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Something About Mary: The (Feminist!) Feast of the Immaculate Conception

5 years ago
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Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception, my favorite holy day despite the wearying fact that every crack you've ever heard referencing it – "Ha, an Immaculate Conception!" -- was itself ill-conceived; the Virgin Birth is the doctrine that Jesus was not conceived the old-fashioned way, while the Immaculate Conception holds that Mary was born without original sin. OK, I feel better now.

In some kind of maternal and Marian trifecta, I am contemplating the meaning of all this on a cot at St. Mary's Hospital in Evansville, Ind., where my mom has just had surgery and the lady in the next bed is snoring so – lustily? – that if there were horses, they'd have stampeded by now: Santa Maria!
I've written before about my attachment to God's mom, whose company I so often sneaked off to enjoy during recess at St. Mary's Grade School (no relation to the hospital), much preferring communing with her in a candlelit church to embarrassing myself at team sports. Then and now, one attraction was her perfect calm: There's an angel in the parlor? "Be it done to me according to thy will." Bride's family is out of wine? Honey, can you c'mere and work your magic? Though often viewed as passive, she on the contrary actively supported her radical son in his scary, counter-cultural, truth-to-power challenge to the oppressors of his day, and ours.
In this month's Commonweal magazine, an important piece of scholarship by Sally Cunneen, who died of cancer in October, shows the Mary of her earliest biographers as a woman who shared her son's ministry, fully understood his mission, and after his death served as a major source of information to interpreters of his life – a fact stricken from the record by early Christians who rightly feared that accounts by the guy's mom might not be taken entirely seriously.
There are other great Marian feast days – the Visitation, the Assumption – so why love the Immaculate Conception best? Especially given all the trouble the tradition has caused through the centuries; even Aquinas wasn't quite down with it, and there were endless fights over whether Mary was or was not perfect from the moment she came to be. Its declaration as official church teaching in 1854 is one of the few generally agreed-upon instances of dogma stamped with the imprimatur of papal infallibility.
Yet for me, the Immaculate Conception is an acknowledgement of one woman in a way that honors us all. It's what makes Mary the second Eve, the clean slate, full of grace, she who makes redemption possible. No less than when I was a kid, she's this pillar for me, but also a brave feminist role model – and as it turns out, the teller of the tale. Now if only I can stay awake for Mass.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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