A Sermon for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception

by Fr. Jonathan Baker

8 December 2009
Pusey House, Oxford

Twenty years ago, in 1989, the Church of England published a report which now sits gathering dust – if not actually in the dust-bin – with all the other Church of England reports. It was called Making Women Visible. Well, here at Pusey House, we’ve done it, haven’t we? There she is: a woman – the woman – made visible. Mary of Nazareth; Mary theotokos, Mother of God; Mary Mother of the Church; Mary Most Holy; Mary whom today we honour as the Immaculate Conception. This fine Image – yes, it is there somewhere beneath the cope – this fine image was bequeathed to us by a very fine priest, the late, lamented and much loved Father Michael Melrose, Rector and Vicar – an important double-barrelled attribution – of S Giles-in-Reading until his untimely death in the early summer of this year. She stood in his dining room, bestowing her maternal benediction on many a luncheon or supper created by Fr Michael with the aid of one of his – what, 500 cookery books?; the food always delicious yet wholesome, a sort of peasant cuisine, redolent of the villages of Burgundy or the hill towns of Umbria. We miss him very much; and tonight we pray for the repose of his soul, as we appreciate and admire his benefaction.

Making Women Visible. Of course, they would say that Mary doesn’t count: they being the puritans and the killjoys, the shock troops of political correctness and dull conformity to the desperate clich├ęs of the age. How, they say, can Mary be a representative of womankind, a woman for women and with women, when she is so unlike all other women: a virgin and a mother, for starters: oh, and sinless, sinless. What is the good of Mary for other women, they say, when she is sinless.

When Christians – or post-Christians - complain about Mary’s sinlessness making her a useless role model for women, a hopeless case for Making Women Visible, they do of course rather miss the point: yes, you’ve got it: that Jesus, too was, and is, sinless: one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, but without sinning, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. This does not, we hope, make Our Lord a hopeless role model for men, or indeed for women. And there is a remarkable consensus among Christians, Eastern, Western, Catholic, Protestant, about Mary’s sinlessness. ‘Does the Most Pure, the All-Immaculate One have any kind of personal sin? Is it possible even for a moment to conceive this dreadful abuse?’ That is the first line of The Burning Bush, a book sub-titled On the Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God, by the Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov, first published in 1927 and only recently translated into English. Or then we might think of Hugh Latimer, one of the most outspoken of the reformers, who said, when asked about Mary, ‘I go not about to make Mary a sinner, but Christ her Saviour.’ In Cranmer’s Christmas collect and Christmas preface, Our Lady is referred to as a ‘pure Virgin:’ that is, she is free from sin.

Mary is without sin. How that is so – the question we might want to think about on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – is a question we can return to in a moment. But that it is so is uncontested by most Christians across the ages: and, to repeat, is proclaimed in the most extravagant and exuberant language by Christians of the East, who do not subscribe to the precise explanation of the how defined by Pope Pius IX. (The Orthodox always get away with it, don’t they.)

So what about this business of the impossible remoteness of Mary, her inaccessibility to all of us, who are undoubtedly sinners, her unsuitability in the cause of making women visible? Let us be absolutely clear. Mary, that northern lassie from among the sticks of Galilee, in the memorable phrase of the late Canon John Fenton, is absolutely, completely, wholly, and only human: the highest of the redeemed, but a creature nonetheless: nothing added, nothing taken away. And she is a woman, nothing added, nothing taken away. There’s a book – and I confess I haven’t read it – called Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, by two women theologians. It was first published in Portuguese. You might worry that it’s going to be one of the killjoy things which I mentioned earlier on. But I don’t think it is. There’s just a little bit of it quoted in one of those collections of readings for saints’ days, set for today, 8th December, and it goes like this:

The full identity of the people, given by God in creation and election, and lost in the people’s infidelity and exile, is restored by God in a ‘new creation,’ as it were with the advent of new heavens and a new earth. In Mary, this new creation actually takes place. She is the figure of the re-created people, filled and overflowing with the glory and power of the LORD, pregnant with the promised Messiah who has now been sent. The time in which God’s presence and holiness were restricted to the stone temple in Jerusalem is drawing to a close. Now, in the fullness of time, human flesh is God’s temple. It is in the flesh of the woman Mary, full of grace, pregnant with the man Jesus, that the fullness of divine holiness is found in the world…Today’s feast of the conception of Mary rehabilitates woman’s bodiliness, which in Genesis is denounced as the cause of original sin, laying on a woman a blemish and a burden that were difficult to bear. It is this body, animated by the divine Spirit that is proclaimed blessed. It in God works the fullness of God’s wonders. It is in the flesh and the person of a woman that humankind can see its call and its destiny brought to a happy end.

Well, what can we say? Surely our Portuguese theologians have got it right – and if they’re right, then, wow, how about that for making women visible? It is in the flesh and the person of a woman that humankind can see its call and its destiny brought to a happy end.

But they haven’t tackled that awkward business of sinlessness, have they? What do we do about this Mary who is one with us – fully and (unlike her divine Son) merely human – and yet, in her virgin purity, quite unlike us?

Here, we need to reflect on the nature of sin. I hope you might go home this evening thinking, ‘I never knew what sin was until I came to Pusey House.’ We need to grasp that sin makes us less, not more, fully human; less, not more, fully ourselves; less, not more, like the people God intends us to be. I say that we need to grasp this, but really we know it well, as some simple examples will make clear. We know that we are less, not more, ourselves, when we feel ill and tired and useless because we have eaten and drunk far too much the night before and slept too little. We know that we are less, not more, ourselves, when we have behaved in a way which was vicious, or hurtful, or which took pleasure in the faults of others. We know that we are more, not less, ourselves, when we have given in to sloth or anger, lust or envy – any of those sins which the Church traditionally calls ‘deadly,’ precisely because they deaden us, they make us less alive, and therefore less fully human. Perhaps my examples seem ludicrously trivial when we are setting them against the all-holy Mother of God by comparison. But you see the point. Sin wounds our humanity; conversely, to be sinless makes Mary not inhuman, but perfectly human; human through and through, human to the core, human – and here is the point of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – human from the very first moment of existence; and not just existence in time and space, but, even more radically, existence in the mind of God: existence in the providence and purposes of the One who, as St Paul writes, ‘chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.’

Which brings me back to the how of Mary’s sinlessness. Eastern Christians, remember, have no doubts whatsoever that Mary is sinless; and, to put it very crudely, they would say that the Immaculateness and Sinlessness of Mary are the result of her personal relationship to sin and her personal overcoming of it. The Western tradition emphasises, by contrast, the condition of Mary’s sinlessness: that it is the direct result of the gift of God in preserving her from the very moment of her conception from any taint of sin, thus enabling her to be, from that first moment, radically, fully and freely human. Easterners might accuse Westerners of doing down the goodness of human nature as created by God by insisting that freedom from sin (and the immortality which flows from it) can only be the achieved by the supernatural gift of grace, rather than being proper to humanity’s natural condition; and Westerners might counter by saying that the Eastern tradition fails to give proper weight to the all pervasiveness of sin and the reality of the fall. It would be a pleasure to hear – say – Father Aidan Nichols and Metropolitan Kallistos arguing these points all night. You will be relieved to hear that I do intend now to try and resolve these intriguing cruces (cruxes?) in theological anthropology and ontology. What I will do is remind you of the Papal teaching which clarifies the Western tradition: that it is by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race that Mary is preserved, from the first moment of her conception, from every stain of sin. The Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Lady is a doctrine grounded in, and meaningless without, the prior doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement. Mariology, as ever, is dependent on, and wholly related to, Christology; crudely, today as every day, Mary points us to Jesus, the Mother holds out to us her Son: on this feast, and via this doctrine, pointing us to the truth that all redemption, all grace – whether prevenient or restorative – is of Christ. In the words of that old Oxford man, Duns Scotus, ‘if Christ merited grace and glory for many souls, and Christ is the mediator of all of these, why could not someone be in debt to Him for her innocence?’

Yes, Oxford has quite a share in the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. So does Winchester, where the feast appears in a liturgical calendar of the early eleventh century; so do Worcester, Exeter, Canterbury and the surrounding localities, where the feast was also kept. So does England generally, where the devotion to the Our Lady’s Conception lived on in the hearts and minds of the Saxon faithful, long after the feast had been abolished, as a bit of old English stubborn separatism, by the Norman invaders. Let us then rejoice tonight in this little bit of Anglican patrimony. Let’s make this woman visible; Our Blessed Lady, fully human, fully a woman, the New Eve, the sinless, Immaculate Mother of our Saviour and Mother of us all. Amen.

(Originally posted on the website of Pusey House.)


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