The Immaculate Conception as a School of Devotion

By Patrick Ryan Cooper

 

During the Church's penitential season of Advent, an appropriate image that emphasizes this time of preparation and waiting is that of an expectant mother. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, the increased signs of apocalyptic tumultuousness are likened to the birth pangs of a women beginning in labor—where the difference between birth and death become terrifyingly intimate.(Mt 24, 8) And appropriately so, as the sign of birth pangs, in both pre-labor and the beginnings of active labor indeed confirms the coming of that which is both imminently anticipated, while nevertheless preserving a sense of irruption and adventious uncertainty in the coming of new life. For my wife and I, the connection between birth pangs, upheaval and the eschatological promise of new life attested to in this text is a powerful reminder of the night when my wife's hour had come as she entered into active labor to receive the birth of our first child. This hour similarly coincided with this very same Gospel text from St. Matthew as the daily reading. Fortunately, however, its dim warnings of anguish and woe for pregnant women and nursing mothers (Mt 24, 19) would eventually give way to a more ecstatic release, for while the anguish, tumult and confusion was great, these things were so quickly forgotten (Jn 16, 21) as the mother's sufferings were unburdened by her gratitude in peacefully turning towards the son; and the son, still weary and limpid, turned towards and beheld his mother in loving astonishment for having remained with him until the end.

 

His astonishment recalls that we are peculiarly gifted with a unique, receptive capacity for life, one which is widened and made spacious, giving a sense of depth and joyous wonder that comes upon the heels of suffering—a receptivity, which singularly recalls this initial exchange of gazes—when beholding our mother.

To gaze so, with astonished perplexity, I would argue, is singularly adequate when contemplating the person of Mary, who the Church recognizes in this season of Advent to be found immaculate, "without spot or blemish before him, at peace". (2Pt 3, 13-14) For the paradox of her sufferings is nearly as ungraspable as the mystery that she herself is. And in view of the Cross, in which her faithfulness continuously endures and our redemption radiates, this salvific fulfillment stretches us back to the very beginnings of what the Church celebrates on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Namely, that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin—having been the public faith of the Church since the promulgation of the papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus by Pius IX in 1854.

Fundamentally, the Immaculate Conception can be said to signal the excessive wonder of creation itself and the integral integrity by which it radiates. In Mary, the Church professes the restoration and sanctification of our human nature, undimmed by sin and towards an original creaturely goodness and suffused with grace by way of her receptive fiat—"Be it done to me according to your Word." With and in Mary, Mother of "The One whom the heavens cannot contain, yet you held in your womb"[1]—we learn of the original width and depth of our human dignity, untainted by sin and division, and our relational autonomy seen specifically in terms of an active receptivity: that becoming more uniquely particular rightly hinges upon our creaturely receptivity in terms of capax dei, which simultaneously unfolds how we are to ask the question of being as a welcoming of life. In the two Annunciation narratives in the Lucan Gospel for example, it was Zachariah, who elevated himself as the primary reference by asking the Angel the epistemological question, "How can I know this for sure?" (Lk 1, 18-20) and was thus silenced. While in Mary, as a school of devotion, in whom we cross the porous borders of philosophy and theology, we increasingly learn how to ask and dialogue over the question of being and its relationality—"How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" (Lk 1, 34)—in a wholly authentic, creaturely manner, and thereby actively to respond to the fecundity of grace and its abundant givenness. Just as "spirituality is rooted in ontology" the late Stratford Caldecott writes, so too the "secret design of all creaturely being, revealed in Jesus through Mary, is love."[2] While analogically and in view of the Immaculate Conception, the creaturliness of being is most clearly seen in Mary's receptive fecundity, whereby:

Mary appeared pure in her origin not only by the influence of the divine principle, but also by that of the human. She appeared pure, down to the foundations of her being, and even down to the matter from which she was formed; in other words, down to the root, yes to the very seed, from which she sprang.[3]

However, I suspect that the reticence that various people continue to hold towards Mary—especially her being "immaculate"—is largely grounded upon a rather specious Mariology that would regard the 'purity' of her mediating relationship as somehow lifting her up as distant and impossibly unapproachable—as an artificial, reified "between" Christ and humanity so as to keep them at a distance. Herein, the "supreme principle of Mariology" and in a similar fashion, that of "Christianity and Christology" is that the "mother of God defines the Incarnation, for the part of men."[4] Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother".[5] A doceticism, which distinctly opens onto a fundamental loss of solidarity within the economic order, leaving unanswered the call, ""Who are My mother and My brothers?" (Mk. 3, 33) Rather, since the God-man is fully human through His mother, Mary is likewise a mother with regard to all humanity in their deified lives. For Mary teaches us how to receive and respond to being's excessive giftedness, precisely by way of not further magnifying herself, yet is magnified by the one in whose hospitality she gives Him himself as man. "[W]ithout the Blessed Virgin, the God-man would not encircle men in themselves; they would not be made, in Him, full sharers in the divine nature, in grace, in divinization."[6]


[1] Antiphon from the Christmas Octave, Solemnity of the Mother of God

[2] Cf. 'Stratford Caldecott, Mariology" in (eds.) Nicholas J. Healy Jr. and D.C. Schindler Being Holy in the World: Theology and Culture in the Thought of David L. Schindler (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011) 292.

[3] Cf. Matthias Scheeben, Mariology, vol. II, (trans) T.L.M.J. Geukers (London: Herder Book Co., 1947) 81.

[4]  Cf. Emile Mersch, Theology of the Mystical Body (trans.) Cyril Vollert (London: Herder Book Co. 1951) 172.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

The Beatific Vision through Blurry Eyes: Natural Childbirth and our Spiritual Condition

Julia Meszaros

Contemporary Western hospitals offer – and at times impose – an ever growing range of medical interventions to the labouring mother. These are sometimes life-saving. Yet they often also come with risks that should preclude unreflective usage. In light of this, a small but growing number of young parents and parents-to-be are rediscovering the beauty and the benefits of natural childbirth – that is, of seeking to allow one of human life’s most integral and mind-blowing events to take its natural course. Alongside certain health benefits, this rediscovery, I wish to suggest, is of direct significance from the perspective of theological anthropology. For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God.

Nativity  by William Blake

Nativity by William Blake

The birth of a child begins perhaps with excitement, perhaps with fear, but in any case with pain. At the beginning, one might still be oblivious of the extent to which this pain will gradually undo one of our most cherished dispositions – that of being in control, and of being able to withdraw from whatever threatens our autonomy. Even the pain seems, initially, to be what we want, what we have long been waiting for. In a sense, we still ‘possess’ our body. As labour progresses, however, our posture of self-control increasingly crumbles. What we begin to experience is something we have not signed up for at all. The indescribable scope of the pain that simply overcomes us is entirely unexpected and uninvited. We are faced with something we are sure we cannot shoulder. Like when reaching a new stage in the spiritual life, we want to run away, for the sake, it feels, of preserving our very life. (This is where, in an un-induced childbirth, the first medical intervention – the epidural – usually comes in).

In order to continue the process naturally there is, as any midwife will (in one form or another) confirm, only one strategy: to let go. To let go of being in command, to let go of the need to maintain a dignified appearance, to let go of our attachment to comfort and the picturesque, and above all, to let go of our human rationality, which tells us that it is impossible. Instead of fearing for our life, we are called to trustingly place our life in the hands of God. We may feel that we may not make it. More viscerally than ever before, we become aware that our life is not our own, that everything hinges on God’s will. To this we can now only surrender, humbly and hopefully.

Such a profound act of self-surrender does not in any way put an end to our suffering. Yet it brings with it an unknown peace that makes the suffering bearable, even as it gets greater still. And in allowing us to hand ourselves over to the present moment, it allows us to meet Christ crucified, there with us: fragile, aching, undone.

And just as we have entered into this fellowship most deeply – everything is miraculously made new! We are met by new, unknown life, and a sense, not merely of relief, but of an unknown, perfect bliss. In the matter of an instant, the pain that was is cast into oblivion and we are overcome by an unspeakable awe and love that extends to all the world, to the unknown creature before us, as much as to our spouse and companions, and the nurse who only just popped in to the room.

This, then, is how life comes into the world. In experiencing the birth of a child, we are blessed with a spiritual lesson. If we let ourselves in for it (and provided, of course, that we encounter no complications), we are given a glimpse of how and why to enter into the abyss. We are taught, almost by force, a self-surrender that is entirely antithetical to our worldly disposition, yet that allows us to meet Jesus, who has come so that we may have life (John 10:10). Indeed, in giving birth to a child we receive nothing less than a foretaste of the beatific vision.

All things being equal, then, the pain and labor of natural childbirth can be a spiritual blessing and resource. It teaches us that, with God, all is possible and that, from our suffering, new life can spring. For this reason alone, we must continue to aspire to and value natural childbirth. For, if we believe in life after death, then our positive experiences of suffering in the context of giving birth might give us hope also with regard to suffering in the context of approaching death.