Simple Catholic Snapshots
- Many Protestants question the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.
- To them, belief in Jesus’ loving redemptive work on the cross is the only item of import for the modern Christian.
- Catholics celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary on December 8th, not coincidentally during the first week of Advent.
- Advent prepares us for the birth of Christ, and a fuller understanding of the Incarnation of the Son of God.
- Without understanding the Incarnate nature of Christ, a Christian really can’t fully understand the Savior or our salvation.
Simple Catholic Truths
Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with a Protestant friend, a young man whose love of Christ fills his life. Eventually, the idea of Christian unity came up with all of the obvious obstacles yet to be overcome in that regard. When the timing was just right, I took a chance and asked him why he wasn’t Catholic.
With just a little reflection, he answered that to him it makes no sense that the Catholic Church requires belief in ideas such as the Immaculate Conception or Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. He continued to say that for him the only thing that matters is Jesus Christ and his belief in Him as Lord and Savior. We were running out of time, so I decided to not open that can of worms any further. We amicably finished up talking about power tools, a woodworking project and of course a little sports. (Tim the Tool-man Taylor would be proud.)
In the next couple of days I gave a lot of thought as to how best answer his challenge. Yes, it did seem like some of the teachings of the Church could be seen as onerous. However, after a large measure of head-scratching and prayer some clarity of thought began to emerge.
It was clear that we both shared a fundamental love of God and His Son Jesus Christ. In addition, we had the same goal of developing a closer relationship with Jesus, our Savior. However, it was clear that a few critical differences remained. It seemed to me that by and large, he was comfortable with his knowledge and understanding of God and his faith. In other words, he saw issues like the Immaculate Conception and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary as distractions at best and more like contradictions to the providence of God and the work of His Son.
For me, guided by the teaching of the Church, I saw these topics not as peripheral distractions but rather as integral, critical elements of God’s revealed truth. In other words, the Immaculate Conception was a pointer to a deeper revelation and understanding of Jesus Christ. You see, this is exactly why Jesus instituted a physical Church and empowered it to teach the truth of God without error. Without the Church, mankind can twist revealed truth into simple ‘distractions.’
Theology and History
It is certainly true that early Christianity struggled immensely with understanding God, Jesus in particular, and His earthly mission.
We often see God’s revelation in two ways. First, we see God humbling Himself and lowering Himself to mankind. In the Old Testament we see God taking the form of fire and smoke and dwelling among His people (1 Kg 6:13). We also see God suffering when the nation of Israel is unfaithful. In the New Testament we see Jesus emptying himself (Phil 2:7) and suffering for His children. But we also see another theme in the Bible and that is of mankind being elevated towards God. In the beginning God created mankind in His image (Gn 1:27) and ultimately we are to again share in that divine nature (2 Pet 1:4).
So we see that God’s plan included God lowering Himself to mankind and mankind being elevated to God.
These two activities of God’s revelation converge in the Incarnation.
As I mentioned, in early Christianity there were many disagreements as to nature of Christ. Many heresies surfaced (Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism etc.), all trying to explain the relationship of Christ’ divinity and His humanity employing various degrees of separation and mixtures. Unfortunately, all of these heresies fell short of the truth and it took the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon to formally declare the nature of Jesus: 100% God and 100% Man.
With this declaration, Chalcedon safeguarded the dual nature of Christ. Only in Jesus the Son of God, and 100% God, could God be finally revealed as Father. And only in Jesus, 100% man, would the elevation of mankind be made possible in perfect sacrificial love.
As 2 Peter makes clear, our eternal destiny mandates that we become sons of the Father, share in the divine nature and once again become in the image and likeness of God.
So once again, God works in magnificent ways. It started out with a conversation with a non-Catholic. A casual comment on the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception got me thinking and now my Advent journey has been redefined. Yes, Christmas is the birth and Easter is the Resurrection but we tend to forget who and what and why He was born and what the death and Resurrection really accomplished.
I’m very happy for my friend’s faith in Jesus and his celebration of Christmas. But with that joy comes a sense of sadness. In that he believes in his Savior brings me joy, but knowing that he dismisses the Immaculate Conception as a distraction to faith brings an equally heavy heart.
The Church understands that if I am to really know God and His Son, and the plan of my salvation, then I must also understand the Incarnation. To that end, the Church, in her divinely appointed wisdom, has dogmatically declared the truth of the Immaculate Conception. The Church has told me that to really understand the Lord I must embrace the idea of His sinless mother and her total commitment to the call of God. Some criticize this celebration a distraction, a pointless ‘obligation’, but for me it is a joyful blessing that points to a fuller understanding of the Lord.
I wish others could share in my joy and not feel so distracted.