Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Readings for the Immaculate Conception

This Monday is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics in the United States, since it is the patronal feast day of our nation.  (Have you ever pondered that the irony in the fact that our capital is a little square of territory nestled in the heart of “Mary-land”?)

The Readings for this Solemnity are extremely rich, and include two famous passages (the account of the curses of after the fall in Genesis 3; and the Annunciation in Luke 1) that are pivotal in salvation history and touch on mega-themes in biblical theology.  Mary is at the heart of the story of salvation; understanding her and her role properly entails understanding the divine economy (salvation history) properly as well.

The First Reading is from Genesis 3:

Reading 1 Genesis 3:9-15, 20:
After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree,
the LORD God called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden;
but I was afraid, because I was naked,
so I hid myself.”
Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked?
You have eaten, then,
from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!”
The man replied, “The woman whom you put here with me,
she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.”
The LORD God then asked the woman,
“Why did you do such a thing?”
The woman answered, “The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.”

Then the LORD God said to the serpent:
“Because you have done this, you shall be banned
from all the animals
and from all the wild creatures;
on your belly shall you crawl,
and dirt shall you eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike at your head,
while you strike at his heel.”

The man called his wife Eve,
because she became the mother of all the living.

This unit picks up in the aftermath of the Fall in Genesis 3:1-8.  Eve was seduced by the Serpent, who appealed to the three-fold concupiscence (lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and the pride of life; 1 John 2:15) to convince her to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  “Good and evil” might be a merism, like “from A to Z,” meaning encyclopedic or God-like knowledge, to know everything from the “Best” to the “Worst.”  That’s the promise of knowledge that the Serpent offers, but the only knowledge Adam and Eve gain is that they are naked.  What a let-down!  They really fell for that con-game.

In addition to referring to a historical fall by our first human parents (see Paul VI’s Humanae Generis), the account of the Fall is paradigmatic for the human condition.  We are constantly tempted to “become like God” by participating in things that are morally forbidden.  These activities seem to promise sophistication and experience, power and maturity.  Instead, however, breaking God’s laws only tends to reveal to us our own vulnerability, our “nakedness.”  The sexual revolution, for example, has not lead to a utopian society, but instead to the destruction of Western culture into a chaos of loneliness, psychological dysfunction, unhappiness, disease, confusion, abuse, and angst.  So much for God-like knowledge.

After Adam and Eve’s fall, God does not abandon them, but comes seeking them out, even though they don’t want to talk to him.  Sin causes people to flee from God, to avoid even those things that remind them of God: Church, the Bible, holy images, godly friends, etc.  But God is not content to let the relationship die without attempting healing and reconciliation, so he comes after us, even if we hide. 

Examined by God, Adam evades all responsibility, setting a pattern for men ever afterwards.  “The woman … whom you gave to be with me …” Adam begins, thus passing the buck both to God and to the woman: in other words, to everyone else but himself.  This is clearly wrong, since God had given the commandments to Adam in Genesis 2, not to Eve; and He established Adam as the one responsible to “work and guard” the Garden (Gen 2:15) with Eve to help him, not to take over his duties.  Adam is culpably passive in the whole scenario that unfolds in Gen 3:1-8 between the woman and the serpent.  Although the Hebrew of Genesis 3:6 indicates that Adam was with Eve the whole time, he never intervenes to “guard” (Gen 2:15) the Garden from this Serpent who is contradicting the word of God to his wife.  Adam is the original “dead-beat Dad” or passive father-husband who sins by avoiding his responsibility to protect and defend his wife and family from error, evil, and danger.

Under examination, Eve proves to be more plain-spoken than her husband: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

God proceeds to punish the serpent by causing him to crawl on
Iconography of Apep/Apophis, the Egyptian Satan
the ground all his days.  In antiquity, the embodiment of evil was often understood to be serpentine: thus the “satan” of the Egyptian pantheon, Apophis or Apep, was the demon-serpent who fought nightly with the Sun God Re (or Amon-Re) in the underworld.  The ancient readers would not understand Genesis 3 as a simple story about why snakes crawl on the ground, but as a larger statement about the spiritual forces that control reality.  Following the indications of Revelation 12:9 and 20:2, the Church has always made a “canonical” interpretation of Genesis 3 by understanding the serpent as a reference to Satan.  The existence of Satan is a truth of faith, emphasized again and again by our current pontiff. 

The following verse, Genesis 3:15, is known in Catholic theology as the “protoevangelium,” the “first Gospel”:I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”  To speak of the “seed of the woman” is unusual, if not unprecedented; the possession of “seed” was associated with men, and descent was typically reckoned through the male line.  Nonetheless, Eve will later give thanks for righteous Seth as the “seed” God gave her to replace Abel slain by Cain (Gen 4:25).  Seth, who produced a righteous line culminating in Noah, the savior of the world, is himself a type and foretaste of another “seed of the woman,” Jesus Christ, who truly was “seed of the woman” in a more profound sense than any other human being, since no seed of a man was involved in his generation; he took his flesh solely from the woman. 

The Hebrew word translated “strike at” in the Mass translation, and “bruise” in the RSV, is shuf, an extremely rare term occurring but four times in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (also in Ps 139:11; Job 9:17).  In Job 9:17, translators render it “crush,” and older translations did likewise in Genesis 3:15: “He will crush your head, and you will crush his heel.”  This describes a fatal blow: the “seed of the woman” will kill the Serpent, while the Serpent will only wound the “seed of the woman.” 

In Hebrew the pronouns for “he” and “she” are very similar and easily confused.  Some texts of Genesis read, “She shall crush your head.”  Thus it was translated by St. Jerome for the Vulgate.  This is the origin of iconography that shows the Blessed Mother with a snake under her feet.  Even if this was not the original reading in Hebrew, nonetheless it is theologically true: she crushes the head of the Serpent through her son, her “seed.”

The Church reads Genesis 3 on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception to remind us of the key role of the “woman” in salvation: from the beginning of human history, God promised a woman whose “seed” would annihilate evil for ever.  Mary is that woman, and she was prepared for the role from conception.  The “seed of the serpent” can be understood as evil generally.  No “seed of the serpent” ever entered the Blessed Virgin, because she was protected from the effects of original sin from conception on.  In this way she becomes the “Mother of all the living,” that is, of all who are spiritually alive because they are joined to her Son, God Himself. 

Responsorial Psalm 98:1, 2-3ab, 3cd-4:
R. (1) Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds.
Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done wondrous deeds;
His right hand has won victory for him,
his holy arm.
R. Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds.
The LORD has made his salvation known:
in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice.
He has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness
toward the house of Israel.
R. Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation by our God.
Sing joyfully to the LORD, all you lands;
break into song; sing praise.
R. Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds.

When we sing this Psalm, we understand the Conception of the Blessed Virgin as the beginning of God’s great victory over evil, sin, and death.  The Immaculate Conception is truly a “marvelous deed.”  It merits a “new song,” because it is something truly new under the sun: a human being not tainted by original sin, something not seen since the creation of Adam and Eve themselves.  The miracle of the Immaculate Conception is so beautiful and joyful, it provokes us to sing and give praise to God!

Our Second Reading is from St. Paul:

Brothers and sisters:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
for the praise of the glory of his grace
that he granted us in the beloved.

In him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,
we who first hoped in Christ.

This opening of Ephesians is a favorite passage for Calvinists and other theological traditions that emphasize the doctrine of predestination.  For a Catholic understanding of predestination, readers should avail themselves of Fr. Reginald Garigou-Lagrange’s treatment of the subject.  

St. Paul here takes a strongly theological view of the origin and destiny of Christians, affirming that we were “chosen” before the creation of the world to be “holy and without blemish before him.”  These things are true of all Christians; but how much more so are they true of the Mother of Our Lord, who—unlike the rest of us—truly was “holy and without blemish” for her whole life, from her Conception to her Assumption?  The Church chooses this Reading on this Feast Day to emphasize that in Mary we see an extraordinary perfection of those things that are said of the Church as a whole.  Long in advance of the drama of salvation history, God had chosen the Blessed Mother out for her special role, and was active in preparing her for her “holy and without blemish” role from the first moment of her existence.

It is not that Mary is not saved by God’s grace.  St. Paul emphasizes that in a sense, all of us were “saved in advance” by God’s foreknowledge and election.  This is true of the Blessed Mother in a singular way: by God’s grace, she was saved from ever falling into sin. 

4.  Our Gospel is the Annunciation:

Gospel Luke 1:26-38:
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.

The Gospel Reading emphasizes Mary’s unique role in salvation.  Gabriel comes to her and greets her as “full of grace.”  The Greek term is kecharitoœmeneœ, a feminine perfect passive participle meaning “woman who has been graced or favoured.”  St. Jerome translated “dynamically” with gratia plena, giving us the tradition “full of grace.”  The term is unusual, a rather exalted greeting from an angel to a human being, pointing to a special status of Mary.  It recalls 1 Samuel 1 and Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  Hannah’s name is the feminine form of the Hebrew word hen, “grace.”  So in English we would just call her “Grace.”  Hannah is a type of the one who is “full of grace.”  The Church has come to understand that Mary’s experience of God’s grace began with her conception. 

Gabriel goes on to speak to the Blessed Mother about her Son:

He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

These terms and ideas are largely taken from 2 Samuel 7, the famous account of the Davidic covenant.  Jesus is the true son and “seed” that had been promised David as part of his covenant relationship with God.  About this “seed” of David, it was said that he would be the Son of God, would build the House of God, and would rule forever.  With Jesus’ conception, God has “remembered his kindness and faithfulness” as Psalm 98 said.  These are terms for covenant fidelity, for a covenant partner calling to mind his obligations and acting to fulfill them.

Mary questions (literally from the Greek), “How will this be, since I do not know a man?”  This is a somewhat unusual question if Mary was betrothed in the ordinary way and about to consummate an ordinary marriage.  Therefore many have thought that the Blessed Mother may have made a vow of virginity.  The only group of Jews known to practice celibacy were the Essenes.  For this reason, the great Benedictine archeologist and Bible scholar Bargil Pixner argued that the family of theBlessed Mother was connected with the Essene movement. 

Gabriel’s words continue to point to the unique role of Mary in all human history: “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”  The term “overshadow” is extremely rare in the Bible, used only four times in the Septuagint, notably in Exodus 40:35, where the glory of God overshadows the Tabernacle of Moses.  There seems to be an intentional correlation between the Tabernacle and Mary: both are temporary dwelling places of the glory of God on earth.

Mary’s response is one of utter humility and docility: “I am the handmaid of the LORD, may it be done to me according to your word.”  Mary calls herself the doule of the LORD, the “maidservant,” equivalent of the Hebrew ‘amah or shiphah.  Hannah also calls herself a “maidservant” in 1 Samuel 1 when speaking to the priest Eli, and Bathsheba describes herself identically when speaking to David on behalf of Solomon in 1 Kings 1.  Mary stands in the tradition of these holy women: her son will be a prophet greater than Samuel and a king greater than Solomon. 

While the language of Luke 1 was does not address the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception directly, it does point to the Blessed Virgin as enjoying a singular and extraordinary role in God’s plan, and enjoying special grace for that role.  Things are said of her in this passage that are said of no one else in Scripture.  Recognizing this uniqueness, the Church has always understood that the Blessed Mother was without in sin; in time the Church was able to define this sinless as extended to the beginning of her life.

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, let’s praise God for the miracle of our salvation, prophesied since the beginning of time.  Let’s also remember that what is true of the Blessed Mother is true of all members of Christ in a more general way: we, too, have been chosen to be “holy and blameless.”  How does this become visible in our lives?  When we respond to God’s grace with Mary’s humility and docility: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”  Holiness is not the product of gritting our teeth, breathing hard, and getting red in the face with human effort.  It is a matter of relaxing in the presence of the Holy Spirit, letting God work in our lives, which happens when we give up our own agendas, especially the ‘lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life” (1 John 2:16).

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