The Immaculate Misconception? All Life Has a Holy Promise
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
December 8th is a special day in the Western religious calendar for the Roman, Greek, and Episcopal churches. It is feast or the day of The Immaculate Conception.
If you were brought up a Roman Catholic or if you knew someone who was or is, chances you have heard of this day as being a unique, if not a curious part of the Advent season.
It is still quite a remarkable claim, and it remains one of the lesser understood but influential doctrines of faith that still exists today. For example, some treat Mary as the Queen of Heaven, (The Angelus and Hail Holy Queen, etc.) while others regard her as the prototype for all women and especially the ideals of motherhood. Others within Christianity simply and respectfully acknowledge her as the young mother who, at first doubted her selection, then accepted her special connection to God and Jesus and her central role in the essential theme of the season: The Christ birth event. I will try to explain this belief, unpack its meaning, test its accuracy from a religiously inclusive perspective, and then present some startling, and dissenting conclusions.
The recognition of Mary’s special status within Christianity evolved gradually. It was not until her nature and being was declared unique that the larger impact was to affect our society. The proclamation of a binding, official doctrine for The Immaculate Conception became Roman church law in the year 1854, when Pope Pius IX issued a papal Bull… ((Historically, popes have always been known for their bull -I could not resist this pun!)
A Bull is an edict that carries with it the necessity of universal agreement or acceptance. It becomes a foundational belief, an indisputable article of faith. This edict declared that “The Blessed Virgin Mary, was conceived in a particular moment of grace, and preserved immune from every stain of original guilt [or original sin].” I contend that such a pious and unnatural statement served to reinforce prevailing Victorian attitudes and contradictions towards women, and it was a strong contributor to the negative Freudian view of women in society. This is the famous Mary vs. Eve and the Whore/Madonna beliefs…
It was, in my estimation, one of the religious actions that contributed to the wholesale devaluing and even the negation of women long associated with the Roman church…Unfortunately, some of these effects are still with us and acutely undermine women’s equality and freedom at quite a social price: from covertly accepting or tolerating violence against women, the woman’s duty to be passive, etc., to being a contributing block or obstacle to necessary options for birth control and the crisis of overpopulation, to widespread negation of reproductive choice, the need for quality lifelong sex education, and discouraging the funding of effective treatment that combats sexually transmitted diseases.
Contrary to popular beliefs, and a subject of much confusion for traditional Roman Catholics is that the doctrinal statement about The Immaculate Conception states that it was NOT Jesus who had an untainted, pure birth or who was born without sin, but that it was Mary HERSELF who was conceived and born without any stain of sexual sin- that original cursing, or the degrading, normal condition and circumstances of having a human birth. The doctrine further states that during her gestation in her mother’s womb, and before her birth, Mary miraculously received all the powers of baptism that cleanses away original sin, so that she alone could be born pure- different from all other women. This teaching has, as its corollary, that she HAD to be a pure vessel, an unblemished womb, so that she might then be selected and privileged enough to divinely conceive Jesus. (Theotokas)
Now, lets start here to examine these teachings. In the spirit of healthy dissent, and based on accepted scholarship, we can understand the designation of Mary as a virgin in another way. I can conclude that the Greek translation of the word, virgin, can also mean a young girl, not just a pure or undefiled person. (The mistranslation of Isaiah 7) In that way, the idea of a Messiah being born conventionally or normally could be an acceptable religious conviction or in accord with the non-creedal Christian beliefs.
As I understand it, the rationale behind wanting Mary to be immaculate comes from the ancient world notion that a God cannot be conventionally human; while they can and often do look human, that was only their outward appearance! The rival deities in ancient world or during Greek and Roman times- principally the Persian Sun God, named Mithras, was believed to have an immaculate birth- making him above mere humanity.
Looking Eastward, it was widely believed that Buddha, and the Hindu deity, Vishnu, had similar remarkably unique or supernatural origins. Therefore, to the Early Church Fathers who created orthodoxy and creedal beliefs for Christians to follow, they decreed or determined that it would be best to go along with this precedence for Jesus. They decided to write and to editorialize the Scriptures to include a virgin who gave birth miraculously to a Christ-child. In that way, they contended that their God was just as good as any of the other gods in Persia, Israel, or India! So, the idea and the ideal of a virgin and those birth legends about Mary’s sinlessness were created and eventually through uncritical repetition, became declared authoritative beliefs. When looked at it historically, I can empathize with that outlook, and can understand how it evolved, even if I strenuously disagree.
My preference for a religious ideal, be it of a man or a woman, a mother or a child, has to directly inspire and console me and address my human condition. He or she has to be someone I can relate to directly and daily: someone who struggles, changes, grows, and succeeds at gaining sufficient awareness to be able to bless, to help heal, and to lead me to my full humanness by modeling a greater wisdom, standing up for a larger sense of justice and an expanded sense of love. If I were to accept a singular, particular perfect woman giving birth to a unique god-man, I could not hope to be like them. I would always lose in comparison; always feeling inadequate, guilty or because I could not measure up, be a failure.
That does not inspire faith for me… It does serve effectively as an agent of thought, worship and practice that perpetuates negative self image, sin and guilt! It would create a clear gap between the human and the divine, making only God as Jesus good, and Mary as the only perfect image of holy womanhood. This conclusion or image for what is good or divine can create or serve the attitude that condemns women and men for being normal- that is, having or being sexual and spiritual in the fullest meaning- it concludes in the doctrine of the necessity for cleansing Baptism, that every child born is somehow sinful.
Instead of perpetuating these fearful preoccupation’s with sex, sin, and guilt, religious liberals try to teach about how to best cultivate a healthy and responsible sexual identity, true self esteem, and how we can help each other to become more enlightened, compassionate, and free.
Now, I would like to outline some alternative possibilities concerning Mary and Jesus that I assure you that I did not learn in any seminary. These are new, intriguing and challenging theories that come from Biblical criticism and Gnostic wisdom writings. What they state might startle you. They definitely bring out new dimensions of the Christmas story than what is ordinarily accepted and traditionally condoned.
Depending on how we are willing to look at the birth stories in the two Gospels, we can come to the conclusion that Mary was either especially blessed or that she was possibly promiscuous! While we are all familiar with the former rendition, most of us have not heard about the other scandalous possibility. This other explanation states that Mary was involved with another man, and that Jesus was illegitimate! Even though this is a minority opinion among radical scholars who contend that the original manuscripts infer such a fiasco, they cannot be disproven.
So we can ask: Which approach is more believable, anyway? The more miraculous Gospel accounts have to be accepted with a definite, unflagging certainty. From a less miracle based perspective, an outlook where one affirms that it is Jesus’ life and how he treated others that is far more important than either his birth or his death, it adds an intriguing, and for me, a more inspiring bit of scholarship to seriously consider.
First, let’s consider that Jesus had a normal, physical, human father; supposedly the Roman centurion named Panthera. ( Stephen Mitchell) That would make him a normal human being who later became a divinely inspired example of enlightened living.
Because I accept that there is an ongoing need to develop wisdom, gain insight, and cultivate one’s spiritual and ethical maturity all along and through one’s life, for Jesus to start out human gives me a greater respect for him, and gives me more hope that if I follow his example, I can become more balanced, whole, a truly healing, just, and helpful person. That’s my kind of Jesus; a regular guy who learned his metaphysical and ethical lessons so well, that he became the greatest Western example of embodied truth, wisdom, and love. He deserved the Biblical description that “he spoke with as one who had authority, [authenticity], not like the scribes and Pharisees.”
Now let’s go a little deeper. What about being illegitimate? How could that be considered a valuable way to look at Mary and Jesus? In the culture of the Middle East, and we can probably say, up until the last twenty five years in Western society, to be born out of wedlock or to a single mother, was considered a social liability and even a moral disgrace. In Biblical times, remember, it was not only grounds for divorce, but like adultery for women, it too could carry a death penalty!
Mary, if the supposition holds, was a single mother who discredited her family, and luckily latched on to a kindly older man, Joseph, who would act as a guardian for her and her illegitimate son. She would have to live with the severe embarrassment, but only in her small town and among her immediate family. She was relived to learn that she had to go far away to live in Nazareth, Joseph’s hometown where none of the disgraceful details would be easily known.
Another interesting note: In Matthew’s Gospel we are given the genealogy of Jesus. There only four women appear. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathesheba or in accord with Biblical facts, there was Tamar, who was the mother of her brother’s children; Rahab, the heroic harlot; Ruth, the opportunistic seductress; and Bathesheba the easily or all too willing unfaithful wife. … Do you see any pattern there?? Any reference point for Mary? And What of Jesus in this lineage? The Bible in Luke calls him, “Son of Mary”, which scholars conclude was a derogatory term… not the child of his father which would confer legitimate status; in other words, he was a bastard child, not the son of a Jewish man!
How could we relate to an illegitimate Jesus? How did he relate to his mother? What about the purpose of his mission? While these radical scholars are given to a more modern psychological interpretation, they can make a case by pointing to these facts: first, his rejection or at least his awkwardness in dealing with his mother- remember the Gospel account in Mark or Matthew where his apostles tell Jesus that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside? Do you recall what his response is? “Who is my mother, and who is my brother or my sister? Those who do the will of God are my mother, my brother or my sister.”
A second supportive example comes from the well accepted fact that the writers of the Gospel took great pains to editorialize- to find Old Testament references to the Messiah and fit them to Jesus’ coming. They interpreted them as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy. Just like taking a reading from first Isaiah for the virgin birth, they also appropriated third Isaiah’s descriptions of the suffering servant. And what are we to make of the powerful words Mary declares in the birth story according to Luke? Are those the words of a meek and spineless woman? (The Magnificat for many reasons!)
No, not by any means! Her words reveal a gratitude for being chosen And the part most Christians seem to ignore, a deep longing for a God whose acts in society will reward humility and reform the world and create greater social justice. What can we deduce from such statements?
First, the Isaiah statement about the suffering servant foretells a man who is harmless, infinitely caring, humble, and of no status in the world. His power is one of moral truth, of righteousness, but it is not worldly, for it is neither regal nor economic. In the phrase, “he is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” with suffering and humiliation. Here we could be receiving a substatantiation for a portrait of a man who could have grown up as a social outcast, a despised or at least a menial person who was well acquainted with misery, social prejudice, and economic, political, and religious power plays.
All one has to do, when reading Jesus’ or Mary’s words, is consider the basis for the worldwide liberation theology movement- a way of understanding Christianity which predicates its understanding of Jesus, Mary and God as having a preference for the poor… and to remember that more than half of all Jesus’s parables center on prohibitions towards riches, landowners, Pharisees, and the corruption’s of upper class power. To my estimation, it not such a far stretch to consider a Messiah – which means someone who comes to save, teach, heal and transform the world- who would look harshly on cultural biases, class-based oppression, and prefer that he and his followers identify with their spiritual birthright as the children of God: Blessed are the poor, the pure in heart, those who mourn, those seeking peace, and those who are reviled and persecuted for continuing his mission, or trying to live by following in his communitiarian and egalitarian example.
How do I welcome this possible, admittedly unconventional way of looking at Jesus? With a strange, warm, empathy and deep feelings of respect. I ask myself: Who deserves more of our admiration and allegiance? A God born as a man with perfect sinless understanding to a pure, undefiled woman? Or a a mortal who through his own devotion and dedication, through sweat and struggle, pain and suffering became someone who the world can gain inspiration and solace from? Because he was acquainted with disgrace and grief, he knew and felt the struggle each of us has to face in becoming a child of God in our own minds and hearts, in every aspect of our daily lives.
Well, that is a lot to chew on today, and I will stop with this last thought … When Jesus asked the apostles. ” Who do you think I am?” The answers he received ranged from you are a reincarnation of the old prophets, to the declaration that he was the Christ, the anointed son of the living God. Maybe, after today’s considerations, we could answer it differently…
If we were gathered at that place and time, if we were to gather in this place and time… Maybe our answer would be something like this:
“You, Jesus, are the poor, the outcast, the suffering hope for all the wounds of our humanity. We follow you because we believe in your promises, your healing reality among us. Because of you, and the way you taught and lived, we can now live with hope.”
So BE IT. AMEN
“The Magnificat” from The Gospel of Luke 1:39-55
And then she asked, why is this happening to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb jumped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
And Mary said,” My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
His mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant, Israel, in remembrance of his mercy according to the promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his decendants forever.