean December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The great feast, the feast of the prelude of salvation, the feast celebrating the immediate work done by God to prepare the whole cosmos for the grace of his Incarnation, his saving act in Christ.
The term ‘immaculate conception’ is widely misunderstood. Many people—even educated people—seem to think it refers to the miraculous virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. It does not.
It refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother. Mary was conceived according to the natural human way, through the sexual union of her parents, who tradition tells us were named Joachim and Anne. The ‘immaculate’ quality is that, by a special and unique dispensation of God, in view of the merits of Christ’s redemption, Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her existence, so as to be a fitting vessel to receive the Incarnate Word by the Holy Spirit, and pass on to Him our human nature in an unblemished form.
OK, that’s all a mouthful, and very theological and precise. So, who cares? All very nice for Our Lady (we might say) but what difference is it to you and me? Well, that’s what we’re going to spend the next few days discussing on this blog, helped by Ratzinger’s magnificent little book Daughter Zion.
We see in the above passage a reflection of something we all know from bitter experience. This ‘original sin’, which I don’t think anyone really understands (we have doctrinal formulations for that, too, which I will spare you at this moment): it’s something we all know in our bones, even if we don’t always use the Church’s vocabulary for it.
Simply put, we are conflicted creatures. Part of us wants God; part of us does not. Part of us wants to love; part of us does not. Part of us opens up to life, to beauty, to joy, to everything good and holy and true; part of us caves in on ourselves and clings to selfishness, rancor, spite, jealousy.
On and on and on. We all know this. There is some strange spirit in us that turns away from what will make us happy, some strange energy at work in every human heart that leads to misery and ruin. It is a universal thread running through all human history and every human story. Good is only attained by struggle and effort; evil, we fall into. As Mae West put it, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” We drift, we human beings. We are conflicted, marred creatures, all of us.
Almost. The Immaculate Conception means that one little word. Almost. Without Mary, we would have a terrible problem, you see. Without Immaculate Mary (whose praises we sing), we would have to conclude that this horrible conflicted reality of humanity is in fact the essential truth, the essential story of the human race. We just are a race of failures, misfits, nogoodniks, drifters. A bunch of cosmic troublemakers: ‘everything was just fine until they showed up,’ one could hear the angels and the stars saying.
Almost. We have this one little girl, you see. And God was able to preserve her from this terrible burden of original sin, not so that she could have a wonderful life (I strongly suspect Mary suffered deeply all her life—imagine being wholly one, wholly ordered to goodness and love, and wholly immersed in the world as we know it), but so that we could see in her, and in God’s action in her, what human beings really are.
Not what we’ve made ourselves to be, not what this strange mysterious wound in our nature has wrought in us, but what He made us to be, and what His work desires to fashion us into. Mary is immaculate, and we are not. But what we see in her immaculate nature is what God wishes to do in each of us, to make us that ‘Yes’ to Him so that His ‘Yes’ to us can find a response, an echo, a true reflection of the love that comes from Him and is in Christ.
And that’s what humanity is, and that’s what the Immaculate Conception reveals to us. And we will continue the next couple days to reflect on this mystery. Now go do your Immaculate Conception shopping and baking and decorating and…

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