My family reacted with a touch of shock on hearing that I would be baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church.
What they saw, living hundreds of miles away, was a young woman who had become smitten with a guy who everyone agreed was great. What they remembered, from my recent college years, was a barely civil anti-Christian who barely cooperated during mealtime prayers.
I wasn’t going to do anything that I didn’t want to do. From the radio stations I programmed on my car stereo to the clothes I wore, I wasn’t going to be just like everyone else. Paradoxically, I longed to blend in with the crowd, to not stand out as a “freak” or a “reject.”
It was a tightrope walk, one that I often failed.
Becoming Catholic required me to lay my pride down for good, like an addict giving up his needle. I could no longer be the main authority in my life if the “Catholic thing” was going to work; I had to accept that someone knew more than I did.
Maybe that’s why I never really questioned the practice of holy days of obligation. I had already duked out the whole problem of authority; if Mother Church said it was important enough to change a weeknight’s peace to mayhem, then so be it. I might not like it, but I could accept it.
Despite my acceptance of them, though, many of the holy days of obligation catch me by surprise. I can’t blame it on being a convert; I’ve been Catholic long enough to know better and I’ve spent quite a few years working in a parish office. When you’re the person putting the parish bulletin together, the vehicle announcing holy day Mass times, you don’t really have an excuse for forgetting.
I seem to be most surprised, many times, by the feast of the Immaculate Conception in early December. I’m gearing up during the first week of Advent, trying to stay on track and focus while not scrooging traditional Christmas preparations for everyone around me. Somehow, Mary’s major feast gets slipped down on my priority list.
Maybe it’s that it seems anti-climactic to take my focus from Jesus to His mother. Yeah, we love her. Yeah, she’s great. Yeah, she deserves a crown and all of that.
Everyone around me, though, is joyful, ecstatic, and positively beside themselves about that birth in late December. They can’t wait to rejoice. They are looking for the star in the sky, just waiting for the first hint. They are decorating and listening to special music and sending greeting cards near and far. There’s supposed to be something special in the air and even in the secular realm that flirts with atheism, you’ll catch a smile and a softened attitude.
This holy day that surprises me, every single year, is a reminder of my heavenly family history. It’s also inspiration for my aspirations. Mary was perfect – preserved from original sin, but not from the harrowing effects of it (death and suffering) – and because of her perfection, she was fit to bear the King.
If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t have all this Advent preparation. If she hadn’t said “Yes,” there would be no Christmas. If she were not conceived, we would not have a cause for joy.
I sometimes feel like Mary is a distant figure from a remote far-off village in another time and another place. She can feel like a role model for other people, but not for me. There’s intimidation in all that perfection.
But when I go to Mass on that holy day, and when I offer myself to the One who gave her to me, I’ll feel it again.
“Only say the word…”
She reaches out her hand…
“…and my soul shall be healed.”
…and she pats my shoulder, pointing to her Son. He’s there, right beside her, chubby and cute and begging to be cuddled.
God loved us so much that He prevented Mary from having the burden of original sin; she alone would be able to carry the Messiah inside her body. She still had to say “Yes” to the angel’s offer, though; she had to choose the life of immense joy and unbearable sorrow for herself.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception is often a point where Christians differ. It’s often contentious, but I think that the intellectual debate loses focus of what we’re claiming when we call Mary the Immaculate Conception.
When we call Mary perfect, when we blow her kisses and offer her flowers, when we sit at her feet and rest our weary heads in her lap — in these moments, we do the very things God would have us do. We approach a fellow human being — albeit one who reached a level of holiness we can only aspire to — and we give her our love. In loving her, in taking her hand, we can’t help but be led to Daddy.
Just as I cherish the way my daughters cozy up to my husband, so God holds dear the affection we show to His mother. He made her flawless, because nothing less would do. He stepped in front of the pit each of us has fallen into, the pit of original sin, and caught her before she ever went in. We have baptism to pull us out of that pit; she had God’s immense gift of the Immaculate Conception.
Mary, the Immaculate Conception, is a gift to each of us, proof of a daddy’s unending love. She stands before us, ready to walk with us to Daddy’s door, able to show us the best way there.