Photo: Dan Valenti
When we see a liturgical cup, we know the Church calls it a "chalice." Knowing the name, however, doesn't explain the Mystery.
By Dan Valenti (Dec 9, 2009)
This is the time of the year when we so easily throw terms around. We can get into a comfort zone with faith, so that events and happenings such as the Immaculate Conception, Advent, and Christmas get reduced to the familiarity of clichés.
It's nothing that we do deliberately. Rather, the phenomenon can be seen as one of the hazards of language and putting names to things. Because we name them, we don't own them, however habit and use otherwise imply.
Prayer and Poetry: The Highest Language
Each of these three Church appellations, of course, represent deep spiritual mysteries. Though they seemingly sit on the cusp of our casualness, they actually bubble up to the surface only from the fathomless, mystical depths that we rarely dare to plumb. What we see is not what we get, the same with prayer, which can be understood — along with poetry — as the highest use of language.
As for the Immaculate Conception, Fr. Anthony Gramlich, MIC, said in his homily at the 2 p.m. Mass on Dec. 8 at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., that it took the Church 1,854 years to define as dogma Mary's spotlessness from the first instant of her conception.
Father Anthony mentioned the controversy that swirled around the concept and understanding of this article of faith in many parts of the Church for a long time. In fact, perhaps second only to Theotokos and the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception was the greatest internal dispute in Church history.
A Female in the Ointment
It's interesting to note that all three of these dogmatic assertions involve Mary. What this says about the Church's relationship with women and its attitude toward the feminine is open for interpretation. At the least, the controversies indicate the underlying "issue" regarding the Blessed Mother: She must be afforded the highest status yet she must not be considered divine and, as a human being, is not worthy of worship. Veneration, yes; worship, no.
In settling upon the nature of Mary, the Church performed no rush to judgment. This indicates a maturity of thinking and a depth of inspiration. The fact that it did not — nor does it today — shy away from free thought should serve as a source of solidification of its positions on these matters.
It would be instructive to briefly look at these three aspects of Mary in terms of our thesis about language, labels, and superficiality.
Theotokos is a Greek title for Mary. Its literal meaning is "God bearer." In 431, the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus declared Mary Theotokos because of the dual God-Man nature of her son. Those opposed claimed that Mary should be called Christotokos, which translates as "birth-giver of Christ." In other words, Mary's maternal role is best understood as the mother of Jesus' humanity but not of his divine nature.
The Assumption of Mary into heaven, body and soul, was infallibly declared in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. According to Catholic Encyclopedia, "Regarding the day, year, and manner of Our Lady's death, nothing certain is known." The dates assigned to Mary's death, the source says, vary from three to 15 years after the Ascension of Jesus. Moreover, it says that the "belief in the corporeal assumption [into heaven] of Mary is founded on [an] apocryphal treatise."
According to Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, "The Church in its official documents does not use the expression 'Mary's death' or 'Mary died,' but uses the expression: '[The] Immaculate Mother of God, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.'"
Father Kaz also says that "even though the dogmatic definition of the Assumption was given in 1950, the Feast of the Assumption was celebrated in the East, especially in Jerusalem, in the fifth century, most likely prior to the Council of Ephesus.
One can easily sees how easily controversy would ooze out between the sentences of Pope Pius' Bull Munificentissimus Deus, issued on Nov. 1, 1950. This proclamation was and still is difficult for many to accept. The Encyclopedia sums up the current state of the matter this way: "Today, the belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary is universal in the East and West; according to [Pope] Benedict XIV, it is a probable opinion, which to deny would be impious and blasphemous."
As for Mary's conception, Pope Pius IX ended the fracture in 1854 with his declaration of the Immaculate Conception as dogma. Pius IX had a long and deep devotion to Mary. Eyewitnesses said when the Pope read his declaration on the Immaculate Conception, his eyes welled up and tears streamed down his face.
'Quenchless Words, Immortal Truths'
Today, practicing Catholics account for and honor the Immaculate Conception by attending Mass. Each Sunday, we see the Advent wreath lit. We hear homilies about the season of preparation before the Lord's birth. We lead up to Christmas day, if we are not careful, by giving thought to the birth of Christ only after the fact of the season's lamentable commercialism.
The point is this: to name a deep spiritual reality is not the same as "owning" it or understanding it. The terms used to label Church teachings attempt to lead the faithful into reverent appreciation for the inexhaustible depth of Catholic spirituality. They should not be mistaken for "explanation" or even "exposition."
The Church speaks in what the poet Percy Shelley called "Her quenchless words, sparks of immortal truths" ("Hellas," line 97). This is the language of the Mystical Body of Christ. Having Her words shouldn't trick us into thinking that we've exhausted their meaning.
The Church's language has long fascinated me. I love the way the Popes and their speechwriters wrestle with the precision and impreciseness of words. I love the way the Church has a name for every item used in the liturgy, for each item of vestment the priest puts on before he says Mass, and for each architectural element of a basilica. But just because we see a cup and call it a "chalice" or a saucer and know it's a "paten," it doesn't mean we're close to grasping Mystery.
With God, there is evermore infinity to learn.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of Dan Valenti's Mercy Journal.