A Marian Season

My daughter is enrolled in kindergarten at a local Catholic elementary school. Earlier this week, the principal invited parents to join the school for Mass on Monday, December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His invitation inspired me to reflect on the coincidence of two Marian commemorations which occur in the same week for Catholics, with the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe occurring just a few days later, on December 12.

Recently, I advised an undergraduate student to conduct a research paper comparing these two holidays in the Catholic tradition. In her fine essay, she expressed surprise when she discovered that faithful men and women seemed much more engaged with the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe than the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. She explained that she understood the distinctions between solemnity and feast, but that she also perceived a sense that the people honored the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe more than the Immaculate Conception. When I asked her to reflect on this observation, she essentially said that people valued a narrative story that corresponded to the realities of their daily lives.

My recollection of this exchange with a student leads me to conclude that Mary inaugurates a season of hopeful encounter for us in which the Church’s narrative of the promise of salvation unfolds beautifully. Many of us belong to native traditions that speak to Mary’s maternal intervention on behalf of her people, imparting blessings, protection, and healing to them. But it is the story of Mary’s conception that begins the process of narrating the promise of salvation incarnate in the person of Mary.

At this point, an Orthodox reader might pause since Orthodox view the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as spurious. An attentive sleuth can troll the Internet and discover multiple Orthodox condemnations of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, with some referring to it as “heretical.” I view such condemnations as uncharitable. It is possible for the Orthodox Christian to honor the commonalities of traditional narratives the two Churches remember differently and address the thorny question of authority in magisterial tradition elsewhere.

The Orthodox Church remembers the Conception from St. Anna (of the Theotokos) on December 9. The reader might note the difference in date: Mary’s birth occurred on September 8, and the time between her conception and birth is almost perfect, separated by one day, whereas the Roman commemoration on December 8 establishes a pattern of perfection. The Roman pattern for Mary’s conception and birth follows the one of the Lord Jesus: his annunciation occurs on March 25, and he is born on December 25.

What I find appealing in the remembrance of Mary’s conception is the promise of salvation we find proclaimed. Here are two hymns sung on the Praises at Matins on the Orthodox celebration of December 9 (both texts taken from The Menaion of the Orthodox Church, vol. 4, December, trans. Isaac E. Lambertsen (St. John of Kronstadt Press, 1996), 77):

The conception of the pure and godly maiden, the first fruits of faith, hath appeared, which before the ages was ineffably proclaimed by God in His divine and dread mysteries. Through her are the works of darkness and the passions brought to an end.

[She] who gave birth unto the light which illumineth all creation doth Anna begin to put forth today from her barren womb. Wherefore, let us all make haste, for our deliverance from the condemnation of Eve is come.

To be sure, there is space to critically analyze a medieval text that associated Eve with humanity’s condemnation, an endeavor biblical and gender scholars are taking on with authority and achievement. I hope that the reader can also identify the great hope pouring out from these texts: God blessed the conjugal union of love shared by Joachim and Anna, and introduced Mary to the world, who becomes a figure of promise for humanity’s salvation.

God’s blessing of Joachim and Anna and their conception of Mary directs the Christian to a series of events that confirm this hope: Mary’s faithfulness, her birth of Jesus in homelessness and poverty, and her maternal advocacy which Christians experience and remember with devotion throughout the globe, and of course, the birth of the Lord Jesus himself. The Conception of Mary by Anna makes the anticipation and thankful celebration of these other events and people possible.

The celebration of Anna’s conception of Mary is a cause for joy because it begins a series of messages that establish our faith that we belong to God’s communion. So despite the differences between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox commemorations of this solemnity, which demand ongoing dialogue, I am grateful that my daughter’s school is inviting us to celebrate this feast, because it reminds us that Mary is mother of all of her children, and she directs them to Christ, even if they squabble on the journey.

3 comments

  1. I preface this by saying that I, of course, fully accept the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

    With respect to condemnations of a dogma being “uncharitable”, I would caution that the Orthodox who would say this are motivated precisely by charity, as they want to condemn what they see as am untruth, a perceived other’s against God. The use these words because they want to share what they believe to be the truth.

    Honestly, I think it’s refreshing. Clear speaking, with words that mean something is the definition of authenticity.

    1. @Todd Orbitz – comment #1:
      They need to seriously consider, as Dr. Adam Deville has, the new book by Fr. Christian Kappes on the Immaculate Conception in the patristic and Orthodox tradition, from the Cappadocian Fathers to St. Mark of Ephesus. His research was spurred by a line in Mark of Ephesus where he referred to her as “Mary pre-purified,” something that escaped the notice of previous commentators.

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