Reception of the Immaculate
|Donna Rougeux in pulpit at ordination, Janice Sevre Duszysnka on right|
By Donna Rougeux
First Reading: Genesis 3:9-15,20
Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
On this special day that the church has set aside as the Immaculate Conception of Mary we need to talk about the "s" word...Sin. The evolution of defining sin and the concept of original sin led to the belief that Mary was unstained by sin from birth. Original sin is a concept that comes from an interpretation of the story in Genesis that we read in the first reading tonight. I would like to suggest that the 'original sin' interpretation is a misunderstanding of what the story is actually teaching. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is based on this misunderstanding of the Genesis story. Therefore there is a problem with the Immaculate conception doctrine if in fact it is based on a misinterpretation of scripture. The misinterpretation involves seeing the Genesis story as a telling of an actual event in history. It views Adam and Eve as the original people created by God.
Here are some problems with looking at the story as a retelling of an actual event: 1)Who was there recording this actual event? 2)Can snakes actually talk? 3)If the original people would have not eaten the forbidden fruit then sin would have never come into the world. I'm sure you can think of other problems. The doctrine of the Immaculate conception carries these misunderstandings further because it says Mary is the new Eve who was conceived in the sinless garden of her mother's womb and was untainted by original sin. This immaculate conception of Mary allows her to be the perfect candidate to become the mother of Jesus. There is a theological desire to clean up the sinful world so that the Son of God can enter. This is sort of like cleaning your house before entertaining guests.This points to the problem that has plagued the church over the centuries..too much emphasis on the human ability to make things perfect for God. When we do this there is no room in the equation for allowing God to actually be with us the way we need God with us. But this is what happened with the immaculate conception doctrine. The house needed to be immaculate before the most special guest, Jesus entered the world. Mary needed to be free from original sin.
But guess what? Jesus doesn't mind dirt, clutter or sin. In fact it says in the scriptures that Jesus came to be with the sinners not the saints. It is less about us trying to get things in perfect condition before God can enter the world and more about receiving God openly and willingly the way Mary did. I think there is heavy theological baggage connected to thinking we have the ability to make things immaculate for God.
I would like to offer another understanding of the story in genesis that will help us be released from this theological baggage so that the doctrine of the immaculate conception can be reframed and even renamed. This alternate interpretation of the story in Genesis comes from the book Discovering Old Testament Origins by Margie Ralph. She teaches that this story in Genesis is written in the literary form called myth. The definition of myth is an imaginative and symbolic story about a reality which is beyond comprehension. The reality beyond comprehension in this story is the common experience of suffering.
So the writer of the story after wrestling with the common reality of suffering came up with this imaginative symbol filled story that points to a connection between sin and suffering. The plot of the story is: there is a place where there is no sin (a beautiful heavenly garden) then there is sin (people going against the spiritual order by eating the forbidden fruit) and then there is suffering (pain in child birth, struggle to have food and shelter, physical death) So the theme of the story is sin causes suffering. And it is important to note that the story ends here. Let's unpack the symbols in the story.
Give people this list:
Adam = each person
Eve = the other person whom we need to love and by whom we need to be loved
Garden= a place of no suffering
God's instructions= Moral and spiritual order
Tree of knowledge of good and evil= the possibility of acting contrary to the spiritual order
Tree of life= Avoid physical death-one kind of suffering
Naked but unashamed= self-acceptance
Naked but ashamed= self-alienation
Hiding= loss of capacity to respond to God's love
Punishments= suffering, known from experience, which is seen as the natural consequence of disobeying the spiritual order
Expelled from garden and unable to return= people are powerless to undue the effects of sin
PLOT: No suffering ~sin~suffering
THEME: Sin causes suffering
If we view the message of this story in this way there was no original sin that we need to free Mary from. The question of this story is not where did sin come from? The question is why do we suffer? This interpretation of the story shows sin as a given. We as humans all have the capacity to go against the moral and spiritual order. Because we have this capacity and because we have all acted upon this capacity, there is suffering. The consequence of the choice of sin is suffering.
Applying this different interpretation of the story to Mary, means that for her along with all people, sin is a given. When we understand the genesis story in this way we no longer need an immaculate conception. What we need and what I think is more relevant, is an understanding that Mary had a reception of the immaculate. Mary received Jesus who was unstained by sin and who changed the paradigm. Now the story does not end with sin then suffering. Mary's reception of Jesus gives the story a new ending but doesn't forget where the story left off. Jesus enters the world with this sad ending of sin leads to suffering. Jesus who is God dwelling with us came into a sin filled world and endured horrific suffering so that sin and death no longer have the final say. Jesus suffered, died and overcame death in his resurrection.
So what does that mean for us? I think we like Mary need to work on being receivers of the the immaculate. We need to receive this gift of Jesus so that we can face our capacity to choose against the spiritual order. We need to receive Jesus who can dwell with us when we face suffering and who can empower us to make choices that are life giving instead of life destroying. We do not have to carry the theological baggage of making things immaculate before entertaining the idea of receiving Jesus as the special guest or of receiving Jesus into our imperfect sin filled world. What we have to do is to receive this immaculate gift of Jesus so that we can be transformed from one who has the capacity to choose against the spiritual order into one who accepts and is empowered by the spiritual order so that suffering and death no longer are the end of the story but are now the part of the story that can be faced with the promise of new hope and new life. So I suggest a renaming of this feast day. Not the feast of the Immaculate Conception but the feast of the Reception of the Immaculate.