The Feast of the Immaculate Conception ---December 8, 2020
Today is the day when Roman Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary’s conception, nine months before her birth on September 8. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception came into being only in 1854 when Pope Pius IX finally, after hundreds of years of debate, declared that Mary, through God's grace, was conceived free of original sin through her role as the Mother of God. Many people think that the Immaculate Conception has to do with Jesus’ conception, but any Episcopalian would know that the Annunciation on March 25 is the date we celebrate the conception of the Christ (unless it falls during Holy Week).
When I was a deacon, I was assigned to a “smells and bells” high Anglo-Catholic Church. We celebrated the “Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.” As a low church Episcopalian, copes, chasubles, incense, and chanting in English and Latin from the 1662 missal really freaked me out. I considered much of this to be “Mary worship.” I was appalled by what I considered “popery” and non-biblical mythology; however, after a few months of worshiping and preaching in that church, I came to find that many of my parishioners were spiritually fed by these “High Church” liturgies and feast days. My mentor priest, in a pastoral manner, showed me how, as in the prayer attributed to Saint Francis (BCP 833), that I needed NOT to seek so much as to be understood, but to understand.
While I still don’t understand the need to have Mary born free of sin, I do have a better understanding of the importance of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the other doctrines such as the Assumption of Mary (Pope Pius XII 1950) by our Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic brothers and sisters. I learned from my priest, that when something may feel strange or make me uncomfortable, it might just be a time when God is being born in me.
I was discussing this with someone the other night and we concluded that there are many immaculate conceptions in our lives. Perhaps the “Immaculate Conception” is that moment when God or the Spirit moves us to conceive of God in ways we never imagined before. That moment of innocence…newness…untainted by previous notions and conceptions. It’s simply amazing how God breaks through when I am able to drop my preconceived notions.
My mentor priest often referred me to the prayer of attributed to St. Francis whenever I seemed to be too obstinate or close-minded. During these troubling times my Book of Common Prayer has often fallen open to prayer 62. I don’t want to be like my old self as the youngest member of the clergy of the Diocese of Maryland in 1997, thinking I knew what was right and what was wrong; judging everything from my own experience. Instead, I’m striving to understand how the lives and experiences of the “other” impact their theology, politics, and spirituality and hoping to experience God in all people and in new ways.
To be honest, this whole year has given us an opportunity to strive to understand the other rather than judge the other. Just the other day I heard an argument regarding the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine. Both persons were entrenched in their position and neither was willing to listen where the other was coming from. We would all be better off if we asked open-ended questions of one another as I believe, more often than not, it is better to be in relationship than to be right. Again, being uncomfortable may be the birth pangs of God coming into your life.
My friends, this year has not allowed us to get to know one another very well and when we hurt one another we should remember and recite the following prayer…especially as we are in this season of Advent, where we need to prepare room for the coming of Christ:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us
sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there
is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we
receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in
dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
And maybe we ought to add the line, when I know I am right, let me ask questions why others may think I am wrong!
As we head into “Stir up Sunday”, may the Holy Spirit stir up our spirits and allow each of us to examine our prejudices, our absolutes, and our certainties and then “Rejoice” [Gaudete (pink Sunday in Advent)] if you have your own Immaculate Conception and then realize that God is not finished with us yet. Rejoice!