Diary of a Former Pagan: Celebrating Advent as a Catholic
In honoring Mary's pregnancy, we are reminded of that most subversive of spiritual qualities: patience.
BY: Carl McColman
Yesterday was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the 151st anniversary of the date on which the Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX-in 1854. A few years later the First Vatican Council concluded that in making such pronouncements on matters of faith or morals, the pope speaks infallibly.
As a newbie to the world of Catholicism, I must admit in all candor that the history and theology that underpin this feast day is a mystery to me. But it is a mystery that gets at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic. Papal infallibility, the veneration of Mary, Holy Days of Obligation-all come together on this particular day, piercing Advent like a neon light in the fog. Here, look here, this feast day seems to proclaim: This is why this season is so important. We observe Advent to honor Mary, and we venerate Mary, in part, because of her plenitude of grace. The Archangel Gabriel called Mary "full of grace" (Luke 1:48) and anyone who ever prays the rosary repeats that simple appellation dozens of times.
So does Mary actually function as a conduit of divine grace? That's a controversial question-even among Catholics. Christ brought grace into the world with abundance and overabundance through his birth on that first Christmas so long ago. Advent dares us to consider that maybe that grace was already in evidence, even before Christ's birth-thanks to Mary's surfeit of it. Surely some of the blessings showered upon the Mother of God in her freedom from original sin spilled over to bless all of creation!
I observed my Eucharistic obligation for the holy day by attending Mass at a Trappist monastery located about 20 miles from my home. One of the monks was making his solemn profession, lying prostrate before his abbot, making his promises, and then receiving his monastic cowl, or robe. With incense wafting through the large church and Gregorian chant-in Latin, no less-creating a sense of aural serenity, the 90 minutes of the Mass seemed to melt away into something far more timeless and eternal. Oblivious to the narcissism that dominates our world, the monks kept the focus in today's liturgy on Mary rather than on their newest member. Marveling at the austere beauty of their worship, I speculated on the theological notion that, since we are all members of the Christ's mystical body, Mary today gave birth yet again-to this newly minted monk.
It is said that Advent is not just about the anticipation of the Messiah as a historical event, but also about how we in today's world should anticipate the future coming of the reign of God. As the Queen of Heaven, Mary will "give birth" again, so it seems, with the coming of Christ at the end of time. But every time a new monk professes his vows-or, for that matter, a new baby is born-it seems to me that the Blessed Mother gives birth yet again, here and now. The first-century peasant girl and the cosmic Queen of Heaven are united here and now, whenever the feminine face of the Divine-the source of new life-is made manifest in our world.
And so with quiet chanting, the monks praised her for that unending miracle.