On Dec. 8, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Since Mary is the model of the Church and of Christian life, Marian feasts celebrate not only the person of Mary, but also the dignity of the Church and of all the baptized. This point may not seem immediately obvious, until we realize that the solemnity originated in early Christian theology and poetry about the Church.
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians was a typical starting point for such reflection. Paul describes, for instance, the Church, the New Israel, the Bride of Christ as “glorious, with no speck or wrinkle, but holy and faultless” (5:27).
In the same letter, God’s people are described as having received “every spiritual blessing in the heavens” (1:12). They were chosen “before the world began, to be holy and blameless in his sight, to be full of love” (1:4). The community of believers “was predestined to praise his glory by being the first to hope in Christ” (1:12).
The writings of Hugo Rahner and of then-Cardinal Ratzinger (in his beautiful little book “Daughter Zion”) point out that early Christian theology and preaching developed the image of the “immaculate Church” in a very extensive way. This theme found expression in some of the most beautiful and lyrical writings of the early Fathers. The Church – and Christians themselves – were celebrated as immaculate, because of the dignity of baptism.
Eventually, this language was applied to the person of Mary. The “immaculate” Church and the “immaculate” Christian came to be symbolized in Mary Immaculate. This is why the scripture readings for the Solemnity can be read as referring to Mary, to the Church, and to all the baptized.
This sort of talk can make us uncomfortable nowadays. We are shy of any language that seems to idolize the Church – not least in view of the scandals of the last few decades, and more recently the child-abuse scandals. We are right to point out the Church’s faults and to insist that the Church is anything but the community of the perfect.
Yet, as John Macquarrie, the distinguished Anglican theologian, pointed out, we need today a “new resurgence of pride” in what the Church fundamentally is. This is not the same thing as arrogance or triumphalism. Rather, such pride comes from the recognition that while the Church and its people are far from perfect, they bear “hidden glory” and represent “that part of humanity where God is seeking to manifest his purpose for all mankind.”
The fact is, despite all its faults and the sins of its people, Christianity is the arena of God’s liberating and sanctifying love. For all its imperfection, the Church has produced great saints, and has ennobled the human enterprise.
Without Christ and the liberating gospel proclaimed and lived – no doubt imperfectly – the world would be a very different place. This explains why the story of the Fall – the opposite of a redeemed world – is included among the readings of the Immaculate Conception.
What is underlined is that the world of Adam and Eve is an enslaved, dead-end, dehumanizing world. By contrast, the world of Christ, embodied and symbolized in Mary and the whole baptized community, leads to a new humanity truly free and truly ennobled.
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, then, is not merely an esoteric feast of historical interest, but a contemporary celebration of the dignity of all who call themselves “Christian.”
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.