December 07, 2007
Most Catholics know this as the feast day that marks the fact that Jesus was born of a Virgin, without an earthly father. If you asked them why we had a separate feast for the Annunciation, they’d probably shrug and say, “I don’t know. Why does the Church do a lot of things? Why is bingo always on Wednesdays?”
And they have a point. The Catholic faith is built on profound mysteries, salted throughout with little paradoxes and puzzles that keep the whole thing interesting.
But this feast isn’t one of those puzzles. It has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus—commemorating instead an event that happened some 15 years before: the Virgin Mary’s conception in the womb of St. Anne. The fact that Mary, alone of all human beings except her son, was born without Original Sin, was infallibly declared a dogma of the faith by Pius IX in 1854. By virtue of Jesus’s redemption, which applied to her retroactively (okay, so there is a puzzle here—but if you think God is bound by time you’ve got bigger intellectual fish to fry than this), Mary was granted the same innocence with which Adam and Eve were created. Theologians speculate that her freedom from original and personal sin meant she was spared the corruption of the grave—being instead assumed into heaven at her death (see The Vatican Space Program, Aug. 15). Her free decision to bear a suffering Savior, which theologians call her “fiat,” is the cosmic reply to Satan’s rebellion (non serviam) and Adam and Eve’s desire to be “as gods.”
So this feast marks more than a long-ago event in a first-century Jewish mother’s uterus; it holds the key to mortality and immortality alike. THAT’S why you have to go to Mass today (Dec. 8), okay?
If the Immaculate Conception is all about the liberation from death and decay, no one told that to the Capuchin friars of the parish in Rome named for this feast, Santa Maria della Concezione. This chapel attracts only discerning visitors because—hold onto your lunch—it is furnished entirely with human skeletons and skulls. That’s right, the friars who man this parish are disassembled when they die to be made into furniture. Tibia and fibia form the chandeliers, vertebrae line the ceilings, fleshless fingers poke from the walls, skulls are lined up like decorative tiles along the sides—and a complete human skeleton stands on the ceiling, waving a scythe made up of still more bones. As you walk through the crypt that holds the bones of 4,000 friars, you pass a few skeletal Capuchins still wearing their robes—one bearing the message: “What you are now, I once was; what I am now, you will be.”
This church isn’t gothic—it’s Goth! I give it two thumbs up. Rated R.