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The Immaculate Conception in Anglo-Saxon England

December 8, 2018

Henry VII genuflecting before the Christ Child. Mary's halo signifies her sainthood, thus sinlessness.

 

Today we celebrate The Immaculate Conception, when Mary was conceived without sin.

 

St. Bede the Chronicler tells the tale of how the Britons, the resident Englanders in the 400-500's AD mixed in with the German tribes of the Angles and Saxons, as well as the Danish tribe called The Jutes. A new synthetic culture came out of this right as Catholicism entered England, banishing the darkness of pagan England as the Light of Christ began to shine. By the 8-9th c. Danes called the Vikings also mixed in with this lineage, and like before, some war and interbreeding were part and parcel of the clash of cultures. This was another major synthesis for English Catholic culture.

 

Around this time it would seem that the Anglo-Saxons had a Feast of Mary's Conception. You'll notice "immaculate is missing," but given the earliest Christian sources established her sinlessness, the only question left was whether it was during her life that she became sinless or that with a dash of grace she was conceived as sinless. This Medieval English Catholic Feast then was a seed that grew into the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception over an entire millennia.

 

A chronicler by the name of Eadmer of the 1000's AD writes about this feast. He was a contemporary to St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Eadmer wrote the Life of Anselm after his death. Eadmer writes:

 

In former days it was celebrated more commonly than now...But when learning of a wider range and an all-dominating tendency to enquire into the reasons of things [proto-Rationalism!] had imbued and lifted up the minds of some, this new learning, contemptuous of the simpleness of the poor in spirit, did away with this solemnity; and, banished it utterly as wanting in reasonableness...to abolish what the simple and perfect love of our Lady, that had animated those of old time, had established; namely, the feast of her Conception...doing away with the feast of the Mother of God, let us cast a glance at the love of the simple folk who lament over the loss of so great a gladness."

 

What happened? The Norman Conquest. 

 

After the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The French 'frenchified' England by taking it over. This introduced French terms into English, thus St. Aelred of Rievaulx, a French name! There was much civil and liturgical reform that came out of this. A Frenchman was made Archbishop of Canterbury who abolished the Feast of Mary's Conception! 

 

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1009-1153) had already been weary of the feast, thinking it didn't have proper ecclesial authority (a fair charge). St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) seems to end his Summa against Mary's immaculate conception, but only under a certain understanding of it. Elsewhere he condemns various understandings, but seems to remain quiet on the definition laid out by The Church, leaving it as a possibility, the notion that at conception sanctification and animation of Mary as a creature are done simultaneously.

 

It was Blessed Scotus (1266-1308), funny enough, who was on the right side of the argument. Many referred to Romans and 1 Timothy and 1 John that all men have sinned, all are in need of redemption, as texts that seemed to contradict the Immaculate Conception. But these all seemed to assume the "Arrow of Time," that time is linear theory. This is more of a scientific claim than a theological one, whether or not the Ancients realized it.

 

The Church's response can be found in the Epistle reading assigned for The Mass of The Immaculate, "as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him" (Eph. 1). In other words, while Jesus suffered in time, His Person, The Second Person of The Holy Trinity is Divine, and thus being outside time, he can apply the graces of the cross to Mary at her conception.

 

Theologically, Mary can participate (to borrow a Platonic and Pauline phrase) in Christ's salvation on the cross at her conception because Jesus Christ as a Divine Person is "the Lamb that is slain before the foundations of the world" (Rev. 13:8).


[As a subnote, some work in quantum mechanics on superposition, the reversal of the arrow of time, and retrieving information from seeming destruction from blackholes, all seem to be pointing for a renewal of metaphysics to give an account of seemingly contradictory states of particles. I wouldn't be surprised to start seeing increasing numbers of physicists turn Catholic or Catholic physicists. It might turn out the Liturgical Calendar's idea of participating in the day you're celebrating, e.g. at Mass today we participated in Mary's Immaculate Conception, is not so far fetched, nor a fantastic idea, but an ontological reality.]

 

It would seem then that the Medieval English Catholics provided a practice pre-1000 AD, The Feast of Mary's Conception, which combined with the question of her sinlessness which we see in The Patristics 100-500 AD, helped flesh out Mary's Immaculate Conception not only as Dogma but as a Solemnity to be enjoyed by all Catholics. It would seem they have been some of the first to celebrate a feast for Mary's conception in the West, whereas the East had done so for a few hundred years. It's interesting to see today how the Orthodox, who split in 1054, ceased to develop the doctrine of Mary's conception at this point, it's as if their doctrine stopped growing in 1054 AD.

 

The result is the picture this article began with, a picture of Henry VII genuflecting before the Christ Child and Mary depicted with a halo at The Annunciation, showing her sinlessness. Henry VII (1485-1508) was the beginning of The Tudor House taking the throne, and unfortunately the last Catholic before his son Henry VIII rebelled in the great Act of Supremacy (1534) and the foundation of Anglicanism. Today we give thanks for the Ordinariate returning us to the fullness of the Catholic Faith where we can truly celebrate The Immaculate Conception!

 

In 1854 Pope Pius IX declared Mary's immaculate conception Dogma, part of the "complete Catholic package" that we call The Faith. This is nothing more than an official recognition of what is true. The Ark was born spotless, without blemish, out of pure gold, made a fitting vessel to show the presence of our God and King. Because God is an all consuming flame, that Ark must have been without impurity, otherwise it, she, would have been consumed. Mary prepared a place in her heart and body for Christ. Will you do likewise this Advent?

 

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight a highway in the desert for our God.

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