On December 8, homilists are fond – and rightly so – of connecting the mystery of the Immaculate Conception with the mystery of Christmas, which is soon to come. But do we forget about the Immaculate Conception when Christmas arrives, to our loss?
Curiously it was a Protestant clergyman, Phillips Brooks, who simply out of good, instinctive Christian piety wrote a hymn that celebrated the Immaculate Conception, or seemed to at least, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
The year was 1868, only fourteen years after the dogmatic definition by Pius IX in his bull, Ineffabilis Deus, that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.”
Brooks was the distinguished rector at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. He wrote the words of the hymn ad hoc for a Christmas pageant for children in his Sunday school. His organist looked for inspiration and composed the familiar tune at the last moment. Neither of them expected that the hymn would have any life beyond that first use.
Brooks’ handwritten sketch had this penultimate verse (emphasis mine):
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the Blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee
Son of the Undefiled,
Where Charity stands watching
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes the glory hearts
And Christmas comes once more.
Yet even by the time the pageant was performed, Brooks had changed his mind and made the fourth line “Son of the mother mild.” Afterwards, for the rest of his life, he desired that this verse be omitted.
The Oxford English Dictionary shows that although the word “undefiled” had been used in earlier centuries to mean “chaste,” or when applied to Mary “virginal,” by the mid-1800s it meant only “without sin.” The entry cites as typical a hymn from 1875 by John S.B. Monsell, “God of that glorious gift”: “Make him and keep him Thine own child, Meek follower of the Undefiled!” – i.e, a disciple of Jesus, the only sinless one, it is implied.
I’ve known Catholics with good judgment who will not include “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in their carol singing parties on the grounds that it is a “Unitarian hymn,” celebrating Jesus solely as a “great moral teacher” and not God incarnate. I don’t think that is a fair criticism, as the last line in addressing the infant Jesus as “Our Lord, Emmanuel” – God with us – at least admits of a Trinitarian interpretation.
For decades, however, even Protestants judged the hymn inappropriate for a worship service. They omitted it from their hymnals, on the grounds that its meter and tune are that of a ballade, and the words are mainly sentimental reflections rather than prayers addressed to God. I don’t know the exact year when Catholics began singing it, but older hymnals certainly left it out. It seems to be regarded now as completely unobjectionable and is even included in the Adoremus hymnal.
That omitted phrase, however, “Son of the Undefiled,” when naturally taken to affirm the Immaculate Conception, would surely have saved the whole. Why? Because the Christmas mystery like other mysteries combines opposites, which we might call in this case “the sentimental,” and “the bracing.”
Sentimental would be shepherd boys with pan pipes, oxen and donkeys, candlelight, the romanticism of a cave, wondrous guests showing up from afar, and angels as we like to imagine them – as in many of John Rutter’s very endearing carols.
Bracing would be angels as they actually appear, the Emperor’s command of a census, the market fact of a housing shortage, Herod’s henchmen, and all intimations of the Passion. (Nota bene: Mary’s birth pangs are not among them, since she didn’t suffer any.)
Philosophically, what is sentimental is soft, fuzzy, and blends from one thing to another, while what is bracing is hard and has sharp boundaries.
Where does Mary fall in this? Should she be reckoned as on the mild side of the mystery, solely, or on the bracing side as well? Or put the question this way: because of Mary’s role, mustn’t the mystery of Christmas also be carried over to Mary and include her? But what about Mary could be “bracing” after all?
As to Mary’s role: she is the throne at Christmas. Yes, paintings depict pious shepherds kneeling with Joseph and Mary around a manger in adoration. But in reality, visitors never come to see a baby, but the mother with her baby. They stay away from sleeping babies, as a rule, and approach the baby only when he is in his mother’s arms.
For children, who are perhaps the most sentimental (and most bracing) among us, especially is this true, as Chateaubriand puts it marvelously in his Genius of Christianity: “Mary is the refuge of innocence, of weakness, and of misfortune. . . .The mother carries her babe before Mary’s image, and this little one, though it knows not as yet the God of Heaven, already knows this holy mother (cette divine mère) who holds an infant in her arms.”
It is the Immaculate Conception that makes Mary bracing because it is a discontinuity, the sharp initiation of a new creation. It is the same discontinuity as that of sin versus forgiveness, of being unbaptized versus being baptized, of “men of goodwill” versus “men on whom his favor rests” – as that between a Great Moral Teacher and a Savior. Is Mary mild, or undefiled?
Brooks’ hymn is slushy without the Immaculate Conception. It’s a hymn of “insofar as”: insofar as we open our hearts, the dear Christ enters in, etc. Of course, Christmas is designed not to repel anyone, to welcome all comers insofar as they want to approach.
But “Do not destroy the mystery!” – as St. Thomas Aquinas would say. Put Christ, and the Immaculate Conception, in Christmas.
*Image: The Adoration of the Shepherds (L’Adoration des bergers) by Charles Le Brun, ca. 1689 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s The Immaculate Conception
David G. Bonagura Jr.’s Catholics, Protestants, and Immaculate Mary