Before I begin our reflection this morning, I would like to pause for a bit of theology. Last year on this date, I heard from a Roman Catholic pulpit that Mary was not born free of sin, but that the Immaculate Conception refers to Jesus' conception and not to Mary's. And here the priest paused to jest about the absurdity of believing Mary's conception to be immaculate. No, he went on, she's just a human like you and me. Her sinlessness, he said, was really just a momentary parting of clouds that lasted long enough for the Holy Spirit to perform an immaculate conception of Jesus in an otherwise sinful place.
Be assured that the Church teaches otherwise. The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's birth, not to Jesus'. Mary was born to be the first citizen, following Adam of Eve, of Eden -- conceived in a state of innocence and never stained with original sin. And she continued in this sinless state all of her life. This is why we say in the "Salve Regina" that we are the poor children of Eve, exiles from Eden, and that Blessed Mary Ever-virgin is our Edenic advocate. That she is later assumed directly into Heaven without tasting death, as Elijah was, is the consequence of her Immaculate Conception -- no sin (death's genesis), no death. In a sense the Immaculate Conception of Mary is the same feast as the Assumption of Mary. These twin beliefs go back to the early centuries of our faith. But school is out for the day. Let us get on with our own reflection on this holy day.
Did you know that the world strives against Heaven? This is a constant theme of the Sacred Scriptures. The tower built unto Heaven's heights about which we read in the Book of Genesis is the most obvious image among similar motifs that echo through the Scriptures: the world is a noisy place that constantly threatens Heaven's peace. And Heaven must take steps to rein in these audacious intruders, for they are always overstepping their bounds .... even unto Heaven's doorstep!
Can you picture this in the context of two neighbors? Do you see their enormous houses sitting side-by-side in an imaginary town? Are they are on friendly or even cordial terms? Do their well-manicured lawns join at a comely fence where pleasantries are exchanged? Or are there old cars and rusting appliances in the yard of neighbor World? Is the grass overgrown? Are roars of argument to be heard through open windows? And do drunken brawls continue through the night? To be sure, it is not all one way, for neighbor World's large house is host to holy people leading well-regulated lives in some of the rooms there. Certainly, though, World's house is not a heavenly place though it might contain hints of Heaven. Nor is Heaven a worldly place. No, not in the least.
These two are opposing and irreconcilable households. They shall never be harmonized on earth. They are together a house divided against itself, which cannot long stand. To give one's heart entirely to Heaven is to leave the household of the World. To enter Heaven's household is to become wholly united with heavenly values, outlook, and life. Where might we learn about these values, so we can practice Heaven's life on earth? Why, they are written in God's Book of Life, which He gave us for precisely this reason, that Heaven might have sovereignty on earth. By the same measure, one of the Promises of Christ is that the World will hate you if you should love Him and live according to His commands.
Even at His conception, Mary is invited to love Him Whom she did not know. And in her ringing assent, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord!" she embraced heavenly truths in a way that would ensure worldly hatred and would expose her to worldly dangers. A woman who conceived out of wedlock? Why, such a woman must be stoned to death! All her life, Mary would be dogged by rumors of an affair with a Roman soldier. And the young Jesus would be known by the derogatory title, "Son of Mary" (Mk 6:3), not "Son of Joseph" as was customary. To enter into God's mysteries, to embrace God's ways, is to be hated by those who cling to the world and prize the world's customs.
The World strives against Heaven, and Heaven will not have peace while the nations roar in tumult. What measures then can Heaven take to turn back intruders from the world? The answer to this unusual question comes to us from the prophet Isaiah who heard it in the courts of Heaven's household:
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"
Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." And he said, "Go, and say to this people:
'Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.'
Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, ...
But what can they mean? Well, it turns out that the difficulty of these sentences is their meaning. Heaven is mysterious because .... it surrounds itself with mystery. When Heaven comes to earth in the form of its King, He is cloaked in secrecy and enjoins each person who discovers His identity to tell no one. Heaven is an inviolable world surrounded by protective layers of paradox. It is an impenetrable world of purity safeguarded against the taint of corruption by rings of contradiction. Reason may well be the crown of human creation and a species of divinity in the human creature. But human inquiry will never attain unto Heaven nor unto God because of these safeguards and protections.
In the Middle Ages, this was commonplace. When a philosopher reasoned his way into a space where his ideas seemed to bend back upon themselves, he assumed that he was bumping into the outer fortications of Heaven. This phenomenon even had a name, curiositas, suggesting that it was wrong to pry into the things God had kept from human eyes. (As we might expect, St. Thomas Aquinas weighs in at length on this question but we will defer that conversation until another school day.) With this, we begin to understand St. Paul's trenchant words that the Greeks seek after wisdom, the Jews look for a sign, but we Christians have foolisheness. And we appreciate the words of our Lord Jesus Christ when He says, "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes" (Mt 11:25).
Of course, there are wise men who have become babes that they might stoop before the crib of God. C.S. Lewis in the last chronicle of Narnia depicted a barn that was many times larger within that it was without. When an objection was heard to this impossibility, the sceptic heard in reply, "Why in our world there was once a tiny stable that held something larger than the universe." We might join this blessed conversation in saying, "And there was once a virgin who gave birth, the womb of a handmaiden that contained something larger than the Universe, and an uneducated girl to whom was entrusted the fate of humankind. And she sang to the God who lay on her lap,
My love, my treasured One are You,
My sweet and lovely Son are You.
You are my Love, my Darling new.
Unworthy I of you.
Your mild and gentle eyes proclaim
A loving heart with which you came,
A tender, helpless, tiny babe with boundless gifts of grace.
King of kings, most Holy One,
God and Son Eternal One,
You are my God and helpless Son,
High Ruler of mankind.