Icons by William Hart McNichols
(This short reflection was preached on December 6, 2016 at Pacific School of Religion‘s chapel service, which was devoted to the Immaculate Conception and a celebration of human sexuality and desire.)
I can’t tell you how special it is to be here with you today. For those of you who don’t know me, I graduated from PSR in 2015 and my husband, Alex, is still a student here. I am now an ordained deacon seeking the priesthood through Roman Catholic Woman Priests, a group of women ordained validly but illegally in the Catholic tradition.
The very first time I preached at PSR chapel was almost exactly 5 years ago, when I offered a short reflection on what Our Lady of Guadalupe means to me. So, it seems so sacred and perfect to be spending another Advent reflecting on Our Lady in this space that continues to shape my life, my ministry and my family.
I will be honest and tell you that I found it easier to speak about Our Lady of Guadalupe all those years ago. Our Lady of Guadalupe is a reminder of everything I love about Mary: this weird, fierce sacred woman who incarnates the lived experiences of oppressed people and inspires us to work for justice.
On the face of it, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception seems to be the polar opposite of Our Lady of Guadalupe. While Our Lady of Guadalupe is portrayed as a fierce goddess, the mother of God who enters into the human story to defend and inspire her people, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception can easily be seen as a fragile little girl. Someone so pure and dainty that she’s hard to relate to.
Perhaps most troubling, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception seems to present a problem with Mary’s ability to consent: how could Mary have been chosen at conception to be the mother of God and yet still have been able to freely answer “yes” to God’s call? If she was already conceived without sin for the express purpose of bringing the Christ Child into the world, what choice did she really have but to say to the angel Gabriel “May it be done to me according to God’s will?” Did she really have the freedom to say no?
I think the answer to this question lies most clearly in the Magnificat, the song Mary sings at her cousin Elizabeth’s house. In the Magnificat, it becomes clear that this miracle pregnancy is something that God is doing with Mary, not something done to her. Mary portrays herself as an active participant in this moment. She blesses God as she sings “my heart proclaims the greatness of the Lord” and she receives God’s blessing with joy stating “from this day forward, all generations will call me blessed.” Mary enthusiastically rejoices in a collaboration between herself and God.
In the Magnificat, it is clear that Mary freely claims and has agency in what is happening to her. But at the same time, there does seem to be something cosmic and fateful about this pregnancy. Mary chose to birth the Christ Child, but I don’t think it was simply a choice. Instead, I think she is rejoicing at having finally uncovered her calling—having found what her heart was most deeply longing for. Mary rejoices because, like Jeremiah before her, she can hear God whisper: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you.” After years of searching, Mary finally realizes exactly what she has been consecrated for.
If you are here at PSR, maybe that means that you, too, have seen glimmers of what God has consecrated you for. I have been lucky enough to experience that a few times in my life: I felt it as a thirteen-year-old girl sitting in my small-town Catholic church when I first knew I was called to be a priest. I felt it last year, during my ordination as a deacon, when my bishop (a fabulous older lady with a purple streak in her hair) laid hands on my head.
And I felt it a few more times: When, at 16, I realized that the feelings I had for a female friend were more than friendship, and I finally claimed something queer within me. And I felt it years later, when I first realized my husband was the person I wanted to grow old with. I felt it earlier this year, the first time that I heard my baby’s heartbeat on the sonogram.
These moments were more than a simple choice on my part, and were more than something chosen for me by God. They were moments where my joy collided with God’s rejoicing in me. Moments when a lifelong longing suddenly made sense. When the kindling fire that God had set before my birth finally burst into flame. These were, simply, moments I fell in love.
To me, the Immaculate Conception is the celebration of those moments in each of our lives. It’s the recognition that all of us—not just Mary and Jeremiah—were known by God and consecrated for a purpose from the first moments of our creation. This day is a reminder that our life’s destiny is to uncover and live out the purpose God set for us, a purpose that is made most clear to us in moments of love, and passion and desire.
And so, as we celebrate this weird and sometimes uncomfortable feast of the Immaculate Conception, I invite you to see it—not as a denigration of sexuality—but as a celebration of desire. A celebration of that desire that God set in our hearts before we were born—desire for one another, for our vocations, and for the sacred. A celebration of the ways that our longings can serve as our true compass, pointing us toward our calling: that place where our joy and God’s rejoicing in us collides.