We celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary this Wednesday.
It’s a big deal — a Holy Day of Obligation — because Mary is our Lord’s mother.
And because Mary is the only one of us born without original sin.
So, how come we don’t always act as if we’re “very good?”
Basically, we got off to a bad start.
We decided that ‘what I want at this moment’ was more important than ‘what God says.’ I’m not personally responsible for that decision, and neither are you. But we’re both living in a world that was affected by it, and we’re dealing with its consequences. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 385-412)
If that bit about a decision and consequences sounds familiar, it should. I talked about it last week.
Getting back to this week’s celebration of the Immaculate Conception, the first reading was Genesis 3:9-15, 20. It includes this dialog, where Adam tries blaming his wife. And God.
“Then God asked: Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat?
“The man replied, ‘The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.'”
As I’ve said before, the interview did not end well.
Hagar’s son Ishmael was, I gather, legitimate by laws and customs of the day. But that didn’t soothe subsequent Hagar-Sarah tensions.
What can I say? The family had issues.
Barak refused to go unless Deborah came with him. Which she did. Barak’s forces won, but God and Deborah got credit for the victory. Sisera, Jabin’s general, fled: but died when Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite nailed his head to the floor.1 (Judges 4:8–22)
The Book of Judith says the Assyrian general’s name was Holofernes, and that he was sent by Nebuchadnezzar.
That’d be Nebuchadnezzar II, second king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire: or the Chaldean Empire, or Assyrians. It depends on who’s talking. That was around 630 BC, give or take a few decades.
Nebuchadnessar II’s territory had been what we call the Neo-Assyrian Empire up to around 610 BC, give or take a few years. I strongly suspect that’s why the book of Judith’s author called his people’s enemy “Assyrians.”
The Book of Judith is in my Bible. But if you’re an American, odds are that it isn’t in yours.
I’m a Catholic.
Folks like Jonathan Edwards set the religious tone of my homeland.
So Tobit, Judith, Baruch, Sirach, first and second Maccabees and Wisdom are edited out of most American Bibles.2
Editors had their reasons for deleting the Book of Judith.
Jerome says he translated Judith from an Aramaic manuscript. But we haven’t found any ancient Aramaic or Hebrew copies of Judith.
Besides: Judith, Arphaxad and a town called Bethulia aren’t mentioned anywhere except in the Book of Judith. We have several different versions of the book, but the oldest bit of text is on a third century A.D. potsherd.
I’ll willingly see the Book of Judith as something written maybe 100 BC, compressing five centuries of history into a single narrative. If it was written that recently, then many of the events in it happened roughly a half-millennium before the author’s birth.
Its anachronisms don’t bother me nearly as much as they might. I’m an historian by training, and see value in researching and verifying sources. But I’ve also spent my life surrounded by non-historians, who aren’t nearly as meticulous — or nitpicking — as I am.
And I know that records get lost.
Let’s say that the Holofernes incident happened in 630 BC, 2,651 years ago. Now imagine that another 2,651 years have passed. It’s the year 4642. We might still have stories about some of modern America’s high-profile folks. Like Wanda Gág.
But I’d like to think that scholars in the fifth millennium wouldn’t assume a story is fiction, even if it was the only surviving text mentioning New Ulm, Minnesota. And made reference to “Russia,” instead of “Soviet Union.”3
Fast-forward again, this time about six centuries.
You’ve probably read how it went. Gabriel shows up, tells Mary of Nazareth to stay calm: and that she’s been picked to be the mother of Jesus, Son of the Most High, who will rule over the house of Jacob forever.
Mary of Nazareth asks one practical question.
“But Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?’
“And the angel said to her in reply, ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
(Luke 1:34, 35)
Then she accepts the assignment.
“But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'”
“‘But,’ said Moses to God, ‘if I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what do I tell them?’
“‘But,’ objected Moses, ‘suppose they do not believe me or listen to me? For they may say, “The LORD did not appear to you.”‘”
“Moses, however, said to the LORD, ‘If you please, my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and tongue.'”
That’s three “buts” and one “send someone else” – – – in my language, at any rate.
I get the impression that Moses was trying to talk himself out of the assignment.
Even so, Mary’s assignment was no walk in the park.
But his story will wait for another day.
Getting back, finally, to Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
“…An essential part of God’s plan for the mother of his Son was that she be conceived free from Original Sin. ‘Through the centuries the Church became ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception’ (CCC, no. 491).
“In anticipation that she was to bear the Son of God, Mary was preserved from the time of her conception from Original Sin….”
(Mary’s Immaculate Conception, Advent, Liturgical Year, USCCB)
So Mary’s child, Son of the Most High, had a unique mother. No surprises there.
I’ve suspected that being shielded from original sin helped Mary think straight during her talk with Gabriel. But I suspect that she also inherited the courage shown by folks like Deborah, Judith, Esther and Ruth.
These days we know her as Mary: Mother of Compassion, Full of Grace, Comforter of the Afflicted, Intercessor and Advocate.4
But two millennia back? She started out as an unmarried woman with a child on the way, lived as a refugee in Egypt, and saw her only child publicly executed. And didn’t crack. Granted, she had help. But like I said: I see courage in her decisions.
More, from previous Advent seasons:
- “Advent 2021: Another Year of Our Long Watch”
(December 4, 2021)
- “Joy and Shadow, Free Will and Something Silly”
(December 12, 2020)
- “Boston Charlie, Partridges in Pear Trees and Me”
(November 28, 2020)
- “‘Do Not be Afraid’”
Deacon Lawrence N. Kaas, guest post (January 7, 2018)
- “Gabriel, Joseph, and Mary”
(December 18, 2016)
- Introduction, Judith
New American Bible
- History and humanity’s paper trail
- “The Athenian Golden Age: Pericles, Aspasia, and All That” (October 9, 2021)