Today, December 8th, is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Sometimes there’s confusion over this, but it’s not about Jesus’ virgin birth. The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the belief that she was born without original sin. This does not mean that she was born of a virginal conception the way Jesus was, but it does imply that there was something miraculous about her birth. This belief actually goes all the way back at least to the second century and the document known as The Protevangelion of James, but it was made an official dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
But here’s the thing. Like other Marian doctrines, the Immaculate Conception is really more about Jesus than it is about Mary. What I mean is that the reason Mary comes to be understood as having been preserved from original sin is because she is the pure vessel through which the Divine Word entered the world. When the Word became flesh (John 1:14), it was through Mary that the incarnation was accomplished. So it’s very appropriate that as we prepare to celebrate the incarnation (Christmas), we also remember the role of Mary in bringing the Savior into the world.
In the tradition of the Church, Mary is seen as the new ark. Just as in the Old Testament the ark of the covenant was the vessel that held the word of God on the tablets of the ten commandments, in the New Testament Mary (or I suppose Mary’s womb) is the vessel which holds the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. In fact, it was her acceptance of this role of hers (Luke 1:38) that makes her the first Christian, and that (through God’s foreknowledge) led to her being retroactively preserved from original sin. At least that’s the way I understand it.
Admittedly, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not spelled out in Scripture. In fact, even though the roots of the belief go all the way back to the early Church, the document mentioned above (the Protevangelion) was not really a mainstream document. But over time, the belief seems to have moved from the fringe of the Church to the mainstream, until it became generally accepted by theologians. So when Pius IX declared it as official dogma, it was far from new. Now, to be historically honest, part of the reason that Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception a dogma in 1854 was probably as a reaction against the emerging “higher criticism” with its tendency to “demythologize” the gospels. In other words, some scholars were poo-pooing the miracles. So the Pope’s move to make the Immaculate Conception official dogma was his way of confirming the reality of the miraculous. Of course by now the Catholic Church has acknowledged that the historical-critical method is not a threat to the faith. But we’re not throwing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater of anti-intellectualism. We’re keeping our miracles.
Be that as it may, it’s just not in the Bible. So why do I believe it? Do I believe it because I find it logically convincing? Not really. Do I believe it because the historical evidence for it is compelling? Not exactly. I believe it because I choose to accept it. Sure, I could be a skeptic, but as a Christian, I have made the choice to belong to something bigger than myself. That means I am not my own highest authority. So sometimes the Church asks me to accept something, whether or not it makes logical sense to me, and I accept it for the sake of unity – to call myself part of the Church. If everything was a matter of logical confidence, we wouldn’t need faith. Or as I wrote in the song, “I Am the Vine,” there’s no need for faith without mystery.
That may seem like a cop-out, but I am not my own higher power. That means I don’t treat the faith like a salad bar, picking and choosing what I will accept or reject. Wasn’t that really Adam’s sin? God said don’t eat the fruit, but Adam decided that what God calls wrong he will call right. Being a person of God means subordinating our own wills to the will of God. Being a member of the body of Christ means submitting to the head of the body. Otherwise, we cease to become one body and become as many different bodies as there are members. I don’t want to be a religion of one. And as much as I would like to have all the answers, I choose rather to embrace the mystery and give up all claims to mastery over the faith. And I refuse to give up my belief in the miraculous.