Don’t be Scared of the Immaculate Conception
What follows is the best sermon I have ever come across on the Immaculate Conception. It was preached by that star of the Anglican Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, Fr John Hunwicke. (Even if Benedict XVI had no other achievements to his credit, I think Anglicanorum Coetibus on its own would suffice to make him the greatest Pope of modern times.) This sermon was preached at Pusey House, Oxford, before Fr Hunwicke made his submission.
On May 13, 1917.…Yes, if I were Jeremy Paxman and that were a Starter Question, you would all by now laudably have pressed your buzzers.But I wonder how many of you recall the first words which that Lady ‘brighter than the sun’ said to those three Portuguese peasant children, nearly a hundred years ago. They were ‘Do not be afraid’. ‘Afraid’ is what frail humans so often feel when confronted by evidences of divine power; the Lord himself said it on His Easter Morning: me phobeisthe. But I like to indulge myself an idiosyncratic fantasy that Our Lady, when she appeared on that stony, arid field at Cova da Iria—although I imagine she spoke to Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta in some Portuguese dialect—was really addressing England; Protestant England with its underlying anti-Catholic bigotry (‘scratch an Englishman…’) even when it is overlaid by the broader anti-Christian secularism of our own age. (When the 1928 Prayer Book came before Parliament, someone asked an atheist MP why he was so keen to vote against it, and he explained ‘But I am a Protestant atheist’.) And such English, I put it to you, are scared, dead scared, scared out of their wits, by the great Mother of God, Mary most holy. Have you noticed that there’s a certain sort of churchperson who twitches rhythmically at the very phrase ‘Mother of God’. If you explain that Jesus is God and so his mother Mary is the Mother of God, they give you that sort of sideways look that implies they know you’re playing some sort of Jesuitical trick on them, but they can’t quite spot the catch. Well, of course, there is a catch; it is that they don’t live with a real faith that Jesus is God. As Newman once analysed it, liberal Protestants demote Our Lord Jesus Christ into the slot reserved for Mary (I am butchering Newman’s elegant periods into journalese so I will call it ‘Top Creature Slot’) and then they’re puzzled when we Catholics situate Mary in exactly that place.‘Romanism is not idolatry unless Arianism is orthodoxy’, Newman observed. So what—if they can’t completely avoid talking about Mary—do liberal Protestants call her? ‘The mother of Jesus’; ‘the Virgin’; and—get this—‘the Madonna’. As if it’s safer to refer to her in Italian than to use the Prayer Book phrase ‘Our Lady’. So let’s keep her, they feel, in an Art History context—the Madonna…weird, really, isn’t it: you wouldn’t, probably, refer to the Head of an academic institution as ‘the Il Principale’ or the ‘Il Prevosto’ ; or to our beloved Prime Minister as the ‘Il Duce’. Or perhaps she will be called ‘the bee vee’, as if it sanitises and makes her safe to turn her into an English acronym.In a sermon I preached nearly half a century ago, at the Mattins of Christmas Day in the year of my diaconate, I said that the Incarnation meant that God was in the belly of a Palestinian peasant girl who is Queen of Heaven. Critics fell into three categories: those who disliked my phrase because of its physicality and because it placed the origins of our faith among foreigners (surely Mary must have been a middle-class Englishwoman and if not a member of the Women’s Institute then at least of the Young Wives); those who didn’t like the phrase Queen of Heaven; and those who disliked both.‘The Immaculate Conception’. It’s a lovely rolling phrase, isn’t it (we classicists might analyse its rhythm as a trochaic dimeter). And it’s a phrase, too, that can scare people silly. Is it sometimes the physicality—again, of conception—that disturbs them; conception, a process that occurs a little way south of the tummy button? Not the sort of thing the fastidious want to have dragged in front of their noses. C S Lewis points out that the devils too are fastidious in their horror at the flesh: Screwtape refers to a human as ‘this animal, this thing begotten in a bed’. Or perhaps people are scared of the word ‘Immaculate’; perhaps it suggests foreign religion—little old Irish women clutching their rosaries or Spanish ladies in black making their five successive First Saturday communions in honour of the Immaculate Heart (a devotion which Cardinal Ratzinger with his gentle irony once called ‘surprising for people from the Anglo-Saxon and German cultural worlds’). But ‘immaculate’ is a completely biblical concept in its Hebrew and Greek equivalents: it means spotless; and only what is without blemish is truly for God (for example, a spotless sacrificial lamb). Because: Mary is to be wholly for God, is to give God his body, to give God his endowment of genes, to give God the food of her breast: so Mary by God’s gift is to be the Immaculate, the one without blemish, the one in whom the Divine likeness has never been marred.It is because Mary alone in the roots of her being is unmarked by sin that Mary alone is truly and wholly free. In our hearts, too, we should make her free and ‘fear not’; she is never to be locked up in the tourist industry as a statue of doubtful taste carried in processions by foreign peasants for the English to photograph from within their coaches; Mary is not to be detained at the pleasure of the Heritage business in a Merry England; she is not to be ‘the Madonna’ of the Art Historians imprisoned in glossy coffee table books.
If Mary is the Mother of God Incarnate, she is our Mother too, because we are in Christ, limbs of his body by our baptismal incorporation. Mary comes to us this day, and what would a true mother bring to hungry children except food; food for her children in exsilio; food packed for our journey. Mary comes to this place and to this moment of time; Mary comes, bright with all the beauties known by men and angels; Mary comes to set upon our lips the blessed fruit of her womb Jesus.