Summary: Explaining the Immaculate Conception, teaching on the history and theology of the dogma, and how it applies to all of us, as an example of God’s Grace and Goodness.
Sermon: 8th December 2001, Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Text: Luke 1:26-38
“Hail Mary, Filled with Grace”
In the name of the +Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Two weeks ago, during our Advent Course, Fr Lewis laid down a challenge for me, when he reminded me and all those present that I am required only to teach from the pulpit those doctrines which can be proved by Scripture. Certainly a challenge!
For today we celebrate one of the glorious mysteries of the Church, and one that has been the subject of much controversy over the centuries: the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I am not so sure that I have the necessary skills to prove by Scripture the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but I feel it can be adequately explored through Scripture, through Tradition and through Reason, the three pillars of Anglicanism.
It is a doctrine which causes some confusion and misunderstanding, but is one which I feel it is right for us to celebrate because it not only serves to underline the glory of Our Lady, but also serves to point the way towards the sublime glory of the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ; in this Advent season we need to use a feast such as this to prepare us for that Incarnation.
Now, to clear up some basic confusion: the Immaculate Conception is NOT the Annunciation and is NOT the Virgin Birth. These two things are both glorious mysteries of the Church, but are events in the lifecycle of Our Lord. The Immaculate Conception is concerned with the conception of Our Lady. The Church declared in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus on this day in 1854 that the Blessed Virgin Mary was
“from the first moment of her conception, by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the human race, she was preserved free from all stain of original sin”
If everyone understood that the first time, then we can skip the rest of this sermon and carry straight on to the Eucharist… but perhaps we had better understand this properly. (read again)
Unthinking reactionaries reject the Immaculate Conception as some kind of alternative annunciation, and suggest that it takes Mary and elevates her to the Godhead, it is a common criticism of Catholic Christians that we don’t have a trinity, but a quadinity, and unthinkingly they assume that this means that Mary herself was created supernaturally, just like our Lord. But no, the dogma does not say this: Our Lady is Our Lady because she is one of us, not a supernatural, heavenly being used as a receptacle for the Holy Spirit to bring God down to earth, but flesh and blood of our flesh and blood – a properly conceived daughter of Eve like the rest of us. She was the product of Anna and Joachim. The scripture refers to her as a (parthenon) a virgin, not a superhuman, not removed from human experience, but one of us.
Mary is honoured by the Church and has been since the beginning, but not worshipped, asked for her prayers, but not prayed to, recognised as having a special relationship with Christ, but never taking his place. Mary’s role is to point the way to her Son: note that in the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in St. John’s Chapel, and in the larger statue at the back of the nave, it is not Mary alone that we see, but Mary presenting her Son to us; for that is what she does. It is not a perversity of Catholic or Anglocatholicism that we rightly honour the first follower of Christ, for both Luther and Calvin held very high Marian doctrines and the Ave Maria continued to be said in Geneva even whilst the icons were being destroyed. Mary is an important feature of the universal catholic Christian faith because of her humanity and her proximity to the divine.
Why do I need to place such great emphasis on the humanity of Mary? Without the humanity of Mary, the Incarnation becomes a sham, a mere pretence, as Our Lord and Saviour fails to come properly amongst us – deny the humanity of Mary and you deny the humanity of Jesus Christ, and his redemptive work is all for naught.
The doctrine teaches us that she was human like us, but free from one important complicating detail: Original Sin.
Original Sin is not very fashionable at the moment, and is felt by many to be an uncomfortable throwback to an age which was afraid of sex and sexuality, denied the sinless sexuality of Christ and the sexuality of Our Lady. Mary’s subsequent nature and title of Ever-Virgin does not rely on the lack of sexual intercourse, but is a description of her state of Grace, not her role as wife and mother. Original Sin is the state we are all in, a state of separation from God and which can be traced back to what Milton so eloquently describes as “Man’s First Disobedience”