Here am I

This past Sunday, the last before Christmas, we heard the story of the Annunciation from Luke’s Gospel.  You know, the story about how the Archangel Gabriel appears to the young Mary, asking if she will be the mother of Jesus.  It’s a story that makes a lot of people uncomfortable in part because many modern people consider the whole notion of angels showing up and announcing things to be rather fanciful, and in part because it gets us into that whole virgin birth thing which seems to many people even more unlikely than an angel showing up.

Yet when we get bogged down in this part of the story, we lose the forest for the trees; we miss the point.   While the author of Luke’s Gospel probably wasn’t tripped up by angelic visits and virgin births in the way that people these days tend to be, I don’t think that he intended these to be the parts of his story people would focus on primarily.  I think Luke’s focus was on the answer that Mary gives to the angel:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your will.”

This deceptively simple answer contains an entire theological world within it.   The God who is revealed in Mary’s response is a God who does not force people to do his will like some petty dictator.  Rather, it is a God who invites, who initiates a relationship and makes a request.  It is a God who seeks to partner with a human being in order to bring about something important.  And the human being who is revealed in Mary’s response is not someone who stands impotent before the power of a mighty God but rather is a person who has integrity and the power to choose and whose integrity and choice are respected by God.  In telling us this story of the annunciation, Luke is making a profound theological statement about the relationship between God and humanity, and the essence of that relationship is revealed as partnership.  Or, what in theological language has been called synergy.   We might sum it up this way:  the work of God in the world is accomplished through a freely chosen partnership between God and human beings.

It is important to note that the Roman Catholic doctrine that eventually arose that declared Mary to be without personal sin came along a very long time after Luke’s story.   Early Christians never held such notions of Mary, and the Eastern Christian churches (the Orthodox churches) have always been highly critical of that particular development.  Why?  Because it removes Mary from the body of humanity, it makes her into some kind of aberration and it implies that a “normal” human being could not have done what Mary did.

Luke, I feel certain, would not have liked that idea of Mary being sinless because it would weaken considerably the statement I think he was seeking to make:  that if Mary could choose partnership with God to accomplish the work of bringing Jesus into the world, then any one of us can choose partnership with God to bring Christ into the world in our own particular way, according to our own particular calling.

As we celebrate Christmas this year, we might ask ourselves, “What is God inviting me into?  How might I give birth to Christ anew in my heart? How might I be invited to be Christ’s hands and heart in the world?”  For, like Mary, we have a royal vocation:  to become God’s partners in the on-going work of healing humanity and the rest of creation.

May Christmas be to you a blessing this year and an opportunity for you to renew your vocation as a bearer of Christ.

7 thoughts on “Here am I

  1. For the many years you have known me, you have been aware of my deep devotion to Our Lady. I never felt that I could adequately describe exactly why she serves as such an inspiration for me. You have expressed it so eloquently here! Her willingness to accept God’s request of her is a vivid reminder for us to be open and willing to trust God’s plans for us. Thank you for putting her great contribution into perspective!

  2. Thank you Matthew, and a blessed Christmas to you and your family. Thanks for helping Trinity have a wonderful 2011. I’ve been blessed in lots of ways that I would not have imagined.

  3. I agree with most of what you wrote about the Annunciation, especially about the partnership of God and Man that was ultimately and perfectly consummated in the person of Christ. With Mary’s “Fiat”, mankind becomes a willing participant in God’s plan of salvation and serves as a decisive response to Eve’s rejection of divine grace.

    Being a confirmed Roman Catholic, however, I do have to differ with your treatment of the Immaculate Conception. Although the doctrine was not pronounced until the 19th century, I would point out that early Christians often had very incomplete notions of the fullest implications of the Gospels (witness the Christological controversies of the early centuries of the Church), and that revelation, unfolds across time and when considering divine mysteries there are literally infinite truths and implications left for our reason to explore and discover.

    The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception does not “remove Mary from the body of humanity,” rather it makes Her our exemplar. She is fully human in a way that no human since Adam and Eve could have been absent the Incarnation. It is not that Mary was “more” than human – it is that she is precisely human – it is the rest of mankind that, though sin, has been less than our full selves. She is no aberration, she is normalcy itself, in a sinful world.

    At any rate, Mary’s “Fiat” is not predicated upon Her Immaculate Conception (there are many throughout the history of man who have not been immaculately conceived yet pronounced their own fiats to the will of God); it is the Immaculate Conception that is predicated upon her “Fiat.”

    • Well, I think that Roman Church would certainly describe the doctrine of the immaculate conception in the way in which you describe it here. You/they do not perceive that the doctrine has the effect of making Mary different by nature from the rest of humanity. Of course, the doctrine is a relatively recent development, having been put forth in the 19th century (which is last week in terms of church history!). Most Protestants would not care, since in general, Protestantism does not pay attention to Mary except at Christmas time. Interestingly, however, the Orthodox churches, whose veneration of Mary is similar to that found in the Roman Church, have disagreed with the doctrine rather strongly. In their view, the doctrine has the effect of removing Mary from the rest of humanity by one step and implies that only a sinless woman could have been the mother of Jesus. For them, this reduces the power of the incarnation and Mary’s role in it. For the Orthodox, Mary’s “fiat” is a profound example of “synergy”, the voluntary cooperation of a human being with divine grace and divine purpose, and the doctrine of the immaculate conception seems to undermine that by implying that other human beings cannot work with God in the same way, because they lack the sinlessness of Mary. I have always found the Orthodox view of the matter quite persuasive — it makes more sense to me than the immaculate conception.

      • The Immaculate Conception does not make Mary different by nature from the rest of humanity, Original Sin makes the rest of mankind different by degree from the human ideal. We are different from humanity, whereas Mary represents the realization of humanity; Mary is distinct from the rest of humanity in the degree to which she realizes our shared human nature. We are not the norm, the standard by which to measure what it is to be human. The suggestion that her immaculate nature makes separates Mary from her (an our humanity) reminds me of a comment my wife recently made while watching a episode of Father Barron’s “Catholicism” series. My wife (who is not Catholic) was frightened by mention of the Marian apparition to St. Juan Diego under the impression that he was being visit by the ghost of Mary. (Sometime after I recovered from my stroke and regained the power of speech) I explained that, if this were a ghost story, then Mary was the one who was most fully alive and that, comparatively speaking, it was Juan Diego (and all of us) that was the ghost! It is we, who are are fallen, we are each a faint figure of the person we are created to be – it is Our Lady who is the genuine article.

        The suggestion that the Immaculate Conception implies that “only a sinless woman could have been the mother of Jesus” follows from confusion of cause and effect. Being created beings, we insist that cause must precede effect, but is this because this must necessarily be so, or is it merely the parochial perspective of creatures born into time? God, being eternal, is not constrained by the sensibilities of a temporal perspective. When God acts within time, there is no reason (at least not that I can see) why effect cannot precede its own cause. (Could even be a mechanism by which God acts miraculously within time without suspending the laws by which He orders the universe?) From this perspective, it is not the Immaculate Conception that allows Mary to assent to the will of God; it is Mary’s assent that, by welcoming Our Redeemer into the world, makes her the first beneficiary of His Grace. It is her fiat that allows Christ to redeem, not only mankind, but herself from the moment of her conception. How else should we interpret Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, “full of grace” if she was, in fact not already redeemed, but still fallen with the rest of humanity?

      • Here are some additional observations that inform this matter, I think:

        One of the interesting aspects of this question is how “original sin” is defined. And, the Eastern and Western Christian traditions have definitions that differ in a significant way.

        The Western Christian tradition, heavily influenced by the writing of St. Augustine, including both Catholicism and Protestantism, has included in its understanding of original sin the idea that humanity has inherited the guilt of Adam’s sin. The impact of this inherited guilt has been variously interpreted within the Western tradition. When the Catholic church contemplates the doctrine of immaculate conception, it has in mind that this is a part of the problem of original sin from which it wishes Mary to be exempt.

        In the Eastern churches, which did not know much of Augustine until the 17th or 18th centuries, the notion of humanity inheriting the guilt of Adam’s sin is an idea that does not make sense. In their understanding, no one can ever bear guilt for a sin they personally did not commit. Thus, for the East, the effect of original sin is two-fold: it introduced the reality of death into human experience and it produced within human beings a “disordered passion” that tends to lead toward a disordered life (an inclination to sin).

        For the West, original sin constituted a fall of a perfect humanity into a disastrous spiritual imperfection. For the East, it derailed a humanity that was on a path toward perfection but had not yet achieved it. Thus, while original sin was seen in the East as tragic it did not achieve the disastrous level generally assigned to it in the Western tradition.

        The differences in this understanding of original sin are reflected in the difference between the way the East and West view the Dormition or Assumption of Mary at the end of her earthly life. The Eastern churches are quite clear that Mary died and was buried. Subsequently, she was resurrected and glorified as the first human being (Jesus excepted) to experience the fullness of the promise of Christ.

        The Roman Catholic doctrine of the Assumption says the same thing, but with one crucial difference: the Roman church entertains the possibility that Mary did not actually die. The doctrinal statement says that the Assumption took place when Mary “completed the course of her earthly life”. Some Catholic theologians have said that this means she died, others have said she was spared death. The church permits both interpretations.

        The Eastern rejection of the doctrine of the immaculate conception is rooted in their lack of ambiguity about the death of Mary. Since, for them, original sin does not involve the transmission of guilt but the inheritance of death and of “disordered passion”, it makes sense that Mary died – for she was not exempted from the effect of original sin.

        Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky says this about Mary: “Like other human beings, such as St John the Baptist, whose conception and birth are festivals of the Church, the Holy Virgin was born under the law of original sin, sharing with all other human beings their common responsibility for the fall.” Sergius Bulgakov said this:”The Orthodox church does not accept the Catholic dogma of 1854 — the dogma of the immaculate conception of the Virgin, in the sense that she was exempt at birth from original sin. This would separate her from the human race, and she would then have been unable to transmit to her Son humanity. But Orthodoxy does not admit in the all-pure Virgin any individual sin, for that would be unworthy of the dignity of the Mother of God.”

        Of course, some readers might wonder whether and how all this matters in the end. The Anglican/Episcopal tradition has, in the main, not paid much attention to these matters (though, the “Anglo-Catholic” wing of the church certainly has). We do not officially hold either the doctrine of the immaculate conception or the Dormition/Assumption. On August 15, the date for celebrating the Dormition/Assumption, we observe the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. Clearly, the Anglican/Episcopal tradition believes it is important to honor and celebrate Mary as the one through whom Jesus entered the world. And, as I mentioned in my original posting that inspired this chain of comments, part of honoring Mary is honoring what she became in the life of the church before doctrines began to be spun about her: an ordinary human being who was invited to do an extraordinary thing on behalf of God and humanity, and who (amazingly) accepted that invitation. Her example of divine and human cooperation – or synergy – becomes an example for the rest of us to emulate.

        I think, perhaps, this transcends doctrinal differences and can become a point of common ground among Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and other Protestants alike.

  4. Your response raises a number of very interesting points, but the essential point, that the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception asserts that Our Lady was unique from the rest of humanity in exemption from Original Sin, is a misreading/understanding of the Church’s declaration.

    When God creates, He creates perfectly, which is to say that there is not, nor can there be, any distinction between the subject of the creative act and His object in creating. In the act of Creation, God’s omniscience expresses itself omnipotently. Man, as created by God was the perfect actualization of God’s will (Gen 1:31) Free will is intrinsic to that design (God created mankind in his image [Gen 1:27]) in order that man might cooperate/participate in the unfolding of Creation (So the LORD God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name. [Gen 2:19])

    Man, in freely choosing to set God’s will aside in favor of his own, altered a self which had been a perfect expression of God’s divine life. Original Sin was not merely an obstacle to the perfection of an imperfect act of God, it was a marring of man, a turning away from the origin and destiny of man in favor of the impossible delusion of man AS a self-created, self –realized being.
    It is inaccurate to suggest that the Latin Church asserts that all of humanity has “inherited the guilt of Adam’s sin,” rather we have inherited the consequences of that sin, consequences that remade the nature of man from that which God had perfectly created. The Catholic conception of Original sin is far more closely related to the Orthodox understanding, as you expressed it:

    405 Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 405)

    The Immaculate Conception does not hold that the Holy Virgin was exempt from either Original Sin, or its consequence. That would be to infer that Mary did not require redemption, and if God created one woman without need of redemption, why not all of the rest of humanity? If God were to simply erase the consequences of Original Sin – even for a single descendent of Adam, would this not vacate the very principle of Free Will?

    The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception declares “that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” (Ineffabilis Deus) Notice, she was not “exempted,” but “preserved” and not by her own merit, but by “singular grace” and the “merits of Jesus Christ.” Mary was redeemed from sin from the first instant of her conception, by the merits of Christ, and preserved from personal sin thereafter by that grace.

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