On December 8th, the Roman Catholic Church (and some Anglicans, maybe the odd Lutheran or two) celebrates the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The solemnity, made an infallible point of doctrine by Pope Piux IX in 1854, celebrates the point of faith that Mary was conceived “without the stain of original sin.”
I have a confession to make: I tend toward skepticism while thinking about Mary being born without sin. The logic goes that, in order for Mary to birth the Son of God, she would need to be exempt from sin herself. If you follow that, don’t all of Mary’s maternal ancestors– mother and grandmother and great-grandmother–also have to be born without sin? While I would never in a million years consider myself a Protestant, that was my upbringing and I apparently still have some latent holdovers from those years. The literal facts of the Immaculate Conception make very little sense to me, yet I’m still strangely drawn into the celebration.
It wasn’t until this evening–gathered around a circle with the Sisters and their guests at Mass–that I realized the power of the Immaculate Conception. The appointed reading from the Old Testament for today’s feast is the story of the Fall– Adam and Eve falling prey to the temptations of Old Scratch, eating the apple, and being cast out of the garden for all eternity because of their original sin.
The text–and the way the story has been told for centuries–implies an immense amount of guilt on the part of Eve. She bought into the Serpent’s temptations, she convinced Adam to eat the apple, the Serpent would strike at her children’s heals, she would be tasked with crushing the Serpent under her feet as a punishment. The weight of Eve’s supposed sin has fueled the oppression of women for centuries in the Church. “Because of Eve’s obvious moral weakness,” the demagogues in priestly garb have squawked since the beginning of time, “clearly women are unfit for leadership, for trust, for ministry.”
This distrust and disregard for the dignity and worth of women throughout history is still very much alive today. Women are not given moral agency. Women are apostolically investigated. Women are not elected to the Congress, to the Oval Office. The theological texts of women are narrow-mindedly banned. Women, in some countries, still do not have the right to vote, the right to an education, the right to drive, the right to think. Women, in some churches, are not allowed to speak, not allowed to break break, not allowed to assure God’s pardon or bestow God’s blessing.
In the Immaculate Conception, however, for just once, the world said to a woman, “You’re all right–you’re not at fault here–you’re blessed.” Therein lies the power of the Immaculate Conception for me. For once in the history of humanity–never before, never again–has the dominant Christian society looked to women as uniquely blessed, the recipient of praise, worthy of dignity.
And so I’ll join with the Church in singing, “Hail Mary, full of grace…blessed are you among women…”!