The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church and by some Anglicans on December 8.
Ah yes, the immaculate conception — one of the first trivia questions thrown at new converts to the Catholic faith in RCIA class to show them how little they know and how confused the popular culture is about Catholic dogma. (Papal infallibility is another and we’ll get to that in a minute.)
So, here’s the spoiler. This Immaculate Conception that folks are always talking about is not about Jesus’s birth. Not directly anyway. It’s about Mary’s birth. The idea is that in order to have been the vessel through which Jesus was born, Mary too must have been without Original Sin.
I’m going to confess something right here. I’ve never bought it. When I was going through RCIA instruction to be confirmed a Catholic and we got to the immaculate conception stuff, I really didn’t know what to do with how absurd I found the whole thing, so I just kind of let it slide.
To me, the reasoning behind it is deeply flawed, and I’ll get to that. But also, the fact that we’re even talking about it is an example of the kind of theological nitpicking that Jesus rejected. Remember when the Sadducees tried to trip Jesus up by asking what would happen when a woman who rightfully remarried after the death of a spouse got to heaven and found multiple husbands there? He responded with, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29), and then explained that it didn’t make sense to try to apply the rules of this material realm to divine matters.
There’s a part of me that is fascinated by the centuries- and millennia-long debates over questions like transubstantiation, the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, but ultimately I believe these arguments among humans don’t matter. And if they create division between people, then they are harmful.
So, all that said, what’s the deal with the Immaculate Conception? Well, the basic idea, as I said before, is that Mary had to be totally 100% extra virgin pure. Not good enough to insist that the conception of Jesus couldn’t have happened through nasty human sexual intercourse. The argument evolved that Mary’s womb also had to be pure. Her essence had to be without sin in order to be the mother of God. So that brings us to Original Sin and that’s when the trouble starts.
Original Sin basically means that we’re born with a sinful nature. I could write thousands of words on this, and hundreds of books are devoted to the topic. But in a nutshell, Original Sin says that rather than being born pure and getting corrupted by the world around us, we have a corrupted inclination from the start. St. Augustine pointed to the selfishness of children, the impulse to get away with things, and the broader idea of wanting to live without God, to rebel against God.
I actually tend to agree with this, though I think it’s terribly terribly misunderstood. Do we have a tendency to be selfish and to try to play God? I think we do. But whatever your thoughts on that, let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that Original Sin exists.
The big problems start when people try to figure out what else that means. If you believe that people in a state of sin who have not been absolved are going to a place called Hell, then everyone who can’t or won’t avail themselves of those absolution services is damned. That means those who reject it here in the West, which leads to the kind of aggressive frenetic evangelizing you sometimes see. But does it also mean people in other parts of the world who’ve never heard of Christianity, and members of other religions who are perfectly happy? Enter the missionary drive, to save people who don’t even know they’re “lost.”
And Original Sin created a particularly thorny problem for the hyper-logical St. Augustine, my patron saint, who reasoned that, a) you can’t enter heaven in a state of sin; b) unbaptized babies who die have Original Sin and no opportunity to be cleansed of it; therefore, c) unbabtized babies who die can’t go to heaven. Augustine said he didn’t like this answer, but could see no way around it. Since he couldn’t accept they were going to Hell to be punished, he invented a silly concept called Limbo where they would float around for eternity — not being punished, but deprived of heaven too. And we’ve had that concept for two millennia. Most folks today think this is as silly as it sounds, and it’s been explicitly rejected by the pope, but those are the kinds of logical corners theologians will paint themselves into given the chance.
So back to the Immaculate Conception. The logic goes that to be totally free of sin, Mary had to have been born without Original Sin herself, thus the Immaculate Conception. You could ask — I know I did — well, why didn’t her mother also have to be conceived immaculately? Why does it stop with one generation? There’s no answer for that one except that God intervened. But then why didn’t God intervene in Mary’s case and cause her to become sinless before conceiving Jesus despite having been born normally? No answer.
A side note about papal infallibility. The idea of the Immaculate Conception first grew in the 12th century and spread slowly, but in the late 1400s Pope Sixtus IV decided for some reason that disagreeing had become a matter worthy of excommunication. Then, in the increasingly conservative and centralized Catholic Church of the 19th century, unsatisfied with almost universal belief in the concept among the faithful, Pope Pius IX decided to invoke papal infallibility — something never formally used before — to assert that the Immaculate Conception of Mary was “a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” (Later, theologians identified five earlier infallible teachings from before the doctrine was established.) The only time since then in which infallibility has been invoked came in 1950 when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of Mary an article of faith: that Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Once again, old guys insisting that Mary must be pure, undefiled by this world and untainted by her sexual female body.
I don’t mean to be a jerk about this. The desire to revere the Mother of God is a rare hint of the divine feminine in our Christian heritage. But as with the issue of the virgin birth, I actually find it a much more compelling and attractive story to say that God acts through flawed and unlikely vessels. This is one of the most common themes throughout Scripture. The Hebrew people were the least likely to be God’s chosen people. Moses with his speech impediment was the least likely to be proclaimer of God’s messages to the people. And a poor unwed mother from a hick town was the least likely to be mother of God. That, to me, is awesome. That is miraculous. I hope Mary’s conception was ordinary and maculate, and I don’t mind one bit if Jesus’ was too.
You can see all my Advent-themed pieces together at patheos.com/blogs/philfoxrose/tag/advent/. Please share this link, or just one to my blog, with anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!