INTRO We have explored in these talks the Mary we find in our Scriptures, in particular in the Gospels. Throughout, she serves the manifestation of Jesus her Son, the Son of God, Son of Man and draws us not to herself (she remains in the background of the Gospel story as the faithful ‘handmaid of the Lord’), but to her son. As such she is the model of discipleship, the model of authentic holiness for the Church that is called to be ‘one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic’. Mary is the supreme example of the holiness of the Church, even as there are many examples of where the Church is far less than holy! As such she calls us constantly and accompanies us on our Pilgrim Journey into the Holiness of God, made flesh in Jesus and reflected by Mary. We reflected on the first definition of doctrine about Mary by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD – Mary ‘Theotokos’ – the ‘God-bearer’, the ‘Mother of God’ and how this title serves and anchors our core Christian belief in the the humanity and divinity of Christ, the pre-existent eternal Word of God made flesh in human history who comes ‘to share our humanity so that we might share His divinity’ (a prayer uttered by the priest during the Offertory of the Mass). Now we come to explore the two other doctrinal declarations concerning Mary in order (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary) to reflect what they might mean for the life of the disciple of Christ – us!

[1] ‘The Spirit leads us into all Truth!’ (John 16: 13). Let us remind ourselves that the Truth revealed in Christ, Who is the fulness of Gd’s self-revelation to the world, is a dynamic unfolding Truth whose depths are inexhaustible. As the Church from its beginning struggles with new challenges in every age, as it journeys its Pilgrim Way through human history and in the real world where God has planted us, the Holy Spirit guides the Church to understand more fully that  fulness of Truth in Christ. We call this ‘development of doctrine’. The Church cannot ‘invent’ new doctrines, but defines what is the faith the People of God, as we walk the Way of Christ, proclaim the Truth of Christ and live the Life of Christ in an ever changing world: this is what we mean by ‘Tradition’. It is the living stream of the Church’s Pilgrim Journey. This is  not ‘traditionalism’ which sadly has become too common in the Church today with people’s fear of the adventure of the Spirit guiding us into the future! We see a clinging to old forms and expressions of liturgy, piety, paternalism and authoritarianism that simply alienate us from the real contemporary world, and lock us into a religious ‘bubble’ that has nothing to do with proclaiming the radical Gospel of Love’s Revolution to our contemporary world. It is a loss of faith in the Holy Spirit’s guidance into the future and empowering us for Mission in ever new ways in faithfulness to the Gospel that is always Good NEWS!

[2] So the emergence of the definitions of Mary as Immaculately Conceived and Assumed into Heaven are not new doctrines, but definitions of the Faith of the People of God down through the centuries. We are to explore what these defined beliefs might mean for us in today’s world and today’s Mission of Evangelisation. Mary is in a sense a ‘two way mirror’: by that I mean that she reflects who Jesus is and she reflects who we are both in our God given humanity and in our Spirit-led discipleship.  We can see this in the many Feasts of Mary – her conception reflecting the Annunciation; her birth reflecting the birth of Christ; her Presentation in the Temple, reflecting His; her ‘Sorrows’ a sharing in His Cross, her Assumption a participating in Christ’s Resurrection. In Mary we discover something of Christ’s sharing our Humanity;  and in her we see something of what it means to let the Grace of God work in our lives; and in her we see what is to be the Community of Disciples we call the Church.

[3] Let us turn to the Immaculate Conception of Mary the Mother of the Lord. Defined in 1854 by Pope Pius IX  the definition states that Mary from the first moment of of her existence, conceived in the womb of her mother (traditionally names ‘Anne’) was without sin, and remained so throughout her life.  Further and most importantly, this sinlessness was because of the redeeming work of Christ (not her own merits), the sheer gift of grace, and was in function of her vocation to be the mother of the sinless One, Jesus, the Divine Word made Flesh in her womb. Her sinlessness was the servant of the conception and growth and development of Jesus as the sinless and perfect human being. The language of the Proclamation of the Doctrine speaks of her ‘privilege’.  I confess to finding such language of privilege difficult as Jesus Life and Mary’s were not privileged – they struggled with poverty, rejection and misunderstanding. And as Peter says, ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10: 34). The divine work of Grace is precisely creating radical equality of all people, an equality that extends even to be one with Christ – ‘heirs of the Father and coheirs with Christ’ as Paul says (Romans 8: 17). The centuries old belief in the sinlessness of Mary is linked Scripturally with the experience of being chosen and blessed, called from the womb (Jeremiah 1: 5) that is the experience of each disciple – you and me. Paul again is very clear as he quotes the early Christian hymn in Ephesians 1: 3-14 – Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless and to live through love in His presence…’ Our belief in the sinlessness of Mary is the belief that we are created ‘very good’ (Genesis 1) – Mary is God’s affirmation that we are characterised, defined not by sin but by divine holiness. Our Truth, our deepest and most real self, is our goodness, not our sinfulness. Thankfully there is at this time a developing theology of ‘Original Blessing’ and at the same time a radical rethinking of what we mean by ‘Original Sin’. Just as the biblical stories of Creation make no sense with our modern scientific world view, so also with St Augustine’s development of Paul’s concept of all humanity sinning in Adam –  we need to rethink the concept of ‘Original Sin’ and how it relates to ‘the sin of the world’ and ‘structural sin’. This will also lead us to re-examine some aspects of our theology of Baptism. 

[4] The Immaculate Conception is therefore a  Healing doctrine. So many people are tragically trapped in self-negativity, even self-hatred and that in turn not only causes mental ill-health but also limits their ‘freedom for love’ (Eric Fromm). The great command of the ‘Torah’ (the Jewish Law), ratified by Jesus, is a threefold love – to love God with everything we are, to love our neighbour with everything we are, to love ourselves in everything we are – as God loves us. Mary’s Immaculate Conception is God’s affirmation of the profound goodness of each one of us. My hope and prayer is that with Mary’s intercession, we can find healing for our lack of acceptance of and love for ourselves and  so liberate love which we can give joyfully to the world around us.

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