You may have noticed how often these days we hear talk about Original Sin from a certain kind of religious person. I thought that talking about Original Sin rather went out after the Second Vatican Council. At least it seemed to have been discouraged. After all we are now an Easter people and ‘Alleluia’ is our song. Yet in spite of that we seem to live in ever more gloomy and pessimistic times. According to many of the most influential prophets of our age, “Original Sin” is the cause.
A brief search on the internet provides some evidence for this. Here are some recent titles you might consider ordering from Amazon: “Inequality: The Original Economic Sin of Capitalism”; or you might buy “America’s Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism”. You could try “Climate Warning: The Present Original Sin” or “Sexism as Original Sin: Developing a Theacentric Discourse”.
This is not simply a matter of quarrying the Catholic language of sin for its dramatic effect or “gothic” apocalypticism - although it is that. Behind the use of the phrase “Original Sin” lies a genuine, almost religious, belief that the origins of all our woes can be found in history or sociology, in economics or in ecology. But this is always truncated, diminished and powerless belief. The solutions that are proposed amount to religions without metaphysics, religions without revealed truth, religions without God. They are symptomatic of an underlying malaise in the world, of the disease of a world that has lost its faith.
The problem with a religion without God is that it has nothing left except morality. Once we have stopped believing in God, who is there who can rescue us from ourselves? The question we must pose of any religion reduced to morality is, “Whose morality?” The practical result of this situation is an endless cycle of cause and effect from which there is no escape, of competing, ultimately irreconcilable, moral systems; of what your great-great-grandparents did to my great-great-grandparents; of trashing the achievements of previous generations and setting them against their negative impact in the present in ways which, in truth, bear no comparison. This is not to say that we do not need historians to give an account of causes and effects in social life; or scientists to explain natural processes and recommend changes that will improve things for everyone; that we do not need law; and for justice to be done, and to be seen to be done. But most of us are not historians or scientists. We are ill-equipped to judge between competing world views. And when these world views themselves are considered sovereign and absolute, when they are not subject to an overarching, supernatural understanding of the universe, when they are not, in a word, subject to Christ the King, then what we are left with is a very cold and embattled world indeed; a world with a great deal of talk of justice but very little of mercy; a world with a great deal of sin but very little forgiveness.
In this cold world, human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, are reduced to the status of victims and perpetrators, in a never-ending, ever shifting, competition for the moral high ground. It was to rescue us from this world of bitterness and recrimination that God sent his Son into the world, to rescue us from our sin, and from ourselves, to redeem us from our history. In celebrating the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary we are celebrating not only the beginning of this process of redemption but also what this feast teaches us about the Father’s love, not only for Our Blessed Mother, but about his love for us, going back before time, or sin, began. In the words of the novena prayer we have been praying this week:
Lord, thou hast prepared a worthy dwelling place for thy Son by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin. Grant, we pray, that as thou hast preserved her from all stain of sin in thy foreknowledge of his death so we by her intercession may come to thee with pure hearts.
Our Lady is, in the words of the hymn:
Mary immaculate, star of the morning,
Chosen before the creation began.
She is like Wisdom in the words from the Book of Proverbs which the Church applies to Our Lady:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
This is not just an idea eternally in the mind of God. It is his gift to us. We can see it having a healing effect in history. When our Blessed Mother appeared to St Bernadette in Lourdes she announced herself as the Immaculate Conception. The precise words and concepts would have been unfamiliar to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth. They are the product of generations of faithful prayer and reflection on the life of Our Lady and of her Divine Son, of the development of doctrine. But Our Blessed Mother, and those around her, knew very well what the reality was. We can hear it in her own words:
From this day forward all generations shall call me blessed
for the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.
We can hear it in what others said of her, in words we pray many times each day:
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.
She was chosen by God and trusted by him; and in her acceptance of God’s choice she chose, in her turn, to trust him and do his will.
I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me.
This did not mean she was free from the sufferings caused by sin in this world any more than we can be. Indeed she suffered all the more.
A sword will pierce your own soul too.
And as she said to St Bernadette:
I do not promise you happiness in this world but in the next.
Her fidelity brought us the gift of the Son of God himself. He is the victim who carried the burden of our sins; we are all the perpetrators, but unlike the perpetrators of this dark world, forgiveness is offered and offered freely, to all who will accept the light that was to come into the world. Meanwhile, even as we rejoice in God’s victory, we continue to be oppressed by own sins and those of others. We continue to live in dark and troubled times. We pray to Our Lady as the
Holy light on earth’s horizon, star of hope to fallen man.
But we are like the boy in Dylan Thomas’s great poem, Fern Hill:
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
There is something here to celebrate for everyone: for the learned and the clever, and for the little children; for the greatest theologians and for the simplest souls for whom it is enough to know that, like our Blessed Mother, they have been loved by God from the beginning of time and have only to love him in return.
For all of us, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception means that God’s love does not stop with forgiveness. We will be transformed as though sin had never been. Our redemption will not be simply the happy end of a difficult journey. In our redemption we will be somehow, mysteriously, freed from our history. Our sins themselves will form the fabric of a completed holiness. There will be no more striving to get there. We will have arrived.
As Our Lady already is, so shall the whole Church be, as Scripture says, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and immaculate.
We live in a troubled and dark time in history. But it remains true that we are an Easter people and ‘Alleluia’ is our song. But as we are all too painfully aware, we continue to live in a vale of tears. Repentance is a daily necessity. It is also true, as in the traditionalists’ riposte, that we are a Good Friday people and Miserere is our dirge. But today, on this great feast of hope, in the darkest time of the year we rejoice above all in the gift Our Blessed Mother is to us. We are children of an Immaculate Queen and Salve Regina is our cry of gladness.