After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree, the Lord God called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.” Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked?”
And coming to her, the angel said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It celebrates the Church’s belief that Mary is conceived without “original sin,” without the tendency to sin and selfishness that is constituent of our human condition. It is a celebration of a “new order,” in which Mary and Jesus are marked as the reversal of Eve and Adam. As Jesus, in his full obedience and submission to God’s will becomes the new Adam, so Mary in her obedience, in her standing ready to do only God’s will, is the reversal of Eve.
Despite it’s being declared as a doctrine of the Church, the Immaculate Conception is a theologically thorny issue. If Mary is conceived without the conflicts and tensions that constitute life for the rest of us, is she really one of us? In attempting to emphasize the “new order” of creation and grace do we risk losing contact with the actual human experience of what St. Paul described as the adequacy of grace despite our fallenness and tendency to sinfulness?
Literary critics often point out that in Paradise Lost, John Milton, despite perhaps his intentions, creates Satan as his most interesting and compelling character. It is tension and conflict that create character. If there is no struggle within a character, if he or she becomes but a one-dimensional type of one characteristic of another, we cannot identify with him or her. What, in fact, makes the two stories that constitute today’s readings so compelling is that they are suffused with a tension we ourselves experience every day.
In Genesis we read of the human struggle between dependence and autonomy. What God has asked of Adam and Eve is clearly understood by them. Yet, there is something in them, a desire to be more, perhaps to be more than they are, that makes them vulnerable to the “temptations” of the serpent. It is the denial of death that springs from the longing for immortality that leads them to somehow exceed the limits of their humanity, to reach for that one thing whose pursuit will make them not more but less. The result of this “violation” is that they are now seen for who they are and are ashamed.
Prior to their eyes being opened, God saw them as naked and it was no problem. After eating of the fruit they were forbidden to eat, however, they now recognize themselves as naked. We learn to become ashamed as we come to recognize the difference between our desires and the world which constitutes our identity. We have an unconscious which consists of both an infra-conscious and a trans-conscious. The world of social conformity demands that we suppress and repress both the impulses of our infra-conscious that Freud described and the aspirations and inspirations of our trans-conscious, our capacity for awareness of spirit. We experience shame about both our animal nature and our participation in the divine nature. As Paul, we can know grace only in light of our own “thorn in the flesh.” To realize the truth of who we are in relationship to God, we must first be brought low, or put in our place. We must admit and appropriate the truth of our human condition and limits.
In the story of the Annunciation, which is so central to our Christian understanding of salvation history, Mary’s first reaction to the angel’s declaration that she is full of grace and that God is with her is to be greatly troubled. Perhaps she is troubled merely by a presence of a heavenly extra-terrestrial. I suspect, however, that it might be more by being called “full of grace” and by being told that God is with her. Because Mary is one of us, she too lives the struggle between living a closed and manageable life, getting by with a conventional and bearable sense of her own identity, and turning outward to the larger reality of the world and the love of God that creates and animates it. She reverses Eve and Adam by turning in the opposite direction from them. Adam and Eve turn from a life where they daily walk with God, always looking out rather than in, to one of self-consciousness, Mary turns, through the fear she experiences as the Divine breaks in, from her reduced sense of herself (“How can this be?”) to a willingness to enter and obey the truth of things despite her incomprehension (“May it be done to me according to your word.”).
Rowan Williams says that we only “become ourselves and discover ourselves in a process that does indeed involve some frontier-crossing.” Adam and Eve cross that frontier in the direction toward self-consciousness and shame. Mary crosses it in the opposite direction, toward the truth of God’s presence and love in and for the world, and her part (her “call”) as an instrument of that love. This “frontier crossing” is what Theodore James Ryken described when, at the age of nineteen, he was brought low or put in his place, turned toward God, fell in love, and put himself at God’s service. As human beings, we cannot cross this frontier without being brought low and experiencing the fear which Mary does. We must face the disillusionment, and often shame, that comes when we recognize our own relative impotence, and the “confusion and failure” we feel when we discover that the sense of a powerful and controlling self we have created is an illusion.
Brother Ryken, as all of us, had to be brought low before he could begin to love God because we cannot love God and our illusions at the same time. Adam and Eve probably had to “fall” because we human beings can only know God’s fidelity to us and all through our own infidelity. The Church tells us that Mary is conceived without sin. Whatever that means, it cannot mean, if the gospel is true, that she did not experience “fear of the Lord” and a gap between what she knew of herself and the angel’s declaration that she was “full of grace.” We fear facing the truth about ourselves because we are convinced that we are not enough for life in the world and cannot be loved as who we really are. We think we are supposed to be “good,” whatever that means. We, however, like Ryken can only know love when we realize that our being good has little to do with it.
Some years ago, I remember telling someone that I wondered if ever really loved or could love anybody. At the time I was experiencing how, even with those that I most cared for, there was always a lot of “me” in my loving, that I was always, at some level, looking for something for myself. Slowly, however, I come to learn that all of this is beside the point. The other’s deepest well being does not depend on my love for them, but on God’s love of them. It is doubtless true that given enough time, and for all good intentions, I will eventually hurt one that I love, my selfishness will inevitably get the better of me. Yet, as Rowan Williams points out, my failure can become “a pathway to Christ for someone else.” I am only a fallible instrument, or as the Zen teaching goes, “a finger pointing at the moon.”
Far too often religion becomes for us yet another mode of dissociation from the truth of our humanity. It is helpful today to ponder the fearful experience of Mary as she is called to live out the call that is her life. No less than we, she must do some “frontier-crossing,” from the one she takes herself to be to the call of God that she is. In Ryken we see that he can only recognize that call when his self-idealization is broken through, he is brought low, and he is put in his place. To serve God requires of us that we cease to be gods. We, like the widow, are called to give what we have out of the little we possess. It is only in knowing God’s love, in “falling in love with God,” that we can both know how little it is that we have and still be willing to give it away in God’s service.
If this is so, we become ourselves and discover ourselves in a process that does indeed involve some frontier-crossing. For our hands to point towards Jesus, we have to have been sufficiently moved out of our usual ways of thought and action to want to say, “Don’t look at me, look at him.” I no longer want to be what people are looking at, aware as I am of my confusion and failure. When I encounter such failure in my experience, I am challenged deeply about my habitual longing to be in control and at the centre; I have to move out from the centre that is my self-image and, in my action, in my body, mark out a path towards truth. If in my failure I have discovered the faithfulness of God through Jesus, I shall want to make clear that this truth is found in him. My recognition that I have failed, my giving up my would-be perfect self-picture, becomes a pathway to Christ for someone else.
Rowan Williams, Ponder These Things: Praying With Icons of the Virgin, p. 11