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

What’s the story in the Eastertide Sundays (Year C)?

Eastertide : celebration which keeps going

After all the joy and excitement of Easter Sunday, the Church settles down to enjoy the Easter season which lasts through six more Sundays. Eastertide  ends with the Ascension and then Pentecost, so specifically this is the period  after the Resurrection but while Jesus is still on earth.   He is still the central character, but he comes and goes at this stage in the story.  It is no longer just the story of what happens to him or what he does.

Christ emerging from tomb
Time for the next phase

It is fascinating to see how the focus of the narrative shifts. Jesus is there, but intermittently. He pays visits to the apostles, to put heart into them, but he often finds them cowering in the Upper Room. They are trying to work out what to do next, in a world which has been totally altered by Jesus’ return from the dead.

But what happened next?

We are so used to the idea that Jesus is the living Lord that we don’t give the apostles enough credit for how hard this must have been. We learn about his Resurrection as soon as we learn about his death on the cross, and the length of the annual wait from Good Friday to the Easter liturgies is fixed and familiar. But the apostles had no missals, Gospels or road maps of any kind. They really were making it up as they went along, with Jesus appearing now and then to keep them on the right path and repeat the same message over and over again until they could let themselves believe it.

Mary addressing apostles
Some (male) people take a lot of convincing……
2nd Sunday, still celebrating but also moving on

The second Sunday after Easter is still part of the Easter narrative itself.  The Gospel is the same for each of the three liturgical years, the story of Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Lord.  It is nearly the same psalm (117/118), just with a different verse in the middle, and, as if to emphasize the point, it is the same psalm that we have been singing since the end of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday.  Like a musical octave, the Easter octave strikes the same note.  What shows the change of emphasis which is starting to happen,  is that the First Reading is taken from Acts.

The purpose of the First Reading

Usually the First Reading comes from the Old Testament, and indeed, at the Easter Vigil, we have an orgy of Old Testament readings before we get to the Gospel.  It can be a historical echo of events in Jesus’ life, or a fascinating parallel, or evidence of God’s slow plan of salvation from the shadowy beginnings of life to the prophets’ desperate attempts to pass on God’s message.  But now, after the Resurrection,  everything is changed, changed utterly: and we start needing to focus on what happens next.  The next significant event in the story of Jesus’ earthly life is the Ascension, but we don’t want to get there yet, because we are still celebrating Easter.  So the gospel readings assigned for the rest of the Easter season are in a sense marking time; – in fact, they go backwards.  They give us an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ earlier words, because there are a lot more of those, especially in John’s Gospel, than we have already had room for (we will see this again in the Sundays of Ordinary Time).

The Gospel is usually the main narrative

The gospels for these Sundays of the Easter season, then, are not usually taking the story forward.  After the second Sunday of Easter, the three liturgical years diverge, not for the usual reason, that they are taking their readings in sequence from a different evangelist (A : Matthew, B : Mark, C : Luke), because nearly all the gospel readings for Eastertide are taken from John;  but they all take different bits out of John’s Gospel, so as to include more of Jesus’ actual teaching.  But this is of course a recap of earlier events; time has gone back, not forwards.

Eastertide Year C : the gospels

I’m going to concentrate on Eastertide Year C (this year), because otherwise there will be too much to talk about (if it’s worth it, I’ll cover the other years as they come up).  In Year C, all the Eastertide Sunday gospels are from John’s Gospel. Second Sunday of Easter is the same for all three years, the story of Thomas, taken from John (chapter 20), as I said before.  The third Sunday is the story of the miraculous draught of fishes and Jesus’ charge to Peter; that is another  event after the Resurrection (John 21).  Then we have (4th Sunday) a reading from John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd (very brief, vv 27-30); (5th Sunday), what Jesus says after Judas has gone out to betray him (again very short, John 13 vv31-35, and very obviously back to a previous period), and (6th Sunday) Jesus’ promise in John 14 that he will send the Holy Spirit, and foretelling his departure, like an envoi, and a preparation for the Ascension which will shortly follow (the following Thursday, or in some Lectionaries, the following Sunday).

First Readings : not OT but Acts

The current action, as it were, has moved to the First Reading, because we need to know how the apostles are managing and what they are doing in this changed world they now inhabit.  Jesus is not staying with them as he used to, teaching as he goes along.  Where is the story?  Where is the main character?  Who is the main character?   The apostles are having to work out how to put this new faith into practice. We are not looking for historical parallels, because nothing like this has ever happened before.  The Old Testament has been put on pause while we work this out.

Second Readings from Revelation

Year C is particularly interesting because it uses Revelation as the source of the Second Readings for this same period (in Years A and B, we have readings from the  letters of Peter (A) and John (B), keeping the emphasis on the doings of the early Church, as opposed to Paul’s letters which we have for most of the rest of the year, which tend to be more about doctrine). The readings from Acts in Year C move about inside the book, giving us a general overview of how the early Christians lived.  We get further into the story than in the other years, even into the early travels of Paul and Barnabas, and I think this is why these readings are coupled with the book of Revelation, because Revelation has always been a comfort to the oppressed and persecuted, and the later chapters of Acts describe the persecutions as they took hold.

…and all reinforced by the (carefully chosen) psalms

And of course all this affects the choice of psalms.  They are there to respond to the first reading, reinforce its message and act as a bridge to the second reading.  Their link to the Old Testament readings on an ordinary Sunday is usually fairly clear, and they are out of the same historical context, even if we can’t be sure which is older; but here we have the psalms of David being used as a commentary on early Christian events, after Jesus’ departure, and after the great temporal rupture of the Resurrection.  The context is completely other.  We are singing the Lord’s songs in a totally strange land.  One striking thing is that none of the Eastertide psalms is at all unusual.  They all occur elsewhere in the Church’s year, sometimes more than once.  They are the usual psalms which everyone is already familiar with.  It is the context which has changed.

Musician king with courtiers
Let’s all join in with David’s psalms
First Reading and psalm, 2nd Sunday : starting the (new) story

We start in Acts 5 (so after the Ascension and the revolution of Pentecost), where the author describes ‘the faithful’ as meeting ‘by common consent in the Portico of Solomon’.  All still good Jews, at this stage, almost like another Jewish grouping or sect.  No one else dares to join them openly but their reputation is good, the numbers of believers increases, and there are many miracles, so people take their sick out of doors and place them where Peter’s shadow will fall across them so that they might be healed.  The psalm in response to this is still the Easter psalm (117/118), because we are still celebrating and everything is going well.  It is the second reading which darkens the mood slightly, as John introduces himself: ‘I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom, and all you endure’, but then moves on to describe Jesus appearing to him, telling him not to be afraid (as so often) and charging him to write down what he sees.  The Gospel, as I said earlier, is the story of Thomas  -and the end of John’s Gospel in some of the early manuscripts.  The focus of the story is shifting.

3rd Sunday

This First Reading is only ten verses later, in the same chapter of Acts, but the clouds are gathering in our new story.  The high priest demands an explanation from these observant Jews with their inconvenient add-on doctrine.  Peter and the apostles have the chance to bear witness before the Sanhedrin, and this time they are released, but they have been warned again, and it’s clear that trouble is in the offing.  The psalm  (29/30) celebrates release from danger, acknowledging the reality of suffering (‘At night there are tears’) but showing an unshakeable faith in victory for the right side (‘but joy comes with dawn’), which is then shown in the celebration in the Second Reading (Revelation 5).

4th Sunday : the story develops

We leap forward several chapters this week to find Paul and Barnabas taking the story forward as they deliberately widen their appeal (Acts 13).  The Jews in Antioch mostly aren’t interested, even though Paul and Barnabas are still attending the synagogue religiously.  So they preach to the pagans, who are very happy to hear them, and are expelled from the town.  The answering psalm (99/100) makes us into the rejoicing pagans, hearing and accepting the word of God : ‘We are his people, the sheep of his flock‘, and we stay with this sheep imagery, with the persecuted martyrs of the Second Reading being led by the Lamb, and the Gospel being part of Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd.  I couldn’t resist quoting Bach’s Sheep may safely graze in the accompaniment to the Alleluia verse because it was so apposite.

Banquet with sheep on table
The sheep/lamb metaphor made flesh at an Easter banquet
5th Sunday

Paul and Barnabas set off for Iconium at the end of last week’s reading, and they are already retracing their steps, heading for Antioch again.  This gives us a very clear idea of how the young churches were beginning to stand on their own feet.  Elders are appointed, the visitors encourage the locals to persevere in their efforts, and they move on again, going back to report to HQ – and, crucially, explaining how the mission has broadened to include those who weren’t Jews to start with, ‘the pagans’, people like us.  This has been a very successful trip, even though there are regular mentions of sufferings and hardships, and the psalm for this week (144/145) celebrates that success : ‘All your creatures shall thank you, O Lord’, not just some of them, and ‘Yours is an everlasting kingdom’.  The second reading is one of the most beautiful sections of Revelation (21 :1-5) describing the new Jerusalem, the establishment of this kingdom and the end of death and suffering.

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
the dragon being seen off by the lady in Revelation
6th Sunday : the next stage of the story

Now the question of whether you have to be a Jew as well as a Christian has come to a head, and there has to be a council of ‘the whole church’ to sort it out.  Here we see the Church operating as a Church, raising important questions, deliberating and discussing, and then making a judgment which is promulgated to the members.  We don’t have the discussion in this reading, but you can look it up, it’s all there in the text; here we have just the conclusion ‘decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves’ (note the order).  Earlier Peter has come to the same conclusion about God calling also the pagans, when he meets Cornelius after having his dream about the tablecloth (Acts 10ff).

engraving of Peter's vision
Peter, the angel, the tablecloth and all the different beasts

The psalm (66/67) emphasizes the universality, one might almost say catholicity, of the Church’s final decision :’the nations […] the peoples[…] the ends of the earth’ and the response beautifully endorses it :  ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you ‘ (my italics).  The second reading continues the description of the new Jerusalem, and the Gospel goes back to Jesus’ words about the Holy Spirit and his own departure,  as we get ready for the Ascension.  But although the Lord is leaving the earth, we have seen that the Church, though still small and feeling its way, has the leadership it needs to continue the work it has been given.

Armenian kachqar with ornate cross
The cross sprouting new life from every corner

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.