The Immaculate Conception and a Legacy of Valor

Thomas Cole's 'Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.' (1828) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
(From Thomas Cole, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston & Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Thomas Cole. (1828))

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.

Original sin is not the notion that humans are utterly depraved, bad to the core. We’re still “very good” and made “in the image of God.” (Genesis 1:27, 31)

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.'”
(Genesis 3:1112)

As I’ve said before, the interview did not end well.

Our Lord’s Family History

Gustave Dore's 'Deborah Praises Jael.' (1866) from Dore's English Bible, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Time passed. Abram left Ur, changing his name to Abraham. He had two sons: Ishmael and Isaac.

Hagar’s son Ishmael was, I gather, legitimate by laws and customs of the day. But that didn’t soothe subsequent Hagar-Sarah tensions.

Later, Sarah’s son Isaac inadvertently passed the first son’s blessing to Jacob. (Genesis 15:116:16, 21:121, 25:1927:45)

What can I say? The family had issues.

Moving along.

When Deborah was a judge of Israel, she told Barak that his victory against Jabin’s army was a sure thing. (Judges 4:17)

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 4:822)

Judith and Editors

Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Judith and her Maidservant.' (ca. 1623-1625) from Artemisia Gentileschi & Detroit Institute of Arts, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Then there’s Judith, who walked into an Assyrian siege camp with her maid, talked her way into the general’s quarters, and removed the general’s head.

Then the two women calmly walked out of the camp. With the general’s head in a bag. (Judith 10:1118:20)

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, Assumptions, and Missing Records

The Aristotelian Constitution of Athens, only extant copy of the nearly complete text. Currently at the British Library
(From The British Library, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Copy of “Constitution of the Athenians,” found in a garbage dump.)

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.

Mary and Moses: Contrasts

John William Waterhouse's 'The Annunciation.' (1914) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.We’ll be celebrating the Annunciation, when Gabriel had that famous interview with Mary, again in March.

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.

“Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”
(Luke 1:34, Luke 1:38)

“But – But – But – Send Someone Else!”

John Martin's 'Seventh Plague of Egypt.' (1823) Leona R. Beal Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Let’s contrast that with Moses’ response to God’s ‘go to Pharaoh’ order.

“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.'”

“But he said, ‘If you please, my Lord, send someone else!'”
(Exodus 3:11, 13, 4:1, 10, 13)

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.

Can’t say that I blame him, since he’d been told to confront a major world leader. And might be facing a murder charge. (Exodus 2:1215)

Even so, Mary’s assignment was no walk in the park.

But after being assured that “impossible” doesn’t apply to God, Mary accepted her mission. (Luke 1:3738)

Unique Circumstances, Remarkable Courage

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's 'The Immaculate Conception.' (1767-1768) from Museo del Prado via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.Joseph, husband of Mary, didn’t have a cushy job, either.

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:


1 More-or-less-well-remembered folks:

2 Assumptions, Assyria, and J. Edwards:

3 Historical perspective:

4 Remembering a remarkable woman:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to The Immaculate Conception and a Legacy of Valor

  1. Somehow, my interest in having devotion to Mary increased during this year’s celebration of the Immaculate Conception. Along with that was confronting my own doubts about her and other Catholic stuff some more. I mean, basically, living such a countercultural life is easier said than done, right? Well, still, praise and thanks be to Him, and may He keep on challenging and guiding us all.

Thanks for taking time to comment!