Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
It is one of my favorite days in the Church year because it commemorates the first turn of the prophetic wheel that led to our salvation. God blessed Mary with the Immaculate Conception, meaning that He removed from her soul the stain of Original Sin at that first moment when she existed.
There is meaning, wrapped inside meaning, in this event. For the moment, I want to focus on one meaning that is especially pertinent to Catholics who are trying to follow Our Lord in this Advent over 2,000 years after Our Lady was conceived.
The many meanings of the Immaculate Conception almost have no limit, applying as they do to the nature of the woman who was to become the Mother of God and Our Mother, as well. But one meaning that can get lost in the tinsel and Christmas carols that decorate this season of Advent is the simplest and most obvious.
Mary was Mary from the moment of her conception. God is not remove the stain of original sin from a little girl. The Angel Gabriel did not announce it to a young woman at the Annunciation. Christ did not endow his mother with it from the cross.
The meaning and the reality of the Immaculate Conception were woven into Mary’s biological and spiritual being from the precise moment that she began to exist as herself; a separate, entire, unique, individual, human person.
God did not remove the stain of original sin from a pile of chromosomes wrapped around one another. He did not deign to honor an anonymous cell that would shortly begin dividing and taking on the outward shape of what we have learned to identify as a human being.
The Immaculate Conception was God’s gift to Mary, the Mother of the Christ, the contributor of all that is human in our Lord and Savior from her first moment of life. Mary was conceived without sin in a silent miracle that would eventually bear the fruit that would become the I Am made human. Mary was, as parents always are, the co-creator, along with God, of the child that she birthed.
Her assent at the Annunciation was the same assent every woman gives today when she chooses to give her child life. Mary, like every other woman, was one of the life bearers of humanity. God recognized this great gift of maternity, not in the young woman whose fiat changed all of history, but in the single cell, the conceptus, that was Mary at her beginning.
If ever a believing Christian needs proof that a person’s a person, no matter how small, this is it.
The grisly deaths of human embryos, slaughtered for their body parts and used in embryonic stem cell research, can never be justified by any cure of benefit obtained from their executions at the hands of a society gone totally mad. Embryonic stem cell research is a form of cannibalism. It is the ultimate version of the biggest and meanest, making all the rules to their benefit.
Abortion was its door-opener, just as the Immaculate Conception was the door opener to our salvation. One door leads to the destruction and murder of innocents for the benefit of scientific industry and commercialized medicine. The other door, the one that the Immaculate Conception opened, leads to love, forgiveness and eternal life.
If you are a Christian, and most especially if you are a Catholic and have the benefit of the full understanding of Mary’s conception and her maternity, of who she is and what she means, you can not support embryonic stem cell research. You can not follow Jesus and go through that door both. You have to choose. The door of embryonic stem cell research is an evil wrong turn that leads away from the cross, away from salvation, away from eternal life and straight into eternal death.
The human person is made in the image and likeness of God, and you may not kill an innocent human person.
Because, as Doctor Seuss wrote, a person’s a person, no matter how small.
The Immaculate Conception is the door opening on our salvation.
It is God the Father, preparing the way for the birth of God the Son by first preparing a holy mother for Him.
The idea that God chose to enter the world as a helpless baby, born to a young girl and her carpenter husband in a backwater province of a conquered nation goes against everything we know and believe about what makes a person important.
We live in a world where might makes right and the biggest and meanest get to make all the rules. This disregard for the little people of the world was even more pronounced in that long-ago day when Our Lady was conceived. This tiny spark of humanity, who was destined to become the bearer of the hope of all humankind, was, if possible, even less important to the worldly world than her baby son would be at His beginning.
She was, after all, a girl in a world that to this day regards little girls as less than worthless. She was that half of humanity which was often exposed at birth and left to rot.
Even today in large swaths of what we call civilization, baby girls are aborted because they are girls, and if they are born, killed shortly afterwards. Girls in these cultures often get less food, little education and almost no support in their development as people. They are subjected to brutalities ranging from female genital mutilation, to child marriages, rape and battering.
And yet, God chose, with every possibility possible at His disposal, to come into our world through the motherhood of a young woman. God entrusted Himself to a mother from His conception to His eventual death on the cross. It was a woman who gave Him life and who nurtured, shaped and reared Him into young manhood.
This does not take anything away from Joseph’s contribution. Fathers are just as important as mothers. But today we are considering the one person who was with Jesus from conception to grave, and who then was there at Pentecost when the Church was born.
Mary is the mother of us all, the essential human contribution to the undoing of the curse of the Fall. She was prophesied at the Fall and she will be there at the real end when Jesus comes again.
And it began with her conception, when God re-created the lost innocence of Eden in a new Eve who would give birth to the salvific Child to undo our transgressions. This great re-wind started then, in her Immaculate Conception. It was the long-awaited door opening.
This feast day is our chance to go back and re-learn what has been given to us by a young girl who, conceived without sin as the original Eve had been, did not falter in her mission as that earlier Eve did, but remained sinless until her own death. God gave us Mary, and Mary, through her obedience and faith, gave us His son.
She is not, as some traditions try to treat her, a mindless incubator we bring out for Christmas pageants and then forget the rest of the year. Our Lady is woven into the story of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.
Everything that is wholly human about Our Lord comes from and through her. She gave us her Son, first at His birth and then later at Calvary; and He in turn, gave us His mother.
The Immaculate Conception is a door opening on the end of hopelessness and death. It is a cell-sized point of light shining in the darkness of our own devices.
Mary, Our Mother, began the way we all did, as a single cell made in the image and likeness of God. Christ’s humanity is her humanity. Her dignity is our dignity. She is our mother for the ages.
If you do not eat of my flesh and drink of my blood, you will no have life within you. Jesus Christ
The Eucharist was a scandal. Many of Jesus’ followers left Him when He explicitly told them I am the bread of life.
It is popular today to cast Jesus as a Casper Milquetoast god thingy of our devising. According to popular cant, Jesus’ sole purpose in becoming human was to tell us that, hey, I’m ok and you’re ok. Do what feels good and so long as it doesn’t kill somebody else — unless of course it’s euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research or abortion, in which case, it’s a “human right” to kill somebody else — so long as it doesn’t kill somebody else that you’ve decided it is a denial of human rights not to kill, it’s fine by me.
Jesus’ living teaching about the mercy of God toward the weak and helpless, in particular women, when He said let him who is without sin cast the first stone has been transmuted to mean I can commit any sin I want and the Church is sinning if it says my sin is a sin.
The Eucharist was a hard teaching, a scandalizing teaching, on that day when Jesus first taught it. Many people left Him because of it.
But Jesus didn’t follow after them and try to smooth things over. He didn’t say C’mon back. I didn’t mean it that way.
His reaction — if you have deluded yourself into believing in the Casper Milquetoast Jesus of modern pop theology — was downright unChristlike.
Stop grumbling among yourselves. He said. It is written, They will all be taught by God.
Then, he doubled down on his teaching about the Eucharist: My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink … Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.
Finally, He turned to His disciples and said, Are you going to leave me too?
Not, notice, please, please don’t leave me; I was only speaking metaphorically.
He looked at them and without equivocation acknowledged that they were as scandalized by this teaching as those in the crowd, but, again, without wavering one inch on that hard teaching, asked them the real question that He asks each of us: Are you going to leave me, too?
It was a line in the proverbial sand. Stay or go, He was saying, but the teaching will not change.
He asks us, all of us, including our cardinals and bishops, this same question today. Are you going to leave me, too?
Will the hard teachings of our Christ Jesus, Who was anything but a Casper Milquetoast, be too much for you?
Today’s Catholics wuss right by the hard teaching of the Eucharist. We’ve got that one down.
But the other hard teachings about the sanctity of marriage and human life, about the reality of hell and the fact that yes, Virginia, there is a satan, are too difficult, too embarrassing, too demanding of us in this post-Christian world.
We want to whittle Jesus down, to wear away His rough edges like a bar of soap, until we have a slippery little g god who won’t make things so tough on us. We want our silly addlepated little wimp of a self-made god who won’t trouble us in our desire to be accepted and loved by everybody, including those who are unknowingly following satan when they attack Him.
We want Christ without the cross, eternal life and salvation without redemption and conversion.
It hurts me! Sinners cry. It hurts to be “judged” a sinner just because I break these eternal rules. It rankles and angers me that anyone would think that the things I want to do are wrong. So, stop saying that. In fact, tell me that what I want — whatever I want — is good and virtuous.
If the Church obliges, it will condemn these people to hell.
It will also condemn itself to inconsequence.
It is one thing to teach that this Church of ours is the cornerstone, that it was built on Peter the rock and that Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against it. It is quite another to arrogantly assume that the Church may change the basic teachings of the faith and teach that which is contrary to what Christ taught and that it will be A-Ok because Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against us.
The first is faith. The second is presumption.
Jesus did not mean whatever this Church does is holy because the Church does it. His great Apostle, St Paul, said quite clearly, God is not mocked.
John the Baptist told the Pharisees, when they went into the wilderness to refute him for his preaching, that everyone — including them — was in need of redemption. He then smashed their self-justifying claims of exemption from following the laws of God. Do not say we are sons of Abraham, he told them. God can raise up sons of Abraham from these very stones.
Jesus said it best, of course, when He said, A servant is not greater than his master.
That applies to those who wear the mitre just as it does to the rest of us.
Perhaps the hardest teaching in that day of hard teachings when Christ the Lord made clear beyond misunderstanding what the Eucharist really meant, was the answer He gave to those who walked away. It is written, they will all be taught by God.
We have been taught by God made flesh. This is not some wimpy, politically correct little g god of our devising. This is a God who was reviled and attacked, mocked and betrayed and yet did not yield. This is a God who consented to be beaten, tortured, mocked, and horribly murdered; Who took on the bottomless alienation of all sin, Who became Sin, in order to buy us back from our perdition.
Are you going to leave me too?
That is the question.
It’s up to each one of us to decide what we will answer.
Christians, unlike their critics, build hospitals and schools, go on missions to help those in need where help is needed. Christians donate massive amounts of money to aid those in need. They run toward disasters, rather than away from them, to give aid and comfort.
When Moore Oklahoma was devastated by a tornado a couple of years ago, a carful of Christian women in New Jersey took up a donation of money, food and other aid and drove to Oklahoma to deliver it. I know about this because they came to our church to find a way to connect with victims. The gym at our parish was “home” to Christian young people who came to help with the clean-up and stayed all summer working on it.
These people were not paid for their efforts. No one asked them to do it. They simply responded to need because that is what Our Lord told them to do.
In all these things, the difference is Jesus.
I am having a blest life. In some ways, it is almost a charmed life.
I say that, not because everything has come easily to me, or because nothing bad ever happened to me. I say it because, in ways that I won’t talk about here, my life is one gigantic save.
I’m a survivor in that I’ve walked — sometimes crawled — away from a lot of crap.
I’m a survivor in that I’ve walked — oftentimes crying my eyes out — away from a lot of betrayal from people I trusted and loved.
I’m a survivor in that I’ve walked right through — oftentimes bitter and angry about it as I did it — right through repeated barrages of very public slams and whams.
I’m not writing this to talk about my grandiose survivability. In truth, I’ve survived things that should have put me down in the dirt because my surviving was to God’s purpose. I don’t understand it all, but it may have been, in a small part, so that I can write this post and say these things today.
Surviving requires one consistent thing of you, and that one thing is more difficult than all the gritty endurance that goes along with it: You can not allow yourself to be defined by other people.
If you are going to survive in this world you must — must — learn to think for yourself about yourself. You cannot allow any person’s cruel assessments of you determine your fate or your relationship with God.
I am writing today about one specific kind of person and one specific type of cruel assessment. I mean clergy and their condemnations and cruelties toward people who get on their bad side.
To my knowledge, there is no kind of clergy — Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim — who is immune to this dastardly misuse of clerical power. They are especially prone to it when someone challenges what they see as their authority, or when someone does something they find deplorable, or, most damning for them, when their followers get into a group hate of some poor hapless soul and they join in to keep them from turning on their preacher/priest/rabbi/imam.
As I said, this post is not the place where I’m going to talk about my deepest wounds. But I will talk about one very public happening that devastated me at the time. That very public happening was the very public refusal of a number of prominent protestant clergy to accept me as a Christian after I met Jesus. One of these clergy was someone who knew me, knew how sincere I was, and who joined in with his “brother” clergy rather than stand up for me.
I made the mistake of trying to talk to these pastors. That was more damaging to me as a Christian and a person than their initial — and I want to emphasize this, very pubic — attack against me had been.
It was, as I said devastating. I felt as if I had been cast out, banned, from Christianity.
It was one of the only times in my life when I hid in my bedroom for several days and wouldn’t get out of bed and just cried. I stopped going to church and withdrew from everyone but my family.
I stopped everything except believing in Jesus. That didn’t change or weaken. If anything, it grew stronger.
This wasn’t my first time to be attacked by clergy. Being attacked by clergy was my daily meat and bread during my first time in office. However, that didn’t bother me on any deep level. I was in my anti-God period at the time, and they couldn’t touch me inside my soul. I already thought they were cruel, so their behavior was little more than a confirmation.
The ability of clergy to do deep, permanent harm to another person is in direct proportion to how much that other person believes they are dealing with someone who speaks for God. When they cast off someone or “ban” them, they can only actually hurt the person who believes in their authority.
Their followers, the seekers and believers who look to them for leadership and relate to them in trust are the ones they can harm. Because nobody else gives a care what they think.
The fact that clergy can persuade people and that this persuasion can manifest in votes in elections has made them the target of a lot of people who don’t really give a care about what they think. This isn’t a matter of taking them seriously as men of God. It is a matter of tactical power politics. It’s a huge mistake to confuse that with the anguish and broken heartedness of those who believe and are seeking acceptance and love.
The person who saved me from total, absolute and permanent alienation from all organized religion was an Episcopal priest. I cold-called her because she was a woman. I could never have gone to a man. She didn’t know me, but she readily agreed to talk to me, came in to her office one day when the church was empty, just to meet me.
She saved me from the despair I was feeling, not so much by any deep eloquence, as her affirmation that I had a right to be there.
That whole experience taught me a number of lessons. It also deepened and re-taught me things I already knew.
First, I am convinced that women have a profound and necessary place in ministry. Men are only half the human race, and when they deal from positions of power with the other half of the human race, they can be extremely cruel.
Second, I know that surviving requires a refusal to give yourself over entirely to other people, and that includes clergy of all types. Because, in truth and no matter what they claim, they do not speak for God. Not always. They never speak for God when they are defending their power and privilege, when they are limiting God’s love and mercy to those whom they like or want to support. When they do that they are speaking from the depths of their own black and sinful hearts,
Third, no one, of any faith, is ever obligated to accept any other person’s degrading and destroying abandonment or cruel assessment of them as if that degradation, abandonment and cruelty is a judgement from God.
Because it does not come from God and is not His judgement. Degradation, abandonment, cruelty are not of God. Ever.
It is foolishness in the extreme to allow yourself to think that clergy are exempt from these sins. It can destroy your faith in Christ, Who, in the final analysis, is perfectly capable of speaking for Himself.
I want to emphasize that last point because it is so critical. I am a living testimony to that fact that Jesus Christ is absolutely capable of dealing with a fallen person directly and saving them all on His own.
In all my years of anti-Godism, I was roundly and soundly rebuked by various religious leaders. I was lied about and slandered from the pulpit on a regular basis. But I never had a single member of the clergy try to talk to me as one human being to another. I never had a member of the clergy talk to me about Jesus and actually try to convert me. Not once.
Years later, after my conversion, a member of the clergy in my district — who was the only one who had never lied about me — told me that he had once asked his fellow pastors, “Do any of you ever pray for Rebecca?” He said no one answered him.
There were people who did talk to me about Jesus, they even argued with me about my anti-Godism. Both of them were fellow legislators. One of them argued gently, lovingly. The other argued loudly and aggressively. Both of them had an impact on me.
I am writing this very personal and somewhat confessional post for one purpose. I want those reading it to realize that no person has the power to cast you away from the forgiveness and love of Christ.
Not only is the love of Christ greater than any sin you can commit, it is greater by far than the self-importance and narrow me-ism of all these bishops/priests/rabbis/imams who lay claim to Him and try to keep Him for themselves and use Him as their personal ticket to unmerited respect and power over other people.
I know this is not a very Catholic post, in spite of the fact that I am, in truth, very Catholic myself. But I am a child of the living God before I am anything else. And no one and nothing defines me other than that. This is the single great lesson of surviving that I have learned and re-learned and then re-learned again.
No person defines me. Christ defines me.
Those two sentences are the bedrock of survival in this world.
Do not let the petty wickedness of clergy and their ego-driven God-ownership issues convince you that you stand outside the circle of Christ’s beloveds. You do not.
Do not accept the cruel things they say to you as anything more than their own sinfulness. Nothing, not even Christ’s own Church, can separate you from the love of God.
Know that, and be unafraid.
Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Jesus Christ
We pray it every Sunday and at the beginning of each decade of the Rosary. My children and I began each homeschool day by praying it.
It is the Our Father, the prayer that Jesus gave us when the disciples asked Teach us to pray.
This prayer is the answer, given to us by God Himself in human form. It begins with a new way of looking at God.
Our Father, Jesus teaches us to address Him. Not YHWH whose name may not be said. Not I am, the unknowable infinite.
But, Our Father.
For those of us who had fathers in our lives, that is a beautiful image. It betokens a loving, protecting presence. It speaks of always-there Daddies on the beat who kept us safe and taught us love by loving us, who gave us a place in the world that was ours and was safe and was home. Our Father, for those who have fathers, is a beautiful image.
Jesus teaches us to address God as Father. He tells us that He is the Good Shepherd; the protector and defender of our souls.
Jesus begins His prayer with Our Father and then moves to an acknowledgement of Who this Father is.
Hallowed be thy name.
The name of God is like no other. It is the name of the One who created everything, everywhere, who spoke existence into existence with a single word and Who holds existence in existence with a thought. How can we address such a Being? Who are we to call Him Father?
Jesus, who is God personified, God in human form, reminds us that Our Father Who art in heaven is also God, and His name is, as the Commandments told us, not to be taken in vain. We take this commandment too lightly these days, all of us, me included.
We take it lightly because we take God lightly. We have become so inured with the God-is-one-of-us way of thinking that we’ve forgotten Who He is and what He requires of us.
Our Father, Who art in heaven
Hallowed be Thy name.
Jesus follows this acknowledgement of Who God is and the respect we owe Him, by praying that God’s Kingdom will come. In other places in Scripture, Jesus describes this Kingdom coming as leaven in bread and a mustard seed that grows into a great tree. He tells His followers that the Kingdom is now, that it is active in them (and us) when we hear His word.
Thy Kingdom come He prays, knowing full well that the Kingdom is coming, that its spark exists in the heart of every true follower of the Word, and that He is Himself this Word.
Look at nature, look at the long silent passage of time from that first word that spoke existence into existence and today’s world. It is an eye blink of time in the mind of God Who foresaw it from before the beginning, but it is time beyond our reckoning to us. God plants seeds, God sets events and forces in motion. God, the Good Shepherd Who answers our prayers and longs for relationship with us, is also a good gardener Who allows things to grow and ripen in their own time.
The Kingdom is coming in each of us individually and in our corporate history. It is no accident that the ideas of universal human rights grew in the hotbed of Christian culture. That notion was simply the fruit of the tree that grew from that first mustard seed.
Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The Kingdom is coming in every believer who will trust Him and step out in faith to follow Him. But this kingdom is buffeted and attacked in direct proportion to how fruitful it is. Christ’s followers — His Kingdom on earth — suffer attack from what St Paul termed “powers and principalities.”
The darkness hates the Light. It has from the beginning. Our job as Christians is to be the Light, shining in the darkness.
We cannot leave the world outside our safe circles of faith lost in the blackness of a night without Christ.
We can not leave whole populations to the machinations of dead philosophies that teach death. The proponents of these philosophies seek death wherever it may be found. They lift up cruelty, killing and degradation of human beings and call these things rights. They label them good and teach them as freedom. And always, without end, they war against the Light.
Choose this day whom you will serve, Joshua enjoined the Israelites. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Jesus took the command to serve the Lord our God and added another to it. Go into all nations teaching what I have taught you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
We are called to do more than just save ourselves. Christianity is a lifeboat, headed for eternal life. Unlike a real lifeboat, it expands to take in everyone who wants to climb aboard. There is no qualification for entering into the Kingdom other than to accept Jesus as Lord.
Lord, how can we know the way, Thomas asked Him.
I am the Way, Jesus answered.
No one comes to the Father, except through Me.
Our job, as Christians, is to point the way to the Way. We are on a lifeboat headed for salvation, floating through waters filled with angry, lost, drowning people. We are called to shine the light on them and let them know the lifeboat is there, to help those who are willing to be saved to climb on board.
That is evangelization. We should not — must not — be the church that builds the fancy church house full of gorgeous accouterments and then sits, hands folded and utterly complacent, waiting for lost people to find their way to us.
We need to go to them. Because they are perishing. Because He told us to do it.
Our own inner cities would be wonderful places to begin. I’m not talking about ministries to clothe and feed these people, although those are certainly good things. I am talking about bringing them Christ; converting them. I am talking about evangelization.
How many churches in the inner city have closed down because they say all the people have left? That absurdity is emblematic of our failure to do what Jesus explicitly told us to do.
As the moving vans from those churches drive toward the suburbs, they go through neighborhoods that are full of people. They’re just not the people those churches want.
Oh, the churches come back to those neighborhoods. They come to do “ministry.” These “ministries” are good things. They offer help. But most of them do not stay around after dark and they do not offer Christ.
Which of you, if your child asked for a fish, would give him serpent, or if he asked for bread would give him a stone? Jesus asked.
If we give people bagels and coffee, warm winter coats and help with paying their utilities, but we don’t also offer them eternal life, what are we doing?
Do we think that eternal life is too rude to give to people? Are we afraid of being attacked for proselytizing? If that’s the problem, we need to get over it. The people who attack us for that have proven that they’ll find something else to attack us for if we stop sharing Jesus.
The existence of Christians and Christianity is what offends them. The only way we can stop them from attacking us is to follow the world instead of Him. In other words, we can stop their attacks if we stop being what they hate. If we give up our own eternal life and join them in their living death, they’ll stop harassing, hectoring, suing and hating us.
Do we fail to offer Christ along with the canned goods and clothing because it embarrasses us? Are we ashamed of Jesus? Are we afraid that Christian bashers will accuse us of making conversion a condition for our aid?
That would be a devilish thing, if it were true. We need to help people, whether they accept Christ or not. But we also need to offer them Christ as part of our help.
What they do with the offer is their decision. Nobody has to follow Jesus to get a can of beans or a pair of socks. But they have a right as human beings to know that eternal life can be theirs. They accept or don’t. Our only responsibility is to offer Him to those who are dying.
All we need to do is make sure that we are walking in His way. If people want to accuse us falsely, that’s on them.
Who determines your behavior: Jesus Christ, or His critics?
Evangelization is not some new-fangled marketing ploy. It is a Commandment from Jesus Christ. Protestants call it a Commission: The Great Commission. And so it is. Our Lord explicitly directed us to evangelize the world. He didn’t make exceptions, and He didn’t put caveats on it.
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and I will be with you always, to the end of the world.
Seems pretty clear to me.
Family Missions Company has put out a beautiful new video about evangelization. I think it’s worth watching.