Immaculate Conception and misconceptions

The Immaculate Conception of which baby?

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the last Mary feast of the year, or the first one of the Church’s year, if you think of Advent as the start of it, which of course we do.   These celebrations of stages in Mary’s life parcel the year out between them, trying to show the natural rhythm of conception and birth, but they can also lead to misunderstandings,  because the feasts have difficult names and some people get genuinely confused about what’s happening, and to whom, and when.  The Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth.  The first is of Mary, the second is of Jesus.

Creating the liturgy

And the Church has to find readings for them all in a text which manages to leave the Mother of God totally offstage most of the time (and doesn’t feature many other women either in a starring role, though of course we know that there must have been lots of them around all the time, holding up half the sky).  There are some great female forerunners in the Old Testament, but we don’t use their stories, which is a pity, as Mary would have known them well.

Mary feasts and Jesus feasts

With apologies to those for whom this is obvious, you can divide the Mary feasts into those about Jesus and those about Mary.

Annunciation : the angel comes to tell Mary about Jesus

The Annunciation is the feast of the conception of Jesus, with  Christmas exactly nine months later as the feast of the birth of Jesus.  The Immaculate Conception is the feast of the conception of Mary (followed exactly nine months later by Our Lady’s birthday).  The Assumption is the feast of the death of Mary (neat Churchly chiasmus there).  All the other feasts happen in between, depending (for Mary) on her various titles (Mary the Mother of God, Our Lady of Guadalupe, of Fatima etc) or (for Jesus) on various events as they unfold (the Presentation in the Temple, the Transfiguration, the Passion, the Resurrection).

The Immaculate Conception
Immaculate Conception : angel comes to tell Joachim about Mary

So we are about to celebrate the Immaculate Conception at the beginning of December : this is the conception of Mary herself, the only person since Adam and Eve to have been born without Original Sin, so that she could be a suitable mother for Jesus.  I’m not going to discuss the theology of this, for various reasons;  I’m just looking at the readings set for the feast.  This is conceptually (sorry) the first Mary feast, because it has to predate eveything else, and it does come early in the Church’s year.  It’s just unfortunate that it happens near the end of the calendar year and Christmas itself, which probably adds to the confusion.

Readings for the Mass

I can’t help thinking that some of the unclarity over the Immaculate Conception is caused by the choice of the Annunciation as the Gospel for the day.  Yes, of course it’s the pivotal moment when Mary says yes to God’s plan of redemption, but we are supposed to be celebrating her own conception (by a chaste kiss between Joachim and Anna, according to some of the Church fathers) and the fact that it’s totally different from everyone else’s, although she’s supposed to represent the human race working together with God.

Joachim and Anna cuddling the toddler Mary (Chora)
Only a small group to choose from

But there’s actually not much choice if you are looking for Mary readings.  There is no reference to the Immaculate Conception in the gospels.  Appearances of Mary are limited to the Annunciation, the Visitation (with Magnificat), the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, looking for Jesus after he’s been left behind in Jerusalem, the wedding at Cana, the offstage scene where Jesus gets a message that his mother and brothers are outside (and he stays where he is), the Crucifixion, and Pentecost (she is present, although there is no further reference to her).  That’s it.  And most of the time, she is present but silent; she speaks only four times, according to the record in the Gospels.  Our one lengthy piece of Mary-speech is kept as a reading for the Feast of the Assumption, though we are allowed to use it every day in Evening Prayer.  It is turned into a Responsorial psalm for the third Sunday of Advent in Year B.  I’ve talked about the Magnificat before, as a piece of (rare) female speech in the Bible.  I wish we used it more on Sundays.

First Reading : the Fall, Eve’s fault
Adam and Eve with serpent
Legs still there (for now)

So choosing the readings for the Immaculate Conception was always going to be difficult.  We start with the reading where God calls to Adam who has just eaten the apple and is hiding.  If you look this up, ‘the man and his wife’ hear God in the garden and ‘they’ hide, so Eve is definitely there.   But God calls to the man, asks Adam whether he has been eating the forbidden fruit and Adam says ‘It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit and I ate it.’  Then God asks the woman, and she says ,’The serpent tempted me and I ate.’  God curses the serpent and prophesies enmity between the woman and the serpent and their descendants.   The reading ends abruptly with a short sentence explaining that the man then names the woman ‘Eve’ (derived from the Hebrew word ‘to live’) because she was the mother of all the living.  That last sentence comes a good five verses later in the chapter, and comes after God’s further words to the erring couple, which are left out.  How do we respond to this with the psalm?

Responsorial Psalm 97/98 yet again

We go back to our trusty psalm 97/98, which we have been singing repeatedly recently, and which we will sing again on Christmas Day, in exactly the same version as here, but with an extra four lines.  We positively celebrate the events of the first reading because God has brought salvation even out of such disaster (this is the felix culpa mentioned in the Easter Exsultet : ‘O happy fault which won for us so great a Redeemer’).  It’s a great joyful psalm, which encourages everyone to sing (always a good move), enumerates God’s mercies and ends by encouraging everyone to sing all over again.

After the psalm, the second reading (Ephesians 1) is a beautiful poem which again emphasizes God’s ‘pretermined plan’ which he had organised from the beginning, but as it’s St Paul, it’s all very male-oriented language, and despite the references to being chosen ‘from the beginning’, it doesn’t really seem to refer to Our Lady much.

Back on course with the Alleluia

You realise that we have strayed from the path when the Alleluia verse, the first line of the Hail Mary, almost comes as a surprise.  And some of the force of it is lost when the identical verse is translated differently in the Gospel (‘Rejoice, so highly favoured!’).  If you want echoes to reinforce the message of the readings, surely it would help if they sounded the same note.  The Gospel, as I said,  is the account of the Annunciation, exactly the same reading as set for the Annunciation feast itself.  This does contribute to the confusion, but it’s hard to think of a better Gospel reading except the Visitation (because then we’d get the Magnificat), and that would not actually cause any less confusion, because yet another baby (John the Baptist) would be in the picture.

two women, two special babies; but who is the Immaculate Conception?
Alternatives to the Gospel?

Luckily for me, both the bits I have to set to music are ones I feel happy with.  We have different versions of this psalm at various stages in the year, and it’s always a pleasure to set because it is so joyful.  The psalm and the Alleluia are celebrations of God’s plan and Our Lady’s part in it.  I can think of alternatives for the two readings, but for the Gospel I think it has to be the Annunciation because Christmas is coming round the corner,  Mary’s other sublime moment when she is the agent of God.  We can’t use the Nativity readings;  everything in Advent is building towards the event of Christmas night.  The focus is on the point of shifting from who Mary has been till now (Immaculate Conception, tribe of David, betrothed of Joseph, cousin of Elizabeth), to what she is about to do.  She is about to become the mother of God-with-us, who will be born only because she said yes when God asked the question.  The saying yes and following through are what make Mary the Queen of Heaven.  We are thanking God for her on this feast.

crib scene in illuminated capital
Sing choirs of angels….and everyone else too
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A pilgrim psalm, which bears repeating : 121/122

The last shall be first

The last psalm of the Church’s year for the current year (Year C) is the same as the first psalm for the new year which starts with the First Sunday of Advent (Year A) : Psalm 121/122, a pilgrim psalm.   For two Sundays in a row, with very different sets of readings and very different atmospheres and messages, we sing the same psalm.  It’s not exactly the same all the way through (of which more later), but the Response and the first verse are identical.

As the year changes, we look both forward and back : here’s a lovely Arts and Crafts Janus-face
Only every third year

This does not happen every year, only when the move is from Year C (where we are now) to Year A.   At the end of liturgical year A, the last psalm is 22/23, because the OT reading for that iteration of Christ the King is about the Lord being a true shepherd,  and 1 Advent B has Psalm 79/80.  At the end of Year B it’s Psalm 92/93, because we are emphasizing the kingliness of the Lord, and 1 Advent C uses Psalm 24/25.   But this year, we have 121/122 for Christ the King on November 24th, and then the same again on December 1st at the beginning of Advent.  Why, and does it work?

Psalms of Ascents, or Gradual Psalms

It is a brilliant psalm for both Sundays, for several reasons.  First of all, it is one of the ‘psalms of ascent’, one of the traditional pilgrim psalms.  The usual Catholic title for these is ‘Gradual psalms’, which I rather like, as it sounds as if it’s celebrating our slow creep towards improvement and the Kingdom.  These are a bunch of psalms (119/120 to 133/134) which come just after the longest psalm in the whole book (117/118), a complex and artful meditation on the beauty of God’s Law.  The next few psalms are brief, and seem briefer because of the contrast.

Going up
Going up to the house of the Lord

The ‘ascent’ could be to Jerusalem, or to the Temple Mount, or up the steps, no one seems to be sure; but I think two things are at work here.  Pilgrimages are usually, traditionally, to places hard to reach, and very often uphill, because you express penitence and merit by effort or even suffering; and also there is a convention that you go ‘up’ to Jerusalem the way that in the nineteenth century, people always went ‘up’ to London from anywhere else in the country, even from the north.  The same was true of Oxford and Cambridge, which is why being sent home in disgrace is always referred to as ‘sent down’.  It’s nothing to do with geographical direction or compass points, and everything to do with aspiration.  And they are ‘gradual psalms’ , from gradus, the Latin word for step, because you must travel step by step; no shortcuts.

Pilgrims to Jerusalem

The best, because the longest and most arduous, pilgrimage was to Jerusalem.  Here is a link to a wonderful fifteenth-century virtual pilgrimage by Dr Kathryne Beebe, which I stumbled upon while researching this topic, and was enchanted by.   And the illustrations are stunning.

Psalms telling the story of a journey

119/120 is a song at the beginning of the pilgrim’s journey, where he is fearful of the people he will encounter on the way and devoutly hopes for God’s protection, while still feeling rather nervous.  The next psalm shows the group starting to coalesce (not just ‘I’, but ‘Israel’) and already feeling much braver;  it is the beloved and familiar ‘I lift up my eyes to the mountains;/ from where shall come my help?’ (120/121), full of serene confidence, which we had a few Sundays ago.  Then we get Psalm 121/122, and we  (‘our feet’, ‘the tribes’) have suddenly arrived in Jerusalem.  We have reached our destination, as the satnav always says.  The later pilgrim psalms are prayers and praise, thanksgiving and celebration, until Psalm 133/134  as the last in this group of psalms,  a night-time leavetaking, as the travellers start the journey home.

Psalm 121/122, living in the moment

What is striking about Ps 121/122 is its immediacy.  ‘I rejoiced when I heard them say:/ ‘Let us go to God’s house.’/ And now our feet are standing/ within your gates, O Jerusalem.’

a strongly compact destination

There is no explanation or leisurely scene-setting.  The speaker could not be more direct.  We don’t know who the ‘them’ are which he mentions, but this is immediately overtaken by the excitement of the next line and the sense of arrival and achievement, ‘now’.

At this point the two Sundays’ versions diverge (not US).  And I want to talk about them with their preceding readings, because it makes a huge difference to the emphasis.

Christ the King: 2 Samuel 5, and Ps 121/122

The first reading for Christ the King is short.  (The context is that Saul is dead by the beginning of Samuel 2, but there is still a lot of fighting going on about the succession.)

Christ the King, serenely reigning from a very gorgeous throne

All the tribes of Israel come to David at Hebron, and assert their kinship with him.  They know about David’s prowess, and they know that God chose him to lead them.  So they all come together at Hebron, and ‘King David’ makes a pact with them and is anointed king of Israel.  (After this, David goes on to conquer Jerusalem and set up his capital city there.)

The psalm starts as we have seen.  The second stanza praises Jerusalem ‘as a city/ strongly compact’, and names it as the focus of pilgrimage and power : ‘It is there that the tribes go up,/ the tribes of the Lord.’.  The third stanza makes this even clearer : it is the law to praise God there, and it is where the judgment seats were set up ‘of the house of David’;  – so, lawful authority for the ages to come.

1 Advent A : Isaiah 2, and Ps 121/122

The choice of stanzas is different for the First Sunday of Advent (A).  We sing almost the entire psalm in this version.  This is in response to the words of the beautiful and poetic first reading, which describes ‘the vision of Isaiah […], concerning Judah and Jerusalem.’.   This is the fulfilment and apotheosis of the place and event that David’s consecration foreshadows. Isaiah sees ‘the mountain of the Temple of the Lord’ being lifted up above everything else, and all the nations will ‘stream’ to it (water flowing uphill, to show how amzing and totally other this will be), and they will say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord’.  The whole world will make this pilgrimage.   The people  look forward to God teaching them, giving them his laws, bringing justice and peace.  The sentences roll on, coming to a final, almost breathless call, ‘O House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.’.  It is a most beautiful and stirring piece of writing, with real elan.  I think it is impossible, even just reading it silently, not to feel the sweep up and down at the cadence like a mighty wave.

The Temple of the heavenly Jerusalem

The essential ‘place’ mentioned is the Temple and the mountain it is on.  Jerusalem is mentioned by name, but only once, as a pair with Zion, and I think this is why the two lines about Jerusalem the compact city are omitted from the Advent version of the psalm, in every version except the US’.  (The US version keeps all the lines, and ends up with one verse more than everyone else.)  The emphasis is rather on Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage to praise the Lord’s name.  We have the thrones of judgement, just as at the end of the Christ the King version, but now we go further, with two stanzas of prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, because now it is more than just a city strongly compact (and therefore defensible if necessary); now it is the home of peace and the house of the Lord.  The swords have been hammered into ploughshares, or, as we might say today, the weapons have been put beyond use.  This is no earthly address, this is Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem.

Setting the psalm(s)

There was so much similarity between the two versions of the psalm that it would have seemed perverse to write two different settings.  I think it’s important to preserve the link between them, so I kept the music the same, except that it was necessary to put extra bars in where there are extra lines.  I was very concerned to keep the feeling of ‘going up’ where possible, but it doesn’t technically occur in the words until the second stanza for everyone except the US, where it comes in the second line.  So I put it in the melody, which takes a run all the way up the octave.  It was difficult with the version of the words for CAN and OZ, so I shifted it to the recorder part, but (I hope) there’s still a feel of moving forwards.  Onwards and upwards.  It needs to be sung at a good walking pace, not rushing, but not dawdling either.

Ps 121/122, a psalm for coronations

This psalm has been set by many composers (including Boyce, Vivaldi, Purcell…), often incomplete, of course.  The most famous setting is probably the Hubert Parry version, which was composed for a king’s coronation in 19o2.  Some version has been sung at every British coronation since Charles I (though that did not end well).  I don’t think it’s because of a link between this psalm and the feast of Christ the King, however; I think it’s because of the whole tone of triumph and achievement.

Christ in glory ceiling mosaic
Coronation and glory, with a rainbow Jerusalem below
Miles to go before we sleep

Triumph and achievement are not exactly the expected note for the First Sunday of Advent!  Rather,  what we are doing is being delighted to have got this far, and working out what still remains to be done (the praying for the peace of Jerusalem), and above all, doing what we can to bring it about (last stanza).  So the words of the psalm the second time around, with its extra verse(s), help us to focus on going forward, and the job still to be done.  Very appropriate for 1 Advent, and not too daunting, because we are aware of the  (short) timeframe before the Prince of Peace himself will arrive.

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