Yesterday was a public holiday in Italy. What holiday was being celebrated? It was the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Whose Immaculate Conception? Certainly not Jesus’ virgin birth, as some still mistakenly think. It was the Immaculate Conception of Mary, mother of Jesus. It means that, unlike the rest of us, Mary was born without the original sin imparted to all mankind through Eve’s unfortunate temptation by the snake in the Garden of Eden, to eat of the forbidden fruit.
Mary was born in the normal way. Her parents were Anne and Joachim. Yet, as programmed by God to bear the son of man, she was not shamed by that shadow of original sin with which we are all born with – that is, according to Catholic theology – until we are baptised. Anne, as will be remembered if one reads the apocryphal Gospel of Saint James, was beyond child-bearing age so, in a sense, Mary’s was a symbolic virgin birth.
The idea of Mary’s unique status in mankind was first observed in fifth century Syria – that same country which now is being martyred by a war fought by fanatics of another monotheistic religion which, too, also holds Mary in the highest respect. Indeed, Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Holy Qur’an, in Sura nineteen.
The Angel said: I am only a messenger of thy Lord, that I may bestow on thee a faultless son. She said: How can I have a son when no mortal hath touched me, neither have I been unchaste? He said: So (it will be). Thy Lord saith: It is easy for Me. And (it will be) that We may make of him a revelation for mankind and a mercy from Us, and it is a thing ordained. And she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place.
That is clearly another take on the Annunciation, which is celebrated here on March 25th. Nine months, after the appropriate length of time, later Jesus is born.
I have covered the annunciation with its exquisite hymn of the Magnificat in my post at http://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/a-local-visitation/.
December the 8th was when Mary was conceived, not when she was born, which took place, again appropriately, nine months later and is celebrated on September 8th.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Mother of God, was officially promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and is held in the greatest respect by all practising Roman Catholics. Indeed, among Anglo-Catholics – an offshoot of the Oxford movement in Victorian Anglicanism – it is, too, a day of reverence.
In many countries the day is a national holiday and in Italy it serves as the start of serious Christmas festivities. No Christmas shopping two days after August bank holiday here – it all begins now: the full bonanza of gift wrapping, Christmas lights, trees and the rest of that strange mixture of bonhomie, excess feasting, tinsel, carol singing, living cribs, family love, religious outpouring, commercialism and the warmest of fires which the season brings to us.
In Rome even the firefighters used their escape vehicles yesterday to place a garland around the arm of the Madonna which graces the column erected by Pope Pius IX to celebrate the promulgation of his doctrine.
In our own more local way we, too, celebrated this holiest of days at the Pieve di Controni yesterday evening with a Mass in that most lovely of churches. What heightened the celebration was that our local carpenter’s daughter from Longoio, only recently born and graced with the name of that noble mediaeval countess who once ruled over this region and built Borgo a Mozzano’s spectacular bridge, Matilda, was baptised.
It was the highest coup de grace that Don Franco could have officiated over. He welcomed the young couple with their baby at the entrance of the church, according to the official rite, similarly to those catechumens admitted beyond the atrium of their palaeochristian churches.
Mass then followed but, at the juncture of the Credo, the actual baptismal sacrament was carried out, not over the ancient font which lay in the far back of the church,
but at a portable one before the high altar.
Thus, Satan’s temptations were repudiated not just by the baby and her parents but by the whole congregation when the Creed was recited. Incidentally, the baby is not only baptised with holy water but with holy oil and three offerings are made to the new born including a snow-white nappy…
The lesson was taken from the book of Genesis and that rash deed that the Mother of us all, Eve, committed when she took the forbidden apple (was it a Golden Delicious, I wonder?) The Gospel was taken from Saint Luke when Mary gives all the chance to make up for Eve’s fault by placing herself at God’s disposal for the reception of His Son and declares herself Ancilla Domini, or His hand-maiden.
Don Franco, our parish (and five other parishes) priest weaved an astonishingly good homily on these details and the whole theme of the Immaculate Conception suddenly clicked with me in all its theological logic. I was moved.
At the end of the Mass I realised that the Pieve di Controni was, indeed, permeated by images of the Virgin. There was this old seventeenth century one, the size of a child’s doll:
Next to it was this fine picture influenced by seventeenth century Florentine mannerist style:
There was also this early nineteenth century Madonna beautiful ensconced in a lovely altar which above proclaimed Tota Pulchra es, (You are wholly beautiful) and wearing the most elegant of clothes and some gorgeous jewellery, including a delightful pair of earrings.
This Virgin, lovingly restored by Claudio Geminiani’s efforts only recently and painted by the turn of the twentieth century painter Marcucci, graced the apse (For more information see my post at: https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/the-new-glory-of-a-heavenly-apse/.).
Below the apse is this fine-looking painting of her:
Coming out of the church into a beautifully cold evening with the full moon I felt within myself that I had correctly been initiated into the Christmas count-down season…
I felt, too, that Italy was truly the half-way country between the cold protestant north and the heat of Indian Hinduism where Mother goddesses abound and ceremonies in their honour are held with the highest of solemnity and the greatest of Love.
Surely our Mother Earth needs the same respect and adoration in her time of need, which is, more than ever, now…