Last night our college celebrated the vigil of the Immaculate Conception in the exact same way as every other Catholic school in America — with mulled cider, makeshift medieval costumes, the performance of two Mystery plays depicting the Fall of Man and the Dream of St. Joseph, and chanted vespers. The usual. I’m sure that the same things were going on at campuses across the country, so I don’t want to make too big a deal about the doings at Thomas More College. A feast in our dining hall would crown the occasion with folksongs and the Te Deum, and for it I was deputized to come up with a toast to offer the gathered students, faculty, and families.
My task was to be at once festive, catechetical, and funny, so preparing it set me to thinking about why it’s so tough to make today’s feast meaningful. It’s hard enough corralling Catholics to Mass today, even though it’s the feast that marks the title under which Our Lady is the patron saint of both North and South America. So just to repeat the “prank” my sisters and I used to play on each other — calling each other up on holy days of obligation and reminding each other of that fact with the words, “Now you’re culpable!” — let me say just this to the reader: Today is a holy day of obligation. Now you’re culpable.
It’s a cliché (because it’s true) that moderns have largely lost the sense of sacred time, or at any rate transferred it from real feast days with real meanings to extended shopping seasons that can refer to multiple holidays or none. So the day after Thanksgiving marked the opening of Christmas-Hanukah-Kwanzaa-Eid ul-Fitr-tide, which will continue through roughly 4 p.m. on Dec. 25, at which point each of us will take an Alka-Seltzer, throw out the wrapping paper, and begin to prepare ourselves spiritually for New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day.
I’m not complaining here about the proliferation of public displays of other, non-Christian holidays; tolerance sure beats intolerance. But those of us who wish to be a little more specific, to take the generalized good cheer that’s floating around in store windows and sales counters and hitch it to what we really believe is sacred, will have to engage in little acts of cultural secession. As I’ve been writing for the last several weeks, to preserve the fragile and complex truths we are taught by our faith, we’ll have to turn off, drop out, and tune out. Whether or not we wall ourselves into full-fledged cultural ghettos (and that will depend on how intolerant and intolerable the general culture becomes) we will have to focus on small stuff — microcommunities gathering quietly, perhaps over microbrews, to mark the macrocosm.
That’s why I was delighted last night when our tiny college revived medieval plays that starkly and charmingly explain the mysteries of our faith, works written perhaps 1,000 years ago and performed by the guilds of bakers, cobblers, and metalworkers — the ordinary Christian folk who made their professions as well as their parishes the centers of tiny, close-knit communities. The Middle Ages are the future, if we are to have one.
But what of this feast, and why is it so hard to explain? Why do most Catholics surveyed still conflate the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth? The first reason is simply semantic; people hear the word “immaculate” and associate it with the absence of sexual sin. That reminds them how crucially important it was that Jesus had no human father. (Among those who rejected Jesus’ mission, accusations that He was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier were common.) Affirming this truth is the whole point of the Mystery Play depicting St. Joseph’s dream, and of prayers like this one from the Byzantine liturgy: “Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word; true Theotokos we magnify you!” So this feast is just another name for the Virgin Birth. Q.E.D.
There’s another, deeper reason why we have a hard time remembering this feast and what it means. It marks an event that was utterly silent, perfectly hidden, for which there can be no kind of tangible evidence. The crucifixion was public, seen by bystanders, recorded by historians, and even left behind relics. The martyrdom of saints was typically at the hands of the Roman state, and again there were witnesses and corpses; the tombs of the martyrs became early altars for the Church. The assumption, another contested mystery, is attested by the utter absence of relics; surely if the Virgin Mary had died like ordinary people, churches around the world would claim to have locks of her hair, or her bones and teeth. Instead, we have ancient testimonies that she was taken up into heaven, accepted from Ethiopia to India — wherever the apostles took the gospel.
But the event we mark today occurred in the darkness and silence of St. Anne’s womb. And our culture has a very hard time, as pro-lifers know to our frustration, accepting the significance of things that happen there. To some, we can make the case that unborn children, who already possess a heartbeat and a brain, are not irreducibly different from the infants they will become. How much harder it has proved to assert the human dignity of children just a few months younger — who are, to all appearances, mere masses of multiplying cells. The knowledge that each of us passed through this very same stage, that no human being has ever existed who wasn’t once merely a zygote, is a dry and thin intellectual truth. It does not resonate with our hearts or stir our sympathies. We can live, and indeed we are living, with hundreds of thousands of children conceived and arrested in a technological freeze-frame at fertility labs all across the world — and we can do this because their humanity remains a mere abstraction. We know that they are human as we know the truths of geometry. And we find it hard to care.
But even geometry has consequences. As our college’s artist in residence, David Clayton, makes clear in his fascinating 13-part TV series The Way of Beauty (watch it online free), the key difference between traditional buildings — however humble — that we look at and feel welcomed by, and hideous modern monstrosities that dehumanize us with a look, comes down to geometry and proportion. Traditional buildings, designed and built by men who believed in a Divine Order that pervaded all of nature, are made to reflect that order in a way that pleases the eye and resonates with the heart. Modernist buildings, designed in ignorance or defiance of that order, are eccentric, soulless, or positively aggressive. Most 19th-century prisons look more humane than churches built in the 1970s.
Because we won’t do the math, we won’t admit the full humanity of very, very young children. Our laziness yields the horror: freezers filled with tiny people, conceived for our convenience, whom we must choose to forget. Even sound, pro-life theologians cannot figure out what to do with all these lost children. Implant them? Isn’t that a sin against nature, intrinsically evil? Leave them in cold storage indefinitely? To do that is to abandon helpless children to their fate. There are no good answers to this appalling question we’ve posed ourselves. Whether or not the Church (as some assert) has abolished Limbo, one thing is sure: We have rebuilt it here on earth and stocked it full of souls who have no place to go.
Modern science, as Descartes reconceived it, was meant to make man the “master and possessor” of nature. Now we are masters of man himself, and we are proving cold and cruel. Try as we should, we cannot defeat such stupendous hubris by attacking it directly. Instead, we must each in our small way — in the private realm of intimate relations, personal friendships, families, and schools — reweave the Good one thread at a time. I think of those portraits of the Blessed Virgin as a girl, which often show her sitting with St. Anne and sewing. That image should stay with us. We should focus on the feminine side of our salvation, the Jewish girl whose life is mostly a shadow, who was hidden by poverty and obscurity, whose only important decision was to say “Yes” to an angel, who never pushed herself forward — even among the apostles who came to venerate her. She alone is the model Christian, for she alone started with the same “blank slate” as Adam and Eve. We cannot replicate her purity, which is precisely why we need her intercession. Let us think of her today, making tiny stitches in a garment, and pray that God will grant us some measure of her sacred smallness and silence.
Image: The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti