Saturday, December 8, 2012

Holy and Free

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, 2012

An anniversary passed by with rather little fanfare this past weekend in diocese across the United States and English speaking Catholic world.  The one year anniversary of using the new translation for Mass.  I was thinking about this last weekend as I prayed the Opening Prayer for the first Sunday of Advent, which was the first prayer of the new translation – and I was remembering how awkward it sounded to me last year as I looked it over in preparation for that weekend.

After having made it through a year praying with the new translation, which is painstakingly and sometimes painfully faithful to the original Latin texts of the Missal, I think we can nonetheless look back on many prayers that have been rendered in an incredibly beautiful and profound way, even if they have sounded a bit strange and foreign to the ear. I think I’ve said graciously more in this past year than I did in all of the previous years of my life combined.  We’ve all had to adjust to some new vocabulary.

The prayers and texts for this feast, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, are no exception in that the vocabulary can be a bit jarring to the modern ear.  The prayers today are filled with rarely heard words and terms: Immaculate, Virgin, prevenient grace, stain of sin, fullness of grace, beautiful bride without spot or wrinkle, most pure virgin, advocate of grace, model of holiness.
Chances are these are not words that would have shown up with great frequency in the New York Times this week.  But it is not only the words, is it?  The very meaning of these words, the perspective of these words, I think we would have to admit is foreign.

To speak positively of being someone being full of grace, immaculate, without spot or wrinkle, of being a virgin most pure in our day and age is truly counter cultural, isn’t it?  More than most other Catholic teachings, these beliefs that we profess about Mary as we celebrate her Immaculate Conception today reveal that increasingly our culture and our Church not only don’t speak the same way, but we do not see the world the same way.

And one of the principle areas where this divergence is becoming apparent is in relation to how we see freedom and fulfillment in relation to holiness and sin.  So often today, one hears sentiments expressed that seem to imply that virtue and holiness is a sign of immaturity and that a certain amount of sin is actually healthy and a positive sign of being an adult.  There is actually a suspicion of anyone who looks too perfect, as if they must be hiding something or repressed because they were not allowed to experience life.

In a homily on the feast of the immaculate conception, our Holy Father expressed the problem so well when he said “Precisely on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one's own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.”

“In a word,” the Pope said, “we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.”

How spot on the pope is about this – we can see signs of this mentality everywhere around us.  This glorification of having ‘experienced life’ or ‘lived it up,’ while covering over the horrendous casualties that have been inflicted along the way.

And that is why this feast, and why Mary, is such a challenge to our culture.  She models for us an entirely different image of what it means to become fully human and to be free.  She shows us that freedom comes not from being able to disobey God, but from being able to follow him.  She shows us that we are most ourselves not when we give in to our lesser desires, but when we strive for the greater.  She shows us that living in a  purity of heart, mind and body is to live without restriction, without anxiety, without fear.  That the person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, that, as the pope says later in his homily “the person who puts herself in God's hands does not distance themselves from others, withdrawing into her private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that her heart truly awakens and she becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person.  The closer a person is to God, the closer she is to people.”

And so we need this feast more than ever.  Our country, our culture needs to hear words like Immaculate, Virgin most pure.  But not just the words.  We desperately in our day need to be reminded that sin does not make us more human, but less.  That to be pure and virtuous is to be free from slavery and open to those around us, capable of loving them.

So today may the words of this feast not just ring strangely in our ears, but may they begin to enter and transform our hearts, patterning them after the heart of Mary, who made no tolerance for sin but was rooted in her desire to be holy – to be always and as completely as possible united with her Son.

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