Of all the Red Letter Days on the Roman Catholic calendar, none says less to me than the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. What idiot believed we all ought to annually pause and marvel at a story that mixes bad science with complicated theology?
Yesterday I was that idiot. Some folks would say it was just a coincidence, some that it was syncronicity, but I’m a God person. I got called. And just to reassure me that it’s okay to say that, the call came on the telephone. The daytime caregiver for a 93 year old friend needed someone to sit in for a few hours so she could attend a family funeral.
Since my friend and used to enjoy Catholic religious programming on Eternal World Television Network, and since other daytime tv is such a wasteland, I decided to try EWTN. And there was the Pope himself (not my favorite religious figure, but still, a good liturgist) celebrating the miracle by which Mary, the mother of Jesus, entered the womb of her mother without the commission of sin. Thus was God born into the world via a perfectly clean vessel.
It’s bad science, but a universal archetype. Similar stories are told of the birth of Buddha, and Athena trumped them both by stepping full-grown from the forehead of her father, Zeus. Humankind dreams constantly that someone, somewhere, has escaped original sin. Original sin, that is, the propensity planted in us, from the first moment of conception, to commit sins (you might bring this up the next time someone starts telling you about the innocence of fetuses).
UUs claim to have risen above such legends, but in fact, our version came from Jean Jacques Rousseau by way of Bronson Alcott. Children are born innocent and will stay that way if allowed to live in a state of nature, uncorrupted by the world, especially urban culture. This is not the same as the original Universalisms, not even Death and Glory, in which we are all sinners and only saved through the death and atonement of Jesus/loving heart of God. The difference is easy to name: Birth and Glory vs Death and Glory.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a good time to remember the high cost of believing that everyone is born with a propensity to do good. It is no accident that the great appeaser in the 20th century, Neville Chamberlain, was a Unitarian, and firmly believed that all souls have self-limiting boundaries. We all have a conscience. Democracies will ultimately choose that government which will do the most good.
Science these days tells us otherwise. People may not be born evil, but not all flaws are equal. My roommate has a genetic defect known as Huntington’s Disease and it isn’t hurting anyone else. But other genetic defects do hurt others. Most damnable — that is, least worthy of being re-described with holy words and stories — is Will to Power. Not everyone will recognize their fair share, just as not everyone knows when they’ve had too much alcohol or not to inject heroin just because the marijuana “just doesn’t do it anymore.”
Insatiable exists. Drives. Hungers. Lusts. Call them what you will, and explain them how you may, they are out there. They come in all political persuasions, all sexual orientations, all races, all genders, all income groups.
Not everything we long for can be found or attained. There is no Immaculate Concepcion. Not for Mary and Jesus, whoever they may have been, not Gautama the Buddha nor Athena nor anyone else. We hope for it because we want someone to spare us the tough work of second-guessing our desire for someone who justifies our idealism and lets us succumb to their powers while delegating ours. The benevolent dictator. The Messiah.
Not coming, folks. Not in this life. Not in this election cycle. This is an equal opportunity disappointment. Not straight, not gay, not transgendered or gender free. Not rich. Not poor. Not bearing gifts and not miraculously recognizing yours.
So yes, I’m a Christian loving Advent and thankful for God’s generous living among us. But not as someone unimaginably pure. Rather, this year, as someone with the courage to acknowledge that amidst our common humanness, some folks are unacceptably dangerous to the others. We must watch for them as fully as for the Lord, and when we see them, restrain them with as much courage and energy as we spend in welcoming their opposites.