Celebrating Innocence: The Pattern of Possibility Revealed by the Immaculate Conception

Article excerpt

When the world was smaller and time was shorter, we inevitably thought of life differently. And we told the world's story, as we told our own, differently too.

There was a beginning, a middle and an end. Individual figures--kings, heroes, prophets, priests--were seen as having the decisive influence. The individual life span and the cycle of seasons provided patterns for understanding existence individually and also communally. And if gods--or a god--appeared in our midst, they acted largely, though not of course entirely, according to such patterns. Yearly rituals sought to restore times of origin, of wholeness and of innocence. Then the stories of the gods were told as marvelous and liberating myths that centered life and gave it orientation.

But now we know that our small world spins in an almost unimaginably vast cosmos and that we are members of a human family numbering in the many billions. The final meaning of events--let alone history as a whole-is strangely difficult to discern. Our own consciousness, we know, hides us from ourselves. Whether professedly or simply in practice, we are all more or less accommodating pragmatists who make the most we can of our fragmentary time.

Let us recall, then, that when the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Our Lady, was defined as belonging to the essence of our faith, the church still thought quite geocentrically and, in good part, mythologically, understanding the world and its search for salvation as played out on a three-dimensional landscape with heaven above and hell below. But for a century and more now the church, in good measure at least, has been struggling to recognize the fractured, pluralistic historical consciousness of the modern world. It has even, if you will, begun to think not only critically and historically, globally and interculturally, but even in terms of possibly multiple forms of consciousness in intergalactic space. The philosopher Blaise Pascal experienced the human condition as a tragic tension between greatness and misery; today this feels truer than ever.

In this new framework of understanding, with lonely human beings longing desperately for reasons to hope and trust, what may it mean to say that a young girl in ancient Palestine came suddenly--or perhaps gradually, it is hard (and ultimately not necessary) to say--came suddenly to the realization that despite all that was troubling and wrong around her, despite the meanness of neighbors, the hypocrisy of her people's leaders, the oppression of their Roman occupiers, despite all this--

   God was with her
      and had always been
        and would forever be. …