In my own journey from Protestant fundamentalism to the Catholic Church the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was a stumbling block. I understood the doctrine–that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived in the natural way, but by direct action of God was preserved from the stain of original sin. I also understood the reasoning for it and the dogma’s fittingness, but I didn’t see the necessity and didn’t much like the seemingly arbitrary nature of God’s intervention in the world.
The I read John MacQuarrie’s little book Mary for All Christians. I had studied under MacQuarrie at Oxford and was sympathetic to his take on most things. As an Anglican theologian he was able to approach Catholic theological questions with a unique perspective. MacQuarrie acknowledges that the Blessed Virgin is often seen as the fulfillment of the longings and character of the Jewish people. The stories of all the holy women in the Old Testament are fulfilled and summarized in her. Her obedience reverses the disobedience of Eve and therefore the disobedience of the whole Jewish nation.
Another reason that she is the fulfillment and epitome of the Jewish nation is that, from the moment of the fall, God was working his purpose out within the Jewish people for the redemption of the whole human race. Step by step, day by day, through the vagaries of time, through the joys and sorrows within and through the history of the Jewish people progress was being made towards a turning point of human history. MacQuarrie speculates that through the Jewish people a development in righteousness and understanding was taking place. A refinement of the human race was occurring, and that this process reached its zenith in Joachim and Anna.
Here at last were two people who had reached the point of perfection through the gift of grace. Here were two people who, through generations of refinement and generations of God’s grace working in and through their ancestry, were brought to the point of human perfection, and when they came together as husband and wife the Blessed Virgin was conceived without the stain of original sin. This does not mean that God was not involved or that this was merely a human process of evolution. Instead, God was involved not just at the moment of her conception to ensure her preservation from original sin, but he was also involved in every step of the way bringing the Jewish people–particularly the ancestry of Joachim and Anna–to the turning point of perfection.
This helped me greatly not only to understand more deeply the profound implications of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but to understand the importance of Joachim and Anna and how they represented, fulfilled and completed the turning point of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. More importantly, it helped me to see the comprehensiveness of God’s working in the world. He is bringing things to fulfillment, but he does so secretly–in and through each and every event in history. He uses the grand events, but more importantly he works behind the headlines. He works in the quiet sorrows and the private victories. He works through the simple act of obedience as much as the heroic act of holiness.
If this is so in the history of the world and the history of redemption, then it is also true of my life and yours. In every moment he is working his purpose out, and one day we will see how it all fits. At that point all will be harvest. All shall be reconciled. All will either be for the world’s redemption or for the universe’s loss. With great sorrow some will see that their rejection of God has meant rejection of everything. For those who are damned all will be for their damnation–even the good they have done. But for those who accept the divine mercy all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. Then we shall see that the things we considered sins and sorrows will be revealed as growing points– steps towards our redemption for those who are saved all will be for their salvation–even those things they thought were worst shall be turned to good.