The Immaculate Conception
I wonder how many of us recall the first words which that Lady ‘brighter than the sun’ said to those three Portuguese peasant children, over a hundred years ago. They were “Do not be afraid”. “Afraid” is what frail humans so often feel when confronted by evidences of divine power; the Lord himself said it on the morning of his resurrection: “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10). When Our Lady appeared on that stony, arid field at Cova da Iria, she spoke to Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta in the local Portuguese dialect, but she might really have been addressing the people of our own age, with its underlying anti-Catholic bigotry and its broader antagonism to those who “cling to God.”
There’s a certain kind of progressive Christian who needs a trigger warning about the very phrase “Mother of God”. If you explain that Jesus is God and so his mother Mary is the Mother of God, they give you that sort of sideways look that implies they know you’re playing some sort of Jesuitical trick on them, but they can’t quite spot the catch. Well, of course, there is a catch; it’s that they don’t live with a real faith that Jesus is God. As St John Henry Newman once analyzed it, liberal Christians demote our Lord Jesus Christ into the slot reserved for Mary, which we might call the “Top Creature Slot”, and then they’re upset when orthodox Catholics situate Mary in exactly that place.
The doctrine of the Incarnation means that God was in the womb of a Jewish peasant girl who is Queen of Heaven. The Immaculate Conception is another doctrine that can scare some people into looking for a safe space. Is it perhaps a reminder that a conception is designed to result in a birth? Not the sort of thing pro- choicers want to have dragged in front of their noses. C S Lewis points out that the devils too are fastidious in their horror at the flesh. Screwtape refers to a human as “this animal, this thing begotten in a bed”, which at least gets one thing right: that what is begotten is a human, and not a tumor in a woman’s body. Or perhaps some people are triggered by the word “Immaculate”, because it might suggest something religious, whereas they are spiritual and above all that.
But “immaculate” is a completely biblical concept in its Hebrew and Greek equivalents: it means spotless; and only what is without blemish is truly for God (for example, a spotless sacrificial lamb). Because Mary is to be wholly for God, is to give God his body, to give God his endowment of genes, to give God the food of her breast: so Mary by God’s gift is to be the Immaculate, the one without blemish, the one in whom the Divine likeness has never been marred.
It is because Mary alone in the roots of her being is unmarked by sin that Mary alone is truly and wholly free. In our hearts, too, we should make her free and “fear not”; she is never to be locked down in our churches and homes like someone whose name must never be mentioned in public, although other less reputable
figures may be. If Mary is the Mother of God Incarnate, she is our Mother too, because we are in Christ, limbs of his body by our baptismal incorporation.
Mary comes to us this day, and what would a true mother bring to hungry children except food; food for her children in this our exile, food packed for our journey. Mary comes to this place and to this moment of time; Mary comes, bright with all the beauties known by men and angels; Mary comes to set upon our lips the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus.