Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sorting out the Immaculate Conception


First off, I'm going to admit that we did not observe the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary here on Monday. My own default entrenchment in TLH has me at a disadvantage when it comes to any observances and feasts whatsoever that are not found there. It's not that TLH is inerrant, certainly; it's just that it's become the indelible way my own synapses work.

We did celebrate St. Nicholas Mass on Saturday, though, and we will celebrate St. Lucy's next Saturday, so it's not that I can't bring myself to make changes; it's just that each one comes with some difficulty.

In my brain (the one I, the Frankengottesdienst monster, got when Marty Feldman dropped the normal brain and took the one from Abby . . .), there are a number of committees. Each change proposed must go through lots of red tape. During the process it often will sit unattended on a messy desk for extended periods of time. Sometimes there's a veto, or a subcommittee hearing, and the process takes even longer. Let the reader understand: I am a true conservative, in the most rudimentary sense of that term.

So anyhow, the Feasts for the BVM are all at various stages in this mental process of mine. The most recent one to be enacted (which actually means that I got around to celebrating it, really) is the dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15th. That one underwent several alterations before becoming, er, law, in Kewanee. It is not called the Assumption, a la Rome, nor is it simply called St. Mary, Mother of our Lord, a la SBH. I must say, the former, notwithstanding its questionable historicity, is truly preferable to the latter, an abominable reversion to Nestorius. (Oh where is St. Leo when you need him?)

So here I am, still sorting out what I ought to think about the Conception BVM. It's certainly historical (I mean, she was conceived), and it certainly has the effect of helping us count her blessed among women.

And yet somehow I admit that I'm dragging my heels a bit on this. I have learned to trust my instincts (which drives my loved ones nuts, particularly when their instincts are at variance).

Maybe it's the whole Immaculate Conception thing that has me troubled. To those of us who are both interested in good tradition and in historical validity--which are usually not at odds with each other--sometimes there is a problem, and when it must be resolved on the side of what's true, we find ourselves troubled that we must set tradition aside.

So it is for me in the case of the Immaculate Conception. One might wryly say that the immaculate conception didn't take place until 1854, when Rome dogmatized it, though it was a popular view for a long time prior to that.

My own take on it is that it is the understandable result of a misunderstanding of Doubting Joseph, on whom a number of medieval hymns have been written. That is to say, it's most likely that that term "immaculate conception" arose in poetry from the angel's words to Joseph in St. Matthew 1: "Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost."

In other words, the immaculate conception does indeed pertain to Mary, but not to her own conception. Rather, it is a reference to her virginal purity: Joseph, do not think ill of your betrothed; that which is conceived in her was conceived immaculately, without sin in her.

So, to return to my original musing, though I haven't researched this, I'm going to guess that the feast observed on December 8th, which is generally called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is reserved for the observance of Mary's own conception in the womb of her mother St. Anne. Hence (if this is correct) it is a faulty observance.

I may be quite wrong about this, particularly as I know it is observed also in the East. But even so, there are those tedious committee meetings going on in my brain even as I write, and there doesn't seem to be a resolution in view any time soon.

That said, I really do hate coming down on the side of Nestorians, Calvinists, and clowns who refuse to call Mary blessed, to say nothing of her being the Mother of God.

Perhaps somebody could enlighten me on this, but without even checking I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the propers for December 8th are not what they should be. If there is going to be a Feast of the Immaculate Conception, it should be the Feast of Doubting Joseph, and the Gospel appointed should be the one from St. Matthew 1; though honestly, the notion of altogether new propers would never see the light of day in those cranial committee meetings of mine.

But if it had been so, then everyone would know, as I suspect it was widely known in Christendom around 900 years ago, when those medieval hymns were written, that the Immaculate Conception is an important thing to emphasize: Joseph, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

7 comments:

Fr John W Fenton said...

Perhaps these thoughts will help the committees and subcommittees:

1. The Feast of the Conception of the BVM (as it is known in Orthodox churches, and was previously known to Lutherans) is not tied up in notions of (original) sin or guilt (which, popularly amongst Rome, seems to mathematical), but is yet another opportunity to exalt the human nature in Christ.

2. Three (and only three) nativities are celebrated by the Church: Christ, Mary and St John the Baptizer. In the same way, three conceptions are also celebrated (25 March, 8 Dec, 25 Sept). Asking why only these nativities are celebrated might lead one to consider why celebrating the conceptions is important.

3. The Marian feasts, generally, not only exalt the human nature in Christ, but also God's magnificent mercy; namely, that He deigns to save man. ("What is man, that thou art mindful of him?")

4. That the Gospel reading for the Feast in the historic Western tradition is Mt 1.1-16 (exalting the ancestry of the Christ) should be instructive.

Fr John W Fenton said...

And here's another one:

5. The icon "The Conception of the Theotokos" teaches a story told five previous times; namely, that in the ancestry of Jesus, God intervenes with a miraculous conception and birth for a barren woman. (Sarah-Isaac, Rebecca-Jacob/Esau, Rachel-Joseph, Samon's mother-Samon, Hannah-Samuel, Anna-Mary, Elizabeth-John -- all leading to the ultimate conception; namely, the conception and birth for a woman who "knows not a man").

orrologion said...

In the Orthodox Calendar this is the first of the Feasts celebrating the 'ancestry of God'. First, the Conception of his mother by natural means by her parents, Joachim and Anna. Then, the two Sundays prior to Christmas are dedicated to the Holy Forefathers of Christ (between December 11-17) and the Holy Fathers of Christ (between December 18-24):

"On the Sunday that occurs on or immediately after the eleventh of this month, we commemorate Christ's forefathers according to the flesh, both those that came before the Law, and those that lived after the giving of the Law.

Special commemoration is made of the Patriarch Abraham, to whom the promise was first given, when God said to him, "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:18). This promise was given some two thousand years before Christ, when Abraham was seventy-five years of age. God called him and commanded him to forsake his country, parents, and kinsmen, and to depart to the land of the Canaanites. When he arrived there, God told him, "I will give this land to thy seed" (Gen. 12:7); for this cause, that land was called the "Promised Land," which later became the country of the Hebrew people, and which is also called Palestine by the historians. There, after the passage of twenty-four years, Abraham received God's law concerning circumcision. In the one hundredth year of his life, when Sarah was in her ninetieth year, they became the parents of Isaac. Having lived 175 years altogether, he reposed in peace, a venerable elder full of days.

Apolytikion in the Second Tone

You justified the forefathers in faith, and through them betrothed yourself, aforetime, to the Church taken from out of the Gentiles. The saints boast in glory. For from their seed, there exists a noble crop, who is she who without seed has given You birth. By their intercessions, O Christ our God, save our souls.

Kontakion in the Second Tone

O thrice-blessed ones, you did not revere an image wrought by hand. But, putting on the armor of the Indescribable Essence, you were glorified in the ordeal of fire, standing in the midst of unbearable flame. You called upon God, "Compassionate One, come swiftly Merciful One hasten to our aid. For You are able to do whatever it is that You will.""

and,

"On the Sunday that occurs on or immediately after the eighteenth of this month, we celebrate all those who from ages past have been well-pleasing to God, beginning from Adam even unto Joseph the Betrothed of the Most Holy Theotokos, according to genealogy, as the Evangelist Luke hath recorded historically (Luke 3:23-38); we also commemorate the Prophets and Prophetesses, and especially the Prophet Daniel and the Holy Three Children.

Apolytikion in the Second Tone

Great are the accomplishments of faith. In the fountain of flame the three Holy Youths rejoiced as though they were resting by the waters. And the Prophet Daniel showed himself to be a shepherd to the lions, as though they were sheep. Through their prayers O Christ our God, save our souls."

orrologion said...

It should always be remembered that the flesh of the Lord that we partake of is the flesh of his mother alone. There was no admixture male seed. The flesh of the Lord and his mother therefore share a special relationship beyond that of a regular mother and child. If one believes that the holiness of the burning bush and the ark required special handling, how much more so, too, does the shared flesh and womb of the Virgin deserve special treatment. She deserves at least as special a handling as is given to the chalice and paten, the bread and the wine being prepared for communion, vestments and altar furnishings, as the bodies of our reposed loved ones. She is the mother of us all because her flesh is the Flesh we are baptized into and partake of.

Brian P Westgate said...

Tying in with what Fr. Fenton has said, the Sarum Missal calls it "The Conception of Blessed Mary," and has a completely different Mass than what is in the Roman Catholic 1962 rite, including the Gospel he mentioned.

orrologion said...

Since the eminent Fr. John Fenton is commenting, I should note that I was quoting the Byzantine Orthodox texts on this feast. Western/Latin Rite Orthodox texts may speak of it differently. Byzantine Catholic texts tend to append the term Immaculate Conception since they are in communion with a church that has infallibly defined that dogma for all sui juris churches.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

I rather expected some reasonable explanations from the East, with which, I must say, I can think of no objections.

Particularly I am eager to assent to a veneration of the Blessed Virgin because of her status as the Mother of God or Theotokos. Indeed, she is the chalice from which Christ comes forth, the garden from which the blessed Seed sprouted, and the dawn of our blessed Sun of Righteousness.

And also, as the ancient icons always seem to show, she is never gesturing to herself, but always to Him, the Fruit of her womb.