Commentary on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception
THE TEXT BELOW IS THE TRANSCRIPTION OF THE VIDEO COMMENTARY BY FR. FERNANDO ARMELLINI
“After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree, the LORD God called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.” Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked? You have eaten, then, 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, and so I ate it.” The LORD God then asked the woman, “Why did you do such a thing?” The woman answered, “The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.” Then the LORD God said to the serpent: “Because you have done this, you shall be banned from all the animals and from all the wild creatures; on your belly shall you crawl, and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” The man called his wife Eve, because she became the mother of all the living.”
Happy feast day to all.
On December 8, 1854 in the Sistine Chapel, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception with these words: "The Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin by special grace and privilege of Almighty God in anticipation of the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ."
We wonder: what is a dogma formulated in this way, with a language that we find a bit puzzling. The first question we ask ourselves is this privilege granted to Mary. What is our question? If God is a father of all and grants a privilege to a member of the human race (Mary) and except her of original sin and its dramatic consequences, why not give us all this privilege? If God grants privileges ... we do not like that. It also takes Mary far away from us, rather than bringing her closer to us. We do not feel her like our sister who makes the path of life with all the dramas, the difficulties we all encounter. We prefer to feel her closer to us but, instead, this privilege drives her away. We can admire her, she is a magnificent creature, but not close to us.
So when we speak of devotion to Mary, it will be to obtain some favor but she is not a companion of the way of life. Then there is the issue of 'original sin'. This papal definition speaks of original sin. What is this 'original sin' about? Will we be the poor descendants of Adam having to endure with no fault of ours, the punishment of a sin we have not committed?
This has been the interpretation that comes to us from Augustine onwards. We can proclaim: Blessed Mary who has been free from this problem. And it all ends with a great admiration for this woman, but bitter for us and for our sinfulness. Mary is far from our condition if we interpret her in this perspective. This image of the mother of Jesus arises from affection rather than deep meditation of the sacred texts. Instead of uniting the brothers of the faith in Christ, it divides them. It is a discussed subject in ecumenical dialogue either with the Protestants or the Orthodox.
The Mary of the Gospel is actually very close to us. She is the girl of Nazareth who is in love with a young man in her place, Joseph. And who plans to form a family with Joseph in the tradition of her people; then she becomes a mother. A woman of faith: "Blessed are you who believed," tells Elizabeth. Mary had to face every day difficulties and temptations like ours; her son has been tempted and also her in everything, like us. Mary is no exception. She is the particular person in whom God has found the full availability to carry out his plan of salvation. This is the Mary of the Gospel.
And when we reread the dogma of the Immaculate Conception we must always do so in the light of the Gospel and the new interpretations we have of God's Word. The Gospel records Mary’s perplexity ... her questions ... her poignant journey of faith… when Luke says at the beginning that Mary did not understand what Simeon said - she did not understand what Jesus says in the temple when they find him… the evangelist says his parents did not understand. Mary was tempted as we are, as her child was - with a difference that we will explain later in the commentary of the word of God for this feast day. Mary always said ‘Yes’ to God.
Let us try to understand this dogma that has been formulated with a language linked to the philosophical and theological categories of its time. Let's be clear: dogmas are not the word of God, they are words of man that at certain time have formulated a truth as it was understood on a truth that is present in Scripture. But the philosophical and theological categories change with time, with culture. The truth remains and is formulated in a different way.
Today we understand differently this only truth presented with words of Pius IX, but today we have deepened the understanding of Scripture and we can formulate in a different way the same truth. Like all at his time, Pius IX claimed that the story of original sin made concrete reference to two individuals: Mr. Adam and Mrs. Eve. He was convinced that their transgression had dramatic consequences for all humankind.
This was the common understanding in times of Pius IX. The rest is the belief that starts with St. Augustine and then continued to the present day. Bible studies have shown today, without any doubt, that the text of Genesis, where what was considered the original sin is narrated, is not a report of something that happened at the beginning of the world, but it is a page of theology where the answer to the deepest mysteries of the human heart is written. The question was: why is there evil in the world? Why do we often realize we are living in a valley of tears? Who created this situation of pain? Did God wanted this kind of world, or is it us who created it? This is the existential question to which this third chapter of Genesis answers and that is today’s first reading.
This chapter does not tell the story of a certain sin of Adam and Eve, but explains the dynamic by which people always seek to challenge God, his design and project, and make later foolish decisions that cause weeping, gnashing of teeth, the valley of tears that God did not want; it was man who created it, deciding what courses to take, regardless of God. Thus, eliminating God in their life.
We are not the 'unfortunate descendants of Adam and Eve’… forced to suffer the consequences of the sin of our parents. We are 'Adam' and 'Eve' who before God have the responsibility to make decisions. We can take decisions of life or choose decisions of death. If we follow God and not our whim, we will make decisions of life. If instead, we eliminate God, then our choices lead us to a valley of tears…because God does not create the 'valley of tears’; it is our sin that creates it.
Therefore, if the interpretation of the text of Genesis is not what St. Augustine said, then the understanding of the truth of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception will need to be deepened in a different way. Let’s try to do it.
I will start from the experience that we all have: we all experience an inclination to selfishness, to fall back on ourselves, on our interests, to think about what pleases us, and not to put at the forefront of our thoughts and our actions the good, the life, the joy of others.
We do not think that way. Our instinct leads us to think of ourselves, to decide according to our interests and this is what is improperly called 'original sin'. There is no sin, there is no fault, it is a condition with which we are born. Guilt comes later when we allow ourselves to be driven by this selfish desire and not by love. So, we do not live up to our humanization. It is not part of human life if one makes selfish choices and no option of self-sacrificing for the life of our brothers and sisters.
So the apex of evolution is not the rational animal, self-awareness, owner of science and technology. The apex of evolution, according to God's design, is the person who loves, the one who denies himself to rediscover the brother or sister by giving love, life and joy to his fellow human being. When man comes to love in fullness, free and unconditionally he reaches the culmination of being human.
Selfishness is anti-love and therefore is dehumanizing. Now comes the question: Is tendency to selfishness we have from birth really invincible? This is the question. Or has someone fully overcome this tendency that led to self-awareness? The total, unconditional love, the search for good, to love even those who harm us - the enemy ... is it possible? Is total love without a hint of selfishness possible? The answer is certainly NO if we count only with our strength, coming from the biological field, our earthly nature. This is impossible. A grace of the Spirit is needed, the divine life force that works in us, makes us overcome this tendency of self-centeredness).
The question then remains: Is there really anyone who allows the Spirit to act the divine life in fullness? This is the question. The second reading of this feast taken from the Letter to the Ephesians says: "God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish (immaculate) before him. He destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:4-5).
Note well, 'to be immaculate', that is, fully overpowered by the Spirit, the divine life, love in us is the destination for all the sons and daughters of God. 'Be holy and blameless' (immaculate). We all have this destination. The question I propose is: Is there anyone who has become immaculate, that selfishness has no more power over that person? The answer is today’s feast. Mary is the one. Her life has totally been a gift of love. This does not mean that she has not been tempted, not having doubts to give herself unconditionally for love, as her son did. So we feel her as our faith companion, not privileged to be exempted from all the difficulties that we all must face.
We go now to the sacred text of the first reading of today that will help us to understand better what happened to Mary. The reading begins by saying that God called man after the man had run away from him. He has eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and God asks him: Where are you? God has done all things well; the world was beautiful when it came out of the hands of God.
In fact, 7 times the sacred author says, 'God saw that what he had done was good.' Creation as it left the hands of God was one in which people were in perfect harmony with God. This harmony is presented with a great picture in the book of Genesis: “The Lord God walking in the garden at the breezy time of the day” (Gen 3:8) Full harmony of man who fit in without departing from God’s works, from the project of love that God had for him. There was harmony between man and nature. The world was loved, respected, cared by man as a gardener following the commission of the Creator.
There was also harmony between man and his companion, the woman. No domination, superiority, no self-centeredness - just the joy of being a donation for each other - sexuality as a gift of unconditional love. It is in this context that the snake appears convincing man to break the limit imposed by the human condition and to become a god, to decide on his own what is good and what is bad, not keeping in mind the Creator's project about his life, about creatures; to make a god to his measure, without the need for any other. Convinces him to take distance from the plan of the Creator and to replace it with his own project, to follow his own whim, his own wiliness.
Thus preventing the full realization of self, happiness. It is the snake that has entered man. Let's see who is this 'snake.’ Contrary to what we think, this mysterious character no longer appears in the Old Testament. It is during the time of Jesus that Jewish authors, under the influence of Persian and Hellenistic authors, began to see the devil in the serpent.
But the text of Genesis does not gear towards this explanation. He says the snake is the most cunning of the creatures of God. The more astute, not the wisest. The cunning! Wisdom would have led to be in tune with God; cunning takes you away following your whims. The serpent is not outside man. He is the same as a man who duped by the delirium of omnipotence revolt against God; thinks to replace God proclaiming his own autonomy to decide what is right and what is wrong. And this temptation to self-sufficiency present in man, seduces him easily.
Therefore, what was called 'original sin' is nothing else but the presentation of the origin of all sins, from all foolish choices that man makes. Sin causes the breakdown of all the harmony that we have presented and the consequences are always dramatic. It is not God who punishes man when he transgresses the commandments, but when man following his own whims, instead of following God's design, assumes the consequences and punishment of the same sin.
Man does not live anymore in an earthly paradise but in a valley of tears created by sin itself. "Where are you?" asks God. It does not mean under what tree do you hide... the question is much deeper. The Father cares for this choice of man who fell into an abyss… where did you fall? Think about what you did, what you've done with your life… how you have fallen following your instincts. You fell in the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We see it today. What happens to people in the field of sexuality? Instead of following God's design, they follow the fad itself, they build a paradise in this world, an earthly paradise, but end up in a valley of tears. Think of the many broken families, of the many young people who do not build a genuine love. It is because they make their choices without having in mind the word of love that the Father in heaven gives them for their life, their joy. Man's response: “I heard you in the garden, but I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself.”
To hide from the Lord means to abandon him, to be self-sufficient. This happens to us when we follow our instincts: We begin to leave prayer, we have no more interest in listening to the Word of God, we distance ourselves from the community so as not to enter into arguments, not be marked by our choices. Man is afraid of God if he disconnects from him and rushes into the abyss of complete confusion. When God asks the man, Have you eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil?” I warned you not to touch it because if you do, if you want to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong, you do not follow what I teach you. You lose your life. Man's response: “The woman whom you put here with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.” The woman is the culprit.
This is the first consequence of this sin after the removal of God, remoteness with the brethren. We must live in love and sin separates. And the accusation is against God, because in the words of man he is saying to God: you are responsible, you put her next to me, she seduced me. You gave her to me… if there is a culprit, ask her for an explanation, says the man. I was deceived. It is a temptation that we also have today: passing to God our responsibility - 'You're the one who created the world.' We blame the devil for evil in the world, passions, education, society. The Lord now turns to the woman, "What have you done? She answered: The serpent deceived me and I ate."
It is a not a very veiled accusation against God. We said before that the snake is not something external to man; it is that part of us that takes us away, the impulse that leads us to make choices that are not of God. The woman blames the serpent, which means, 'You, God put in me a tendency to do evil… Why did you not made an angel? Then I would not have problem.' The answer is that God could not make us angels because then he would have created something different from us; if he has made us this way, it cannot be otherwise.
We would expect at this point that the Lord interrogate the snake, but the Lord cannot do it, because the snake is but the other side of our humanity. Instead of questioning the snake, there is a great promise - the curse of the serpent. In the book of Genesis, we find all kinds of blessings. God bless the fish, blesses man: grow and multiply.
Blessing means fertility, continuity of life. The serpent is cursed: it means, 'you will not have posterity,’ destined to end your existence without posterity; in the history that lasts you will not appear. This is called the 'proto-gospel', that is, the word of joy and hope spoken by God from the beginning. The world and humanity will end well. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.”
The most immediate interpretation is that Mary will crush the serpent. Wrong! The meaning is different. It is an image of human life in conflict between good and evil, between selfishness and love which will last until the end. And in this confrontation between selfishness and love, selfishness ultimately will lose. The head of the serpent will be crushed, 'will eat dust' (the snake does not eat dust). To eat dust means the complete defeat. Christ will crush, with the donation of his life, the gift of his spirit, the head of this snake, because when we let the spirit of love act in us, the Spirit that Christ brought to the world, the head of the snake, the head of selfishness is destroyed.
So the question we want to answer at the end of the commentary to this Word of God: Is there anyone who has crushed the head of this serpent? Today’s feast is the answer: YES. There is a woman where the Spirit dwelt in fullness – it is Mary. She accomplished the perfect harmony that God has dreamed of since the first morning the world.
I wish you all a good feast day.