Service — Feast of Immaculate Conception 2019

Here are the words, readings and sermon from the service I did on the “Feast of the Immaculate Conception” at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, KS on 8 December 2019.

First, the words on “awe,” the theme for consideration in December:

Each month through the year, we as a community take time to reflect on a theme.  We do it here in the service, and the children do it in their classrooms.

The month of December, we are invited to reflect on the theme of Awe.  What does it mean to be a people of awe?

Well, when I see the word “awe,” especially capitalized as it is the UUA materials, my mind goes all Old Testament – “Fear of God” and all that stuff.  You know, where you hear the voice of God in basso profundo.  Our God is a personal God.  But Sodom and Gomorrah have gone too far, so, as God might say, “This time, it’s personal!”

That sort of awe doesn’t do it for me.  So, I’m going to bring it down a notch, actually I’m gonna ratchet it way down.  Instead of Awe, let’s consider aww!  You know, the feeling you have when you see a toddler trying to walk.

That sight never ceases to grab me.  From the effort to get upright, to the first few tentative steps, to  the giddy  exhilaration when a few steps becomes a few more steps and the toddler is off, to that inevitable moment when the toddler gets past where that burst of energy has taken him, and his mind starts to realize that it no longer knows what to do NOW!  Just like Wile Coyote half-way across the chasm.  And then, the fall, boom!  A look of confusion, and some shock, and maybe some tears.  And then, up again… The Itsy-Bitsy Spider has nothing on toddlers.

I admit, my aww! lacks the majesty of AWE!  But I get to experience my aww! much more often.  It fills me with joy, it fills me with wonder, it fills me with gratitude to be in this world, that has such creatures in it.

Come, in that spirit of aww! let us worship together.

Then the two readings, the first from the Papal Bull, “Ineffabilis Deus,” issued on 8 December 1854 by Pope Pius IX:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

The second, from Joni Mitchell’s song, “Come in from the Cold.”

Back in 1957
We had to dance a foot apart
And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines
Holding their rulers without a heart
And so with just a touch of our fingers
It could make our circuitry explode
All we ever wanted
Was just to come in from the cold

Come on in, come on in, come on in
Oh, come in from the cold
I feel your legs under the table

leaning into mine

I feel renewed

I feel disabled

by these bonfires in my spine,

I don’t know who the arsonist was

which incendiary soul

But all I ever wanted

Was to come in from the cold.

I know we never will be perfect

never entirely clear

We get hurt and we just panic

and we strike out

out of fear

I fear the sentence of this solitude

Two hundred years on hold,

Oh and all we ever wanted

was just to come in from the cold.

Come on in, come on in, come on in
Oh, come in from the cold

Do yourself a favor — check out Joni’s performance of the song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOfJ7S9f2LM

And the sermon proper: “Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception: a Consideration”

“St. Peter’s Parish, Dorchester.”  Until I was 17 years old, a freshman in college, that was my response to “Whereabouts in Boston do you live?” Not Meetinghouse Hill, the official neighborhood designation for the area, nor Fields Corner, the subway stop nearest my home.  My college friends, none from very Catholic Boston, found my response quaint, and parochial.  When I lived there, some nearly 50 years ago, well over 80% of the population was Irish Catholic, and St. Peter’s was our church, the center of our lives.  And so, when the Worship Team was working out the schedule, and I saw December 8, “the Feast of the Immaculate Conception” popped immediately into my head and out of my mouth. And when Rev. Rose suggested I might do the homily, it was that feast which stuck in my mind. To put all here at ease – I am not proselytizing for the Catholic Church, nor am I valorizing one approach to spirituality over another.  We are all on our own paths in this church.  I respect that and value that.  That is our strength in this holy place.

But “Immaculate Conception” is what December 8 says to me.  And I’ve learned to listen to the still, small voice within.

A few facts first.  On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX, in a papal bull entitled “Ineffabilis Deus” or “God the Ineffable,” declared as dogma that Mary was conceived without “the stain of original sin,” a position NOT universally held in the Catholic Church at the time.  He declared it as infallible (not prone to error), the first time a pope had invoked infallibility in declaring a doctrine proclaimed ex cathedra (“from the chair [of Peter]”).  There is a mistaken sense about infallibility that whenever a pope makes a statement regarding anything religious, his views are considered infallible by Rome.  This is wrong.  Infallibility has been invoked only three times – 1854 on the Immaculate Conception of Mary; 1870 on the question of infallibility itself; and 1950 on the question of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven.

What, you may ask, has this to do with Unitarians?  Many Unitarians do not believe in any deity, and those who do – Unitarian Christians especially – do not believe in the triune God of traditional Christianity, and certainly not in the peculiar spin of the Roman Catholic Church.  I will get to that, but I’m going to keep my old beat-up Catholic hat on for a moment.

As to the actual doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, I doubt that most Catholics sitting in the pews think about it, and many who do so assume it refers to Mary’s conception of Jesus, rather than St. Anne’s (Jesus’ grandma) conception of Mary.  Whether they have the concept, it certainly is not something on which they dwell, not even in Kansas City, where the cathedral is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

At the heart of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though, is a clearly dualistic view of humanity, that humans are body and soul, that the body and its desires are wrong and sinful, and that such desires must be condemned and corrected.  The idea of Mary as “immaculately conceived” assumes that the normal method of conception has, in it, a stain, one which Mary, through divine intervention, avoided. In this view, we all come into the world stained. And while I can accept the idea of sin, I cannot fathom nor accept the idea that we are fallen and can only be redeemed by belonging to a particular group, or by holding a particular set of beliefs.

The idea of Mary, “pure and lowly, virgin Mother, undefiled,” as one hymn puts it seems so destructive. By putting Mary on the pedestal of Immaculate Conception, the Catholic Church has often cast down other women as unworthy, as base.  The Puritan ancestors of the Unitarians did no better, plastering the scarlet letter of condemnation on many a woman who failed to toe the patriarchal line, or failed to keep her passion hid.  And the body, our glorious human body, was deemed base and corrupt and shameful, while women’s bodies became fetishized objects of the male gaze and patriarchal scorn. But whether elevated as immaculate virgin or despised as the fallen daughter of Eve, women too often were excluded from a true and lasting relation, kept at arms’ length, under watch, but not truly seen nor heard.  And in that, you have a failure to love on a systemic level.  And the failure to love, and to debase others, that – according to my grade school nuns – was sin in its very essence.

But there is another danger (and here my fondness for the church of my youth really sounds the alarm) in the concept of infallibility itself.  It smacks of pride, the idea that one person (any one person) has some lock on truth.  In “Come in from the Cold,” Joni Mitchell states a contrary personal truth “I know we never will be perfect.”  That seems a good axiom to hold onto.  We are mortal, and we are limited in all sorts of ways – by prejudice, fear, confirmation bias – oh, we can count on being wrong a lot.  The way out of that is through dialog, and careful witness to each other’s truths.  Once you play the infallibility card, though, you deny all that, and close the door to future meaningful dialog on the subject.  Many in the Catholic Church in 1854 were not on board with the idea of the Immaculate Conception of Mary; prior to the papal decree, the matter was still an open question. Some of the biggest Catholic saints found the idea of Immaculate Conception flawed and troubling – Thomas Aquinas did not believe in it, nor did most of the Dominicans.  My own name saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, referred to the idea of the Immaculate Conception as a “novelty.”  But after 1854, the matter was closed.  Can truth, or even a truth, be imposed by fiat?  I’m thinking not.

Unitarians, though we do not have an officially stated policy of infallibility, have, in my experience, played the unwritten infallibility card – it’s the one that says, “Them that thinks like me are right and all right, and those that don’t are wrong.”  I am not proud to say that I have played this card myself, and probably will again.  It seems to me, though, failing to witness another’s truth when they have been brave enough to share, even when their truths are different from mine, maybe especially when different from mine, is a failure to love too, a missed opportunity for real connection, and a block on possible growth.

So, where do we go from here?

On the matter of the Immaculate Conception and the matter of papal infallibility – the answer is easy.  We, as Unitarians, don’t believe in either.  And I’ve got to tell you, neither is an issue for many Catholics.  It does not impact or inform their faith path.

On the matter of sexism, or racism, or any other ism that turns one against the other, we must always be on our guard.  We are called to love the world in all its multiplicity and its complexity.

On the matter of Puritanism or any sort of fascination with “purity,” I would urge that we take up Joni Mitchell’s plea to “come in from the cold,” and help others do likewise.  I would urge us all to find a way out of solitude into community. I would urge us all to find a way to love ourselves in our bodies, and move past elevating or condemning others, or ourselves.  The way to build the Beloved Community is together.

And one final thought, as we are coming on Christmas, to cut through all those words that box us in, or keep them out, let us step aside from coldly analytic language, from trying to define, and move into the more holistic warmth of image.  Here, for reflexion, let me end with the most moving image of my Catholic upbringing – it is that of Mary, but not the Immaculate Mary; it is Mary the teen mother embracing her infant son, sharing warmth and love. It is an image you see every day, if we but look, but no less wonderful for being so. Amen.


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