Since I was in Asia, there has been an image in my head that I can’t lose, and I’ve been waiting for a place to write about it, and I think today is a good time to do that. It comes from seeing heaping decays of polluted waste that people are actually living in. It has led me to believe that something is dreadfully wrong with Christmas.
What I mean is this. At Christmas time, Christians tend to put lovely manger scenes in our Churches and homes. We decorate them with nice lights, and beautifully arranged flowers, accented with flame-retardant straw or hay (because fire codes now dictate us to do so, and I’m sure Jesus was born near flame-retardant straw.) We make a lovely little scene that makes us go “Ahhh! Jesus was born. How sweet!”
Instead try this. Keep the refuse of chicken bones, vegetable peelings, table scraps, and anything rotten that you have in the refrigerator, and put them in a compost heap for four to five weeks. Find as many droppings from dogs, cats, rabbits, or cows if you are near to any, and add them to the mix after about two weeks. This is a good start.
Find the dampest, darkest, corner of a basement, where things tend to mold and rot, and start a collection of used wrappings, used bags, even egg shells do nicely, and keep let them build up for a couple weeks. Fold in the contents of the compost pile, and to top it off, bathe the area in a quart of urine.
Now you have your manger scene.
What I’m getting at is the fact that we spend so much time fancying up and making “beautiful” something that was despicable. If you could take the foulest location you can imagine, a place so rancid you would not dare to put your pet in it… let alone a human baby… let alone the Son of God, then you’ve got the scene that the Gospel of Luke has in mind when he wrote that Jesus was born in a manger. But Christians tend to clean up the nasty parts of the Scriptures that make us uncomfortable. Doing so - tells us more about who we are than it tells us about God’s saving power, even in the most despicable of conditions.
Today, I went to visit Lourdes, France.
Now why would I lead into Lourdes, France with such a lecherous tone? Because I spent most of my time there trying to figure out what the word “immaculate” means. It was in Lourdes that Mary appeared to St. Bernadette and announced to the world that Mary, the mother of God, was “Immaculate,” from conception.
Lourdes is beautiful, and is filled, even on a Thursday morning, with thousands of devotees. They are mostly very young, or very old. I don’t know exactly what to make of that, but I did particularly like the volunteers who wheel the elderly to the Grotto on special carts designed for elderly pilgrims. Take a look at it. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictorial of Lourdes by clicking here.
There is a lot of effort by Catholics to defend Mary. I had a good laugh yesterday when I rediscovered the fact that, at one point in his journeys, St. Ignatius actually got into a fight with a Muslim over the issue of Mary’s virginity. Ignatius, always pompous and quick tempered, argued with the man, but then settled down, and decided not to kill him. “How big of him!” I thought. He actually decided not to kill someone because of their beliefs. “What a great beginning to inter-religious dialogue… deciding not to slice open someone’s throat! No wonder he was declared a saint!”
The Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church holds in which we believe that Mary was born without sin, and in her life, remained flawless. Beliefs about Mary have been one of the great contentions between Catholics and Protestants, but increasingly in my life, I have come to appreciate more and more the Church’s teaching on Mary, and have developed a greater devotion to her. You’ll notice in my writing, that I continually emphasize the importance of our ability to say “yes” to the call of God. This comes from my admiration of Mary at the moment of the Annunciation. The other day in a blog, I even used the word “Fiat!” I wasn’t referring to the car. I was referring to the Latin equivalent of what Mary said with her very life. She said “Fiat!” “Yes!” She is an absolute heroine, constantly willing to bear the laboring pains of bringing Christ’s salvation into the world.
Yet, despite my increased appreciation for Mary, there is this nagging conversation that I keep hearing in my head between me, and my more limited self. I share it, hoping that St. Ignatius will spare the part of me that asks questions, the same way he spared the Muslim.
“Do you really believe Mary is Immaculate?”
“Born without sin?”
“Absolutely. Her entire life, she said “Yes” to God.”
“So she never had sexual intercourse?”
“What’s that got to do with…”
“She was a virgin.”
“Well yes, I mean the language we use was written in a time where the word for a young woman was “virgin.” It is historically and culturally relevant way of expressing her purity. The word, its original context and usage really has very little to do with her ever having sexual int…
“Perpetually… you believe she was perpetually a virgin.”
“Of course… we mean that for her entire life she was abundantly filled with the grace that we, as the community of the Church recognize that she possessed as young woman, when she agreed to give birth to Jesus despite the scandal she would have to…”
“But did she or did she not have sexual intercourse?”
“Listen, I don’t know what is going on with you, but I know that you’re trying to pin me down, and trying to make me define something of which I have no experience (not having been in Palestine at the time), something I have no way of knowing through historical documentation, and no real concern about. It is a statement of faith, not of fact. I believe Mary was the pure representative of someone who lived as an instrument for God’s grace that played God’s bountiful music with her very life. What does sexual intercourse have to do with that? According to U.S. statistics, 90% of people before the age of 21 have had pre-marital sexual intercourse. It is part of my job as a youth minister to decrease that percentage, but in doing so, it doesn’t mean that I go around telling those 90% that they are flawed and eternally damned because of one stupid action they committed when they lost their better judgment. To you, are people who are not sexual virgins some kind of wretched being? If so, you’ve told me more about yourself then you have about Mary. I know plenty of people who are wonderfully graced, who are not sexual virgins. Take my parents for example… and in fact, anyone who is a parent. How about your parents? Did they have sexual intercourse? And if they did, are they any less holy? Your preoccupation with how Mother Mary, the one God has chosen as the most beautiful and most pure, has lived her life is more a projection about your own sinful inadequacies than it is about her sinless quality. It doesn’t really matter to me. Not because how Mary lived her life isn’t important. Her willingness to say “yes” to God is all that is important. She is Immaculate. She is pregnant with holiness, and the bearer of holiness into the world. I don’t know how else to describe that to you. I personally don’t see the benefit in defining her holiness, in terms of my own sinfulness, or yours, but since it obviously matters to you, and what appears to me to be a twisted preoccupation with human sexuality, then yes. Whatever. I’ll use that language to describe the experience of one who lived the purest life imaginable, by any human being. The language does not change my devotion to her as mother and heroine. There you go. Are you happy?”
But you see, that conversation exists in my head, because of my limited human state. We tend to describe things, first and foremost, in terms of ourselves. Expressing Mary’s holiness in terms of her sexuality is an effort for us to somehow sanitize our own limitations. It is the same thing we do when we take the manger scene, and dress it up for Christmas. It doesn’t really matter how disgusting the manger scene really was, we make it pretty in our Churches and homes, because it helps us to express how sacred and how holy that single moment in time was, the moment when Grace entered the world. The beauty we ascribe to that moment is a projection of our own desire for Grace to enter into our own lives. The historical reality becomes nearly irrelevant.
Nearly… because if we think about what that manger was like, and we do think how crippling the stench and embarrassment must have been to be born where no one wanted you, and where no one would ever choose to live, then we see how powerful the Grace that entered the world truly was. We also see the astonishing beauty of a woman who gave her life saying “yes” to God’s will. That is immaculate. It is a story about how God has turned the world upside down and brought justice where there was none. It is the lowly who have brought us good news. It is the lowly who have become the vessels of God’s overflowing holiness.
And God comes to tell us that. God even sends Mary to appear in France to proclaim “I am the Immaculate.” And in response, we build a large cathedral on the spot, put up a hundred hotels, and build gift shops the length of a mile. But these are just projections of our own ideas about what devotion means. When you look behind the mask of this religiosity, you see the truth. “I’m the one who said ‘yes’ to God, despite the heap of putrid, forgotten decay that surrounds me.”
“I am the IMMACULATE”