It was on the eve of Christmas many years ago that I was told I had failed my religious knowledge examination, and I cried myself to sleep. I was only 10 years old at the time and the news devastated me. It was the worst Christmas I ever had. When asked to explain what the Immaculate Conception meant, I said that it meant that Our Lord was born free from all sin. When I complained to the Parish Priest he said that what I said was totally correct, but that the expression the Immaculate Conception was usually used to describe how Our Lady was conceived without sin.
The greatest mystic of all
Understanding the importance of Christ being conceived and born without sin is of vital importance if we are to understand the nature of our own spiritual journey. The scriptures put it this way. They insist that when he was born he was born like us in every way except that he was born without sin (Hebrews 4 :15). This meant that from the moment of his birth in a wooden crib to the moment of his death on a wooden cross there was nothing to prevent him being at all times open to receive the love of God. What the great mystics call mystical contemplation and St Thomas Aquinas describes as a simple vision of God accompanied by awe, was possible for some mystics for some of the time. But it was open to Our Lord for all the time that he was on earth, and for all eternity when he was in heaven.
Now we are able to see how God’s plan to enable mere human beings like us to love him, and for him to love us, could be brought about by sending his Holy Spirit to draw us up into Our Risen Lord. This does not just mean into his mystical body but into his mystical loving of his Father too. However, before the death of Jesus, his mystical body did not exist as it did after the Resurrection. So when he gathered his first disciples together for prayer they prayed with him, at the same time as he did, even using the same prayers that he used, but not as they would in the future. For in the future after the first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit had drawn them up into his mystical body, they would now begin to pray in, with, and through him, in a way they had never prayed before, and so more powerfully than ever before.
We are not Immaculately Conceived
However, there was a clear difference between the prayer of those who had just been taken up into his mystical body and Jesus’ prayer. The difference was this. They were not conceived without sin, as he had been. They were therefore sinners, and so something had to happen before they could be totally at one with him and with his prayer, and his mystical contemplation of his Father. This something was a profound inner mystical purification in which their hearts could be sufficiently purified to become as one with Christ’s own sacred heart. This would of course take time because the power of original sin could not be destroyed without years of purification that involved daily dying to self by taking up the cross and daily following in his footsteps.
No Instant Sanctity
There is no such thing as instant purification as St Paul was to discover the hard way. Yes, he may well have had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus, but as Monsignor Philip Hughes shows in his monumental History of the Church, St Paul had to spend ten years in prayer and penance in a self-chosen ‘noviciate’ before he was able to become the great Apostle to the Gentiles. And even then he kept falling into sin (Romans 7:18-20). In short, before he could say, “I live, no it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me”, he, like everybody else needed his heart to be purified before it could be sufficiently united with the heart of Christ, the prayer of Christ, and his mystical contemplation. This did finally happen as he famously describes in his second letter to the Corinthians (12:1-5). When you begin to pray, not just with Christ but in him, and with him, then you also begin to receive in return the love Our Lord received when he was on earth. Then all things become possible, even the impossible, as we can read in the Acts of the Apostles, in the Acts of the Martyrs, and in the History of the Early Church by Monsignor Philip Hughes.
Preparing for Union
What can be said of St Paul can be said of the other Apostles. Even after coming to know and love Christ in his physical body during his life on earth, they too had to spend many years ‘in retreat’ in Jerusalem, living, praying and breaking bread together (Acts 2:42) to be purified sufficiently to be united with Christ’s prayer and with his mystical loving of his father. It is for this reason that new converts would in future have to spend two years praying, fasting and giving help to the poor before they could be baptised, and then continue after baptism in the same way, preparing for the union with Christ. Unfortunately in recent years, all too many converts to the Catholic Church have not had the many years of prayerful preparation and purification that the first Apostles all underwent.
Gods’ Gratuitous Love
That babies can be baptised and introduced into the family of God without doing anything to deserve it, is one of the most striking examples of God’s totally gratuitous gift of love. But this inestimable privilege does not mean that they should not be taught how to come to know, love, and be ever more deeply united with Christ as soon as they are able. That this has not happened in the past is sadly true, but that this must be remedied in the present is imperative. The first principle of any genuine Catholic catechetical program, therefore, is not only to teach children facts about the faith, but how to love the Jesus who was born on the first Christmas day, so that he can be born again in them. Then, like Mary his mother and their mother, they can give him to the world that is lost without him.
David Torkington’s blogs, books, lectures and podcasts can be found at https://www.davidtorkington.com/