Gifts from a long way off
For all the Church’s aged wisdom, it has also been terribly conflicted about human bodies. It has sometimes forgotten, for instance, that in the Garden of Eden it was the serpent whom God cursed and not the woman. Too often the Church has looked into the mirror of well-created humanity and seen only images of our collective broken selves, of self-hate, misogyny, and repression. So the first task for this feast may be to search amidst all that baggage for a clue to what the doctrine of the conception of Mary could be trying to tell us—maybe it’s an attempt to tell a story about the adventure of redemption on several levels at once.
There is an Ethiopian proverb that goes like this: “A cat may go and live in a monastery, but she still remains a cat.” (As we know.) In other words, wherever we go, there we are, with all the muddle of well and woe that goes with that. So this feast is a way to explain the Incarnational necessity for free space unencumbered and unconditioned by collective human guilt and the systemic distortion that cannot otherwise be got away from. By the working of mercy and grace, the conception of Mary marks the last stage, the beginning of the end of a cure for humanity who have remained unhealed by the topical salve of Law.
The truth this feast marks is the radical in-breaking of grace by the power of the Spirit that makes a way for the sheer, clear otherness of Jesus. Because of this gracious act of God in Mary and her parents, Jesus who is to come could be so completely free that he is able to be the only one so completely us.
We keep this feast to keep us in the truth that God can and does work in us “from a long way off,” even before the point of sentience, to ready us for God’s self to come and be born in us. Preparing the ground, God makes the way clear for our ratifying “Yes” at the time of our own visitation. And who but God knows when and how this grace is best worked in each of us, now in times of joy and delight, now in times of solemnity.