There’s probably not a more Catholic feast day in the liturgical calendar than the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is usually celebrated on December 8th, but was moved this year to December 9th because the 8th fell on a Sunday. It combines so much of the elements that people think of as distinctly Catholic: devotion to Mary, emphasis on grace, connections between spirituality and sexuality, and religious concepts based on Tradition and not Scripture.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not declared definitively until December 8, 1854, by Pope Pius IX. Briefly, the teaching states that Mary was free from Original Sin from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb. (It does not refer to Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus.) One of the things that I find most interesting about this historical declaration is that it acknowledges the role that the sensus fidelium or “sense of the faithful” played in arriving at this teaching. Pope Pius IX, in Ineffabilis Deus, the papal document which defined the Immaculate Conception, acknowledged that the practice of honoring Mary through this devotion preceded any official teaching of the devotion. Pius states:
“All are aware with how much diligence this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God has been handed down, proposed and defended by the most outstanding religious orders, by the more celebrated theological academies, and by very eminent doctors in the sciences of theology. All know, likewise, how eager the bishops have been to profess openly and publicly, even in ecclesiastical assemblies, that Mary, the most holy Mother of God, by virtue of the foreseen merits of Christ, our Lord and Redeemer, was never subject to original sin, but was completely preserved from the original taint, and hence she was redeemed in a manner more sublime. . . .
“This doctrine so filled the minds and souls of our ancestors in the faith that a singular and truly marvelous style of speech came into vogue among them. They have frequently addressed the Mother of God as immaculate, as immaculate in every respect; innocent, and verily most innocent; spotless, and entirely spotless; holy and removed from every stain of sin; all pure, all stainless, the very model of purity and innocence; more beautiful than beauty, more lovely than loveliness; more holy than holiness, singularly holy and most pure in soul and body; the one who surpassed all integrity and virginity; the only one who has become the dwelling place of all the graces of the most Holy Spirit. God alone excepted, Mary is more excellent than all, and by nature fair and beautiful, and more holy than the Cherubim and Seraphim. To praise her all the tongues of heaven and earth do not suffice. . . .
“No wonder, then, that the Pastors of the Church and the faithful gloried daily more and more in professing with so much piety, religion, and love this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother of God. . .”
An important lesson to be learned here is that the process of the development of church teaching begins with how people live out their faith. For Catholics concerned with LGBT equality, this realization might provide hope for the future. It helps us to remember that the way we live our lives of faith, the language that we use to express our beliefs, and the seriousness with which we hold our values can have a profound impact on how the institutional Church develops its teaching. Admittedly, this process can be slow, but it is still powerful and effective.
This message is especially important these days as we seem to have a pope who is willing to listen to the diverse opinions in the Church, particularly on questions of marriage, family, and sexuality. Pope Francis’ call to bishops to gather opinions on these topics in advance of the 2014 Synod on Marriage and Family provides a great opportunity for Catholics to share the sensus fidelium on these topics with our leaders. As we’ve noted before, it’s important for people to offer their opinions through one of the several online surveys available. One new addition to this list of surveys is one from Canada from the Grass-roots Catholics for the Synod on Marriage and Family.
As we pray and reflect today on the Immaculate Conception, let’s keep in mind that the way we live our faith lives, and our ability to articulate that lived faith to others, is vital and crucial for how our Church develops its official teaching in the future.
Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which celebrates that Mary was free from Original Sin from the moment of her own conception, not that Jesus was conceived in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit and without the aid of sexual intercourse.
Can there be anything in this feast that speaks to those concerned with LGBT Catholic issues? I think the liturgical readings of the day offer some salient points for reflection.
Before we look at some of the readings, though, I want to introduce an idea about Marian feasts that I heard in a lecture many years ago by Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, the eminent theologian. She said that we should always think about Mary not as someone who is set apart from the rest of the humanity, but as a foreshadowing of what God has in store for all of humanity. So, while Mary was unique in being free from Original Sin from the moment of her conception and all through her life, we shouldn’t dwell on this uniqueness, but, instead, view it as God’s promise for his plans for all of humanity.
How do we know that God has this desire for us? It says so in today’s Epistle reading (Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12):
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
for the praise of the glory of his grace
that he granted us in the beloved.
“In him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,
we who first hoped in Christ.”
That’s what God has in store for our future. In today’s first reading from Genesis (3: 9-15, 20), however, we get a glimpse of what humans have made of our humanity. After the fall from Grace, God searches for Adam in the Garden, and Adam says:
“I heard you in the garden;
but I was afraid, because I was naked,
so I hid myself.”
These poignant lines are ones that I believe all humans have experienced. They echo the common experience of shame about one’s self which everyone has felt at some time or other, especially in childhood.
For those involved in the LGBT community, the line about Adam hiding himself probably echoes even more loudly. Unfortunately, that experience of hiding one’s self out of shame is what many LGBT people experience before they have come to understand, accept, affirm, and announce their true identities. That experience of shame and secrecy is sometimes referred to as “the closet,” and when people shed their shame, they “come out of the closet.”
Contrast the experience of Adam’s shame with Mary’s self-confident “Yes” in today’s gospel story of the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38). What has struck many about Mary’s attitude in this scene is that she is not overawed by the angel’s visit and message. Indeed, she boldly asks the angel questions. And she agrees to God’s invitation in a confident and trusting manner, ready to take on the risk of this amazing task.
What God has planned for us is to become more like Mary and less like Adam. God wants us to be “full of grace” as Mary is and not full of shame as Adam is. What I find most interesting is that the people who can help teach that lesson to others in the church are LGBT people who have come through the experience of coming out of the closet of shame and secrecy to live in confident trust and courageous risk.
Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which, despite popular understanding, celebrates the conception of Mary, not the conception of Jesus. Catholics celebrate that Mary’s conception, achieved through natural means, also had a supernatural dimension because from the moment of conception she was created without Original Sin. The purpose of this supernatural intervention was to create the human being who would birth the Savior.
Theologian Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, reminds us that the Catholic focus on Mary’s uniqueness is not to separate her from the rest of humanity, but to remind us that what God has planned for her is what God plans for ALL people: to be free to do good.
Although this feast day focuses on Mary’s, not Jesus’ conception, the Gospel reading for today’s liturgy is Luke 1: 26-38, the story of the Annunciation. We read the story of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel, who announces God’s plan for the Savior’s birth and Mary’s role in it, and we see Mary responding in a way that is a model for us all: she freely decides to do good.
On a “Next Steps” weekend sponsored by New Ways Ministry a few years ago, a gay Marianist Brother offered an insightful reflection on the Annuniciation gospel. In a discussion about LGBT spirituality, this Brother observed that gay spiritual experience can be summed up in the question that Mary asks Gabriel after the news of Jesus’ birth through her, as a virgin, is announced. Her response: “How can this be?”
For this Brother, “How can this be?” is the question that almost all LGBT people of faith ask themselves as they begin to come to awareness of their identity. It is a question that reflects the surprise, wonder, and mystery that people have when they realize that God has created them in a unique and special way–the way Mary was created. It is a question that is often asked over and over through their lives, as they begin to grow and evolve into their identity.
Everyone’s sexual and gender identity is a unique mystery. Despite the scientific world’s best efforts, we still do not know what is the origin of these personality facets in our lives. For many LGBT people of faith, the answer to the question “How can this be?” is that their identity is a gift from God, similar to the way God gifted Mary with her unique calling. It is a gift to be shared with others and used to foster our own salvation, as well as the salvation of the individuals and communities to which we belong.
On this feast of the Immaculate Conception, you are invited to reflect on your own uniqueness–either as an LGBT person or someone who supports LGBT people. Consider your own answer to the question, “How can this be?” In what ways has your sexual or gender identity been a gift? Feel free to share your reflections in the comments section.