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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.