The Meaning of the Immaculate Conception
Of course I can’t remember being conceived nor growing into a baby in my mother’s womb. Nor for that matter do I remember being baptised a week later. I was totally dependent on my mother for everything, not just in those first weeks of my life, but for many months to come. I, not only depended on my mother, for my physical growth and development, but for my spiritual development too. I received my first experience of God’s love from her love of me. Exactly the same happened to Jesus. St Paul said that he was ‘like us in every way but sin’, that’s how God had planned things from the beginning. That’s why at the very moment that he decided that his Son would be made flesh, that decision included having a human mother. As Blessed John Duns Scouts put it: – ‘if God willed the end he must have willed the means’. If he chose to enter into this world as a human being he must have a human mother, for without a human mother he could not be a true human being, the incarnation simply could not happen.
The hermit, Sister Wendy Beckett, said that she had a profound and vivid experience of God, which determined the rest of her life, when she was only four years of age. Before that her experience of God came primarily through her mother. She was unusual, because it usually takes much longer before an inner spiritual capacity develops sufficiently to enable a person to have a direct and independent experience of the love of God. In my case it took years. I have no doubt that Jesus had such an experience at an even earlier age than Sister Wendy, but nor do I doubt that before that he was dependent on his mother for the experience of God’s love. That’s why from the very beginning, Blessed John Duns Scotus insisted there must be no barrier in her that could possibly prevent the love of God from being transmitted through her to her son, Jesus. That’s why he was so emphatic in demanding that she must therefore have been immaculately conceived, so that neither nature nor nurture would prevent God’s love ensuring that her son would be born and grow up as a perfect human being, and the perfect person to draw another human being into the perfect communion that he had with his Father.
The centre of every loving family
The Jewish religion is now, as it has always been, centred on the home, and the home was centred on the mother. Even when, thanks to his mother’s love, Jesus developed the spiritual capacity to have direct and personal experiences of his Father’s love, the way in which that capacity would be developed needed to be learnt, and that was the responsibility of his mother. That’s why she had to be a perfect mother. She would have been the one to teach him how to pray according to the Jewish practice when he got up in the morning, when he went to bed at night, and how to prayer at meal times and at other times too. However, and above all else, she would have taken him to the synagogue three times a day like all devote Jews to recite the ‘Shema’ and other prayers. He would learn them off by heart, so that once he had become apprenticed to his foster father, and therefore unable to go to the synagogue three time a day, he could stop work for long enough to pray wherever he happened to be, whether it was while working at home or later in some other place, where he was at work as a journey-man carpenter. His later habit of going into solitude alone for prolonged periods of time would have been practised many times over whilst he was growing up. It would undoubtedly have been here, over many years that he would have pondered over the religious history of his people, learnt from his foster father, and the very many religious exercises practised at home, in the synagogue, and in the temple. He would have gradually reflected on the received wisdom and the religious practices of his forebears, discarding what had become obsolete and unnecessary under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It would have been here too that he would have pondered over the teachings of the law and the prophets. Finally it would have been here that he would have purified and perfected them into a new synthesis, which would be embodied into what he called the Kingdom of God.
This new synthesis can be seen, as it was practised, by the early Christians in the first centuries after Jesus rose from the dead. With Jesus within them, the first Christians were able to take part in the new worship of his Father that he had promised to the Samaritan woman. This new worship ‘in spirit and in truth’ simply consisted in loving God, which was the first of the two new commandments that Jesus had taught, which summed up and perfected all the old ones. It was true worship, because it involved offering oneself to God, with a ‘pure and a humble heart’ through all and everything one did each day. It was a spiritual offering too, because it was offered in with and through the same Spirit, who enabled Jesus to love his Father, and enabled his Father to love him. This new form of worship that was celebrated in Liturgy each Sunday was practised in reality every day of their lives, in with and through Jesus, to whom each Christian was wed, when they were baptised.
The perfect human being
Those early Christians who had not met Jesus personally would have heard about him time and time again from those who had. And the man they would have heard about was the most perfect, balanced, human being ever to have walked on this earth. If God was called both Father and Mother, and if in him you find the perfection of masculine and feminine love, then you find the same in his son, Jesus. Re-read the Gospels as they were read, re-read and committed to memory by the early Christians and you will discover something remarkable. You will see the perfection of all the virtues as lived by a man, who was the perfect embodiment of strong virile virtue, but always balanced by the perfection of feminine feelings that you find exemplified over and over again in the care and compassion that he showed in his dealings with others. When Jesus rose from the dead he did not cease being the perfect human being who commanded the love of all his followers, far from it. When he was filled with the fullness of his Father’s love, all the other human virtues were brought to even greater perfection, making him not less of a man, but an even more perfect man than he was before the Resurrection. This is not just the man who once lived in the past, but the man who is still alive now, the man who is alive and loving today and drawing us into his love. Those who respond are taken up into him now without delay, onward and upward into the love that we were created for from the beginning, into a mystical marriage that will be brought to completion in heaven. The Fathers of the Church continually likened the love between Jesus and those who loved him as nuptial, because no other analogy could better describe the new personal relationship with him that enabled them to enter into the Father through him. In order to remind them of this close relationship with Jesus, through whom they daily loved the Father, they were taught prayers similar to those that Mary had taught Jesus. These daily personal prayers, together with the communal worship that they celebrated each Sunday, comprised the essence of early Christian spirituality. It was a Christianity without the frills and none the worse for it, especially as, at its centre, was a God-given spirituality, as yet unspoilt by the arrogance of man.
A Catholic Faith
The utter simplicity of this spirituality that governed and guided the first Christians meant that the faith that they lived was a Catholic faith. By that I don’t mean that it had spread over the whole world, because it hadn’t, but because it was open to and intelligible to all, from the most highly sophisticated philosopher to the lowliest menial slave. Everyone understood the meaning of love, and once they came to believe in the Risen Christ, the idea of loving him in a mystical marriage not only made sense, but was the only sensible way of relating to someone, who had given everything for the eternal happiness of those who believed in him. This mystical marriage may well have been consummated sacramentally each Sunday, but it was practised in every, thought word and deed that the Christian performed at home, where charity begins, and in the world where charity is put into practice. If it wasn’t, then the weekly liturgy would become be no more than an empty act of hypocrisy offering nothing to God, and therefore incapable of receiving from him the grace to continue travelling into him ever more fully with each passing day.
The Only Sign of a True Christian
In subsequent centuries Christians would not stand out from others by the way that they put the first commandment into practice in private, any more than by the way they prayed in public, because the inner mystical life on which it depends cannot be seen. However what can be seen, and therefore what can alone guarantee the authenticity of both, is the love that they have for one another. That’s why Jesus said at the Last Supper, that the mark, or the sign by which you will know my disciples is by the love that they have for one another. St John put it this way, – ‘anyone who says that he loves God, but hates his brother, is a liar’. St Jerome tells the story of St John at Ephesus in extreme old age. He used to be carried into the place of worship on a stretcher by his disciples and was unable to say anything except, “Little children, love one another.” At last, wearied that he always spoke the same words, they asked: “Master, why do you always say this?” “Because,” he replied, “It is the Lord’s command, and if this alone is done, it is enough.” It is enough, and was enough, because it was the quality of the love that Christians had for one another and for others too, even for their enemies, even for those who tortured and put them to death, that inspired pagans in their thousands to embrace a religion of love the like of which the world had never seen before. In short, if all the prayers that are said and all the wonderful liturgies that are performed do not result in this, then they are a waste of time. No, they are worse than that, because they are a scandal to others. They are a scandal to others because they positively turn people away from Christ and all he has done and is still doing for the world.
This world can still be won over by the same quality of love that transformed the old Roman world into a new Christian world, but it must be the real thing. It will do no good trying to ‘love- bomb’ the world with simulated smiles and pseudo sincerity, they simply won’t buy it. It is no good trying to ‘con’ our contemporaries with the fake, the phony, or with fool’s gold, they have seen it all before. The only way that they will be convinced is by people, who have themselves been convinced by the love that has already changed them, by living the Christian life as lived by Christ himself, and by those who followed his example in the early Church. If this is what is meant by so many who claim to be traditionalists today, then the church will be in good hands. But be clear about this, it will be, as Jesus insisted, by their fruit that you will know them, and the fruit is the love that they have for one another. If that is not apparent in all that they do, in all they say, and in all that they blog, then they are imposters, wolves amongst sheep. Only love unifies, self-love, self-righteousness, and the bile and the bitterness that it creates, only scatters. There are two new commandments, but it is only when the observance of the second can be seen, as it is being put into practice, that one can guarantee that the first commandment is being observed and observed daily.