In his book A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, Mark Twain imagines the old and ailing King becoming a commoner, visiting his people, hoping to improve their lot. This idea was an afterthought, but with God it was his first thought. Nor did he visit his people merely to improve their lot, but to transform it by bringing back all who so chose, to enjoy the rapturous joy without ending that he enjoyed. Because it was his first thought, not just to dress like a human being, but to become one through his Son Jesus, then that decision inevitably entailed another – a human mother. Now it stands to reason that if she was to give birth to a perfect human being, then she too must be perfect or her imperfections would be transmitted to her son.
The first person to see this and then state it clearly, was a great theologian born in the British Isles. His first name was John, and his second name was Duns as that was the town where he was born. His third name was Scotus because that town was in Scotland. However, his full title is now Blessed John Duns Scotus as he is on his was to canonisation. “When God wills something,” he argued, “he wills the means too.” In other words, a perfect divine son demands an immaculate mother to give birth to him, and then love and nurture him with a pure and unsullied heart, mind and soul. It would have been inconceivable for a woman warped by sin and selfishness, to give birth to and bring up a man destined to become a king of such stature. For he was destined, not just to become any king, but the King of Kings. That he was King of the Jews whilst he was on earth he openly admitted, but after he had returned to his Father, transformed and transfigured by his glory, he became Christ the King of all creation.
It was for these reasons amongst others, that at the beginning of the fourteenth century, Scotus was the greatest champion of the Immaculate Conception. He was furthermore in the minority, sometimes of one, as he defended this doctrine against all comers. Sadly, the emphasis on human selfishness had been so widespread in the Dark Ages of Christian thought, that everybody believed that even Our Lady was infected by what was called original sin. Many bitter battles were fought over this doctrine until it was finally defined de fide by the Church in 1854. Four years later this doctrine received a further ratification from someone even more important than the Pope. When Our Lady appeared to Marie-Bernarde Soubirous in 1858 she told St Bernadette, as she was later to be known, that she was the Immaculate Conception. Mary herself confirmed what had been defined by the Church only four years before. The teaching of Scotus, once only held by a minority, had at last become the teaching of the universal Church. The feast day to celebrate this profound mystery is celebrated on Sunday 8th December.
The immaculate perfection of Our Lady meant that there would not even be a smidgen of imperfection to sully the human nature of her son. This meant that at every moment of his life on earth, that human nature would be continually open to receive the fullness of his Father’s love, through his divine nature. Everyone he met, therefore, would be able to receive the Father’s love through him. It would reach out to them though all that he said and did, though his care and compassion, through those he healed and even raised from the dead. But after his death, when he had been crowned in heaven, his whole being was transformed and transfigured. Now, what he had once done to a chosen few on earth, could be done to and for everyone, because now Christ the King is the Lord of History.
When we prepare for Christmas then, we are not just preparing to celebrate the first coming of Christ in history, but his continual coming every day of our lives. Christmas and other similar feasts in the Church are not just celebrated to remind us of what once happened long ago in the past, but what is happening now in the present, and every day of our lives. The best way to prepare for Christmas then, is by doing all we can now, to open ourselves to receive the ongoing outpouring of God’s glorious loving that was poured out of Christ the King on the first Pentecost day, and on every subsequent day to the end of time. The Hebrew word used for this act of turning and opening oneself to receive God’s love is repenting, and the place where this repenting is learned, is called prayer. That is why, when Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette she told everyone to repent and pray. She was telling us how to receive into our hearts, the love of God who gave birth to Jesus within her, so that we too can do the same, and then like her give him to the world that is lost without him.
First Published in The Catholic Universe for the second week in Advent.