Joyful

A few words about joy.  Well, okay, more than a few…

I used to think that Catholicism was very dour, celebrating solemnities (solemn celebrations?) bemoaning sin and life in this world.  This was a false picture of the Catholic Church, however.  Sadly, I’m not the only one who has had this misconception of Catholicism – probably millions do right now.  The error, I think, comes partly from human attempts to depict the Mysterious Majesty of God and the profound honor, respect, awe, and even submission, due to God.  When contemplating the Immaculate Conception of Mary, for example, we don’t do so with silly giddiness or casual interest.  We must do so with solemn reverence and humble, awestruck gratitude – so, also with joy.

One problem, it seems to me, is that it’s hard to find an ancient image of Mary smiling.  (If you know of one, please share!)  Smiles probably didn’t mean the same thing then as they do now.  But, let us remember that the Bible does speak clearly of joy.  Mary herself cries out to Elizabeth, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”[1] Mary rejoices.  And so should we.

I do like this modern (1873) Greek icon of the Most Holy Mother of God…

Greek icon Mary Mother of God

Today we observe the “Solemnity” of the Immaculate Conception (celebrating the Mystery of Mary being conceived in her mother’s womb without the stain of Original Sin, so that she may truly be The New Eve).  And Gaudete Sunday (the Third Sunday of Advent) is being celebrated this weekend.  So, truly, it’s a fitting time to reflect upon the importance of joy in our lives of faith.  With the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, must also come the gift of joy – for how can we not be joyful when we believe that we are made to know, to love, and to serve God in this life and to be happy with God forever?  With this faith and hope we are free to love – and in the true freedom of loving others and knowing that we are intimately and infinitely love there is true and lasting joy. Continue reading

The New Eve

Wrong conception…

Last Tuesday, I was struck again by how the Catholic Church can often seem to perpetuate misunderstandings within Catholicism. Like the Immaculate Conception…

How many people think that the Immaculate Conception refers to the way in which Jesus was conceived in the womb of his virgin mother? Quite a few. Even many Catholics. And if you go to Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, you receive fuel to add to the fire of your mistake. For, in the Gospel reading for the Feast, we hear of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, telling the young virgin that she will conceive a child in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the big story that the Catholic Church has chosen to emphasize on the day on which we celebrate the Immaculate Conception. So, it would be very natural for one to assume that the “conception” referred to in the Immaculate Conception is this miraculous conception of Jesus, in the womb of a virgin.

But it’s not.

Who Is Immaculate?

Jesus was not immaculately conceived – he was divinely conceived, by the power of God, the Holy Spirit, in the womb of a virgin. (We celebrate this, by the way, on the Feast of the Annunciation, which is on March 25 – nine months before Christmas, hello!) Catholics believe that Mary was immaculately conceived, meaning that she was conceived, she was brought into being from the very beginning, without stain. What stain? The stain of Original Sin.

First Things First…

The key to understanding why the Church has chosen the biblical account of the Annunciation as the Gospel of the day is in the first biblical account read on the Feast.

The First Reading is from the Book of Genesis, telling the story of the first man and the first woman when they fell from Paradise. The woman, who will come to be known as Eve, has succumbed to the temptations whispered to her by the serpent and has gone against God’s will by eating a forbidden fruit. She has given the fruit to the man with her, who has also eaten it. Through this act of disobedience, they come to experience what evil is and feel their smallness, afraid of their vulnerability. And afraid of God. The consequence of this act is that they can no longer live in Paradise – but what we hear on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the consequence for the disobedient and conniving serpent: there will be enmity between him and the woman, and between his seed and her seed. The serpent shall strike at his heal while he strikes at his head.

And, yes, this is a foreshadowing of Christ. As the serpent’s seed represents the devil, Jesus represents the “seed” of the woman. It is good and right to compare the prophecy in the Book of Genesis with the prophecy in the Gospel, by seeing Christ as the promised “seed”. This could, however, lead to confusion again about whose conception we are celebrating on the Feast of December 8 – but only if we forget about The Woman. For, it is also good and right to compare the woman in the Book of Genesis with the woman in the gospel, seeing Mary as the new Eve. This is the main reason why these two readings of the Bible were chosen to be read on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception by the Catholic Church.

Original Sin

Let’s look at that Genesis account…. The first sin of mankind (Original Sin) is what the First Reading of the Feast Day is about – the disobedience of the first man and the first woman.

The first man and the first woman came “fresh and pure from the Creator’s hands”, knowing nothing of disobedience or evil, nothing of sin. Eve was immaculate, stainless, blameless. In this pure state, she was free from the attachments of sin, free from the selfishness and hangups that can weigh a person down and make it difficult to freely and openly choose the generosity of selflessness, of true love. Because she and Adam were in this pure and innocent state, it was even more devastating that they chose self-centeredness and willfulness. Their choice had cosmic consequences. They chose pride and distrust of God. And the world fell.

Now, every human being is “stained” by this Original Sin, darkening the intellect and weakening the will. This is our inheritance from our first parents. In a sense, this is part of our banishment from Paradise, from being able to walk and talk with God as intimately as the first humans did in their pure state.

A lot of people don’t want the woman, Eve, to take so much of the blame. After all, the first man knew all about that tree and was there when she picked its fruit, so he has equal blame. But, it’s important that the Fall of Mankind began with the first woman. In the Bible, it says that she is named Eve because she is the mother of all the living.

The New Eve

God did not want the story of human beings to end with the pain and separation of Original Sin. God chose to free us from evil and restore us to Paradise, through His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. God gave us a second chance. So, He created a New Eve, a human being conceived without the stain of original sin, to try again…

Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus, is understood as the New Eve. God created her and kept her, from the very beginning of her being, free from the stain of Original Sin, so that she may be as innocent and pure as the first Eve. For, the first woman’s cataclysmic free decision in the Garden of Eden must start to be undone by another woman’s free choice of universal impact – the second woman is The Woman, the New Eve: Mary.

neweve

Early Christian theologians drew upon the parallel between Eve and Mary[1]. The first Eve said “no” to God by going against God’s will. The New Eve says “yes” to God by accepting God’s will. The old ushered in the Fall of Mankind – but the New opened the way for the Salvation of Mankind, in Jesus Christ. The first Eve gave the tainted and forbidden fruit to the man who was with her. But, the New Eve bore the divine and perfect fruit of her virgin womb to all Mankind. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the New Eve, is the Mother of All the Living in Christ. Death was born through Eve’s act of disobedience and selfishness – but Life was born through Mary’s act of obedience and love.

Freedom

It is important to remember that God never forces us to do anything. He created us with the gift of freewill so that we may be able to choose love. Love can never be forced. And so Mary had to freely choose. God created her especially for the purpose of being His Son’s mother, fruit bearing the fruit of salvation and eternal life to the world. And never did God see her or treat her as a mere vessel. God wanted her (as He wants every human being) to use her freewill to cooperate with His Plan, which is for our ultimate joy. He sent His messenger, Gabriel, to Mary to announce His Will to her, whom the Angel addressed as “Fall of Grace” – or, in another translation, “Favored One”… and then waits for her response. The whole future of humankind hinged on her response…

© 2015 Christina Chase


photo credit from this website:

[1] http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/neweve.html

 

A Stranger Appears in the Making of the Bread

Mary Series: Part 1

Picture it. Nazareth. 1 BC (or maybe a few years earlier.) Alone in the simple home where she lives with her parents, a young peasant woman kneels upon the earthen floor making bread dough in a wooden bowl, completely unaware of the extraordinary conversation that she’s about to have.[i] As the ingredients come together and form in her hands, she hums a song of thanksgiving and praise. Briefly, never losing focus on her task, she thinks of the day in the future when she will be making bread in Joseph’s home. For she is betrothed to a kind and hard-working carpenter, a widower with several children of whom the young virgin looks forward to taking care.

Yes, this woman is Mary, who will be the mother of Jesus – but she isn’t yet. Right now, she is a prayerful and thoughtful girl, a good daughter and neighbor and practitioner of Judaism. She speaks Aramaic and understands Hebrew, has been taught the Sacred Scriptures and the fine skills of nurturing and caring for a family and a community. She is intelligent and considerate, never overthinking with needless worry, nor deeming any detail or any person as insignificant.

Mary begins to knead the dough, firmly but gently, when, suddenly, she is interrupted in the making of bread by the appearance of a strange visitor standing before her. Bearing peculiar salutations of mysterious portent, the stranger is illuminated all through as though by secret sunlight. Mary, bathed in the radiant glow, remains kneeling on the ground, transfixed.

Now, this stranger isn’t entirely strange to Mary. She has an unadulterated communion with the spiritual that was divinely given to her, and safeguarded in her, since her conception. She recognizes this being before her as an angel, a supernatural creature charged with bearing divine message. She knows, then, that the words spoken by this angel express the very mind of God. And this angel is hailing her, telling her that the Lord is with her, and calling her “Most Favored One” or “Full of Grace”.

Imagine being saluted by one of God’s heavenly hosts. Imagine hearing, unmistakably, imagine knowing, that you are specially gifted and favored by God. This is what is happening to Mary, but it doesn’t cause her to be puffed up with pride. Innocent as the day she was conceived, she is trying to figure out what it means and is troubled with the wonder. In full knowledge of her lowliness as a creature before the Uncreated Creator, she is humbled, disturbed in her heart by this greeting of honor.

Human beings are naturally afraid of the unknown – and Mary is human. Although she is divinely blessed by unique, supernatural grace, her intellect, imagination, and will are limited – just as with every human being. Born of working-class parents, she is the least worldly person of whom you can think, but she is rich with inherent wisdom – and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. The human mind cannot comprehend or fathom the Mysteries of God. The visiting angel knows this and sees Mary’s reaction. She is told not to be afraid. Believing that this is God’s message for her, the young woman listens and trusts. And her natural concern is quieted.

Now, the messenger of God says to Mary, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary is innocent, but she’s not naïve, and she’s no dummy. She knows how babies get made. And she also knows that, though betrothed, she is, as yet, unmarried, still a virgin, and has absolutely no plans of sexual intercourse anytime soon. So, she naturally wonders how she is going to become pregnant. It isn’t that Mary doubts the angel’s word, nor even the possibility of her becoming pregnant. But, she doesn’t know by what process the pregnancy will occur. Did the angel come suddenly to tell her of something that will happen later, in the future? Will Joseph, then, be the father of the child? Or will her pregnancy occur in a more dramatic, or even mysteriously miraculous, way? The words which with the angel described this child that she is to conceive and bear – “called the Son of the Most High… and of his kingdom there will be no end” – sound messianic to the young woman’s ears. Such a child would, it seem, deserve a miraculous beginning. But… How? What will be involved? If Mary was troubled before by the angel’s greeting, she is now sincerely, deeply, very curious. It is because of the young woman’s faith in the Divine Word and Order that she seeks, with the wonderful sparklings of the human mind, to peer into the workings of the universe, both within and beyond.

And so, at this moment, Mary, her dark, bright eyes looking up to the figure of light, opens her mouth to speak. In speaking, she knows that she will be communicating with God Godself through this divinely appointed messenger. She knows this and doesn’t hesitate to show her humble ignorance in asking her question to the Mighty One. She, like any true scientist that ever lived or ever will live, simply wants to know how something works.

Mary says to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”

The angel, who is called Gabriel, has heard this kind of question before, just six months earlier, in fact, in human time. But that question, asked by Zechariah, concerning the angelic announcement of his wife Elizabeth’s forthcoming pregnancy, was not an honest question, was not an innocent desire for an understanding of the truth. And Gabriel had justly punished the man for his sarcastic response to God’s message, for his doubt in the power of God in the face of earthly limitations. Zechariah had been struck mute, unable to speak a further word until the prophecy delivered by Gabriel had been fulfilled. Mary, who is now asking the angel how God’s will for her pregnancy shall be accomplished, is honest and innocent and just in her asking. Her question is real, born from the virtue of her human curiosity, and Gabriel receives the question graciously. The young woman shall not be punished, but, rather, rewarded with an answer from God.

The answer that will be given will seem to only raise more questions. However, instead, from her heart, Mary will raise forth the most perfectly human response to God of all time.

*          *          *

            Prayer: Almighty and all powerful God, I am but a lowly creature before Thee. May I trust in Thee and not be afraid. I pray that I, like Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, may be pure and open to Thy Divine Will for me. In my lack of understanding, may I have faith. In my desire for understanding, may I earnestly seek… and find Thee. Amen.

Hail, Mary, Full of Grace, pray for all seekers of truth who seek to peer into the workings of the universe, both within and beyond.

Christina Chase

 

[i] I am no expert on the customs of the area at this time. And my narrative does not aim for historical accuracy as its most important goal – rather, I aim to take the history written in the Bible and use my flawed imagination and intellect to bring it more fully to life in my heart. I am also aware that some of the details I am imagining are less than congruent with an early account of young Mary’s life, The Protoevangelium of James, which I have only read in fractions, but which I believe is a rich and fruitful account. Read it here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0847.htm