The other night my book group met at the mall (you read that right!) for a quick dinner and an even quicker discussion of our latest read, the most pathologically unfunny franchise of bestselling books I’ve ever encountered. We did this with our hearts in the right place, having dutifully taken up the task of spending money to help those less fortunate than we, a faceless group that has, in these torturous last months, come perilously close to resembling ourselves.
We had absolutely nothing to say about the book, which filled most of us with silent gratitude to be done with it once and for all.
So the conversation turned to other things, other less frivolous things, thankfully not politics but the circumstantially relevant topic of religion.
It is easy to think of your religion as the religion. And by that I mean the right one. I sat at the far end of the table literally and figuratively.
First came the question of whether Jesus had brothers and if so, who they were. That brought up the subject of Mary’s imagined life as the wife of Joseph and mother of mortals and the implications of conception, immaculate and otherwise.
The most authoritative Catholic in the group appraised us all of the doctrinal meaning of “immaculate conception” which may not be the conception you, or I for that matter, were conceiving of, that is, the virginal conception of Baby Jesus. Rather, it refers to the concept of Mary’s own conception as a human being born without sin. We outliers on the far end voiced misconceptions about all these conceptions, and the devout one said, Google it.
Google it is the modern-day conversation stopper. But then, that’s what dogma is designed to do. Stop conversation.
So we stopped talking and each went on separate pilgrimage for socks, scarves, hats, books, toys and a shred of holiday warmth for some unknown poor family. It was easy to conceive of them wandering in the chill outside the high walls of this nearly empty temple, immaculately lit on this eve like an ancient shrine to economic redemption.
I doubt that any of us did any Googling on the dinner topic when we got home. The next morning came an email followup inviting us all to convert our erroneous thinking about the immaculate conception by clicking a link to a page in Wikipedia. I encourage you all likewise to go look at it right now while I keep quiet and ponder these things in my heart.
How about it? When I looked at it I thought: Has there ever been a more faith-defying argument, explanation, fabrication, extrapolation, interpretation or complication than this? Holy catechism! Buying all that takes a lot more intellectual credit than I have on hand!
I can fathom how the doctrine came about. Catholicism venerates Mary as an intercessor, and so divinely sanctified she must be made to be. But I was raised a good Lutheran (which is to say, a bad Lutheran) and we didn’t make so much of Mary. Except some of us little Lutheran girls prayed like hell to be cast as the comely mother in the yearly Christmas program. As you can guess, back then I never got the part. Now I see it as a part we are perpetually called to fill.
All this conceptualization is beyond us; the arguments are beneath us; they conquer and divide us when we know the really important things in life perfectly well for ourselves.
We all came together again before the night was over, setting down the blessed burdens we carried, opening up to share the modest gifts we had come to deliver. Without shame, we had used our half-price offers and twofer coupons to bring comfort to the humblest. We offered a package of girls’ white socks size XS, travel umbrellas, toys, playing cards, marked-down scarves, hats and bargain books. We saved far more money than we spent, but we still did right and we did good, without the slightest defilement of doctrinal debate.
This is the gospel few preach, but all of us, unified by inherent grace and goodness, can practice it: Doing good. There is no need to understand it. There is only a need to do it. And that’s so easy.
No matter what we believe, we’ve all been cast in the nativity pageant. No matter what our means, we have it within ourselves to deliver comfort, love and peace from our own pure hearts. Thank heaven, heaven is ours to share.