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December 8 celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which (as anyone who reads me regularly knows) has nothing to do with baby Jesus and everything to do with baby Mary. The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary being conceived without Original Sin. She comes into the world, unlike the rest of us, sin-free. And she stays that way.

What would you do with a brand new, spotlessly clean soul? If the past is any indication, I’d probably just soil it again. Even after being absolved of my sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation — despite my sincere vows to not fall into the same traps again — I inevitably sin.

Is it the human condition to fail and fall, over and over again? Can we ever rise beyond our nature? Surely some of us do. But how?

What must it take,
once washed white,
to stave off soil and stain?
Love, mercy, justice,
wielded wisely.
Love launders.
Mercy bleaches clean.
Justice proofs the fabric
against what muck may come.
Lather liberally. Saturate spots.
Rinse and repeat as needed.

“Why can’t I just get a cold like a normal person?” I wailed to my husband. “Why must everything be so drastic?” It’s true. I haven’t had a simple cold in 25 years. It’s always a sinus infection, bronchitis, pneumonia — with a few oddities like cellulitis thrown in for variety. Sicknesses don’t strike me and go; they linger, dig in, build a nice home (sometimes an entire housing complex) and settle in for a good, long stay.

Which leads to today’s Catholic dilemma: December 8 is a Holy Day of Obligation, one of my favorites — the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It’s all about Mary being conceived without sin, being chosen from the get-go, a real “girl power” holy day. And I don’t feel well enough to attend mass.

Missing mass is a big deal. It’s a mortal sin. If you die in a state of mortal sin, it’s hot coals and pitchforks for you, buddy. No joke. But the church does allow for some exceptions — illness or care of a small child. But that doesn’t make the decision not to attend mass any easier.

Type “should I go to church when I’m sick?” into Google, then sit back and get ready for opinions. The answers are all over the map: “Go unless you are dying.” “Go, but sit in the back and don’t touch anyone.” “It is most charitable to stay home and not spread your illness.”

All of these viewpoints have merit. I do want to attend mass. It’s a powerful and healing ritual for me. But our church, rather than following the standard “altar at the front, then rows of pews” is rather more circular, with the pews nestled around the altar like an amphitheater. There is no “back corner,” really. People sit all over. It is not an easy place to isolate one’s self.

I don’t want to infect my pastor. I don’t want to infect my fellow parishioners, many of whom are elderly. I will never forget — much to my deep sorrow — exactly who it was that gave me pneumonia in 2014, or who insisted on passing on bronchitis to me last year. I attend church with them every week. Maybe for them it was a simple cold. But in me, already cursed with asthma and lungs scarred by previous bouts of pneumonia, every bug goes straight to my respiratory tract. What do you do when someone who has been hacking away all service long extends a hand to you at the kiss of peace?

But how can I reconcile not going to mass if I leave my house for any other purpose? I bought groceries last night. Otherwise, we would starve. But it took me out into the open, into the larger world. How was it okay to do that but not to go to mass tonight?

I am left feeling the weight of Catholic guilt (which, let me tell you, is immense) on top of my upper respiratory woes. I’m sinful and sneezy. Stuffed up and beat down.

I can only honor God to the best of my ability, which in this case will be at home, in private prayer and communion, along with hot lemonade and honey. Lord, accept me, mucous and all. I give myself to you. You won’t mind if I bring Kleenex, though, will you?

Next Saturday, we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of observation. I’ve written about this day before, emphasizing that — despite its common use in pop culture — the day has nothing to do with Christ’s conception, but His mother Mary’s. She was conceived without sin, lacking the stain of Adam and Eve, pure.

We know Mary primarily as a woman of “yes.” It’s what she’s known for: Saying yes to bringing the Son of God into the world. We read about her from time to time in the New Testament, mostly in the early parts of the story, Jesus’ birth and formative years. She appears again at the foot of the cross. She is present after the Resurrection. Most of the time, she doesn’t speak. She chides her son only twice, once for running away, once to goad Him into action. The most telling line about her speaks to her introspection: “Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

It’s not a very complete picture. There’s quite a bit of information missing. This makes it difficult to know Mary better, something that women, especially, aspire to do, as she is one of the few role models we have in the Church. What I like about Mary is that she has the best qualities of any heroine: She is assertive and accepting. She says yes to God — a bold expression of unfathomable faith — and accepts that the road ahead will be difficult. Because how could it not be? She had to know, or at least to guess, that life for her beloved son would not be easy. She had to see the end coming.

I also like the use of the word “grace” when it comes to Mary. We speak of this grace in the “Hail Mary,” taken from Elizabeth’s greeting to her cousin in Luke Chapter 1. Grace can mean “elegance” or “beauty.” It can also mean “kindness” or “mercy.” I prefer to think of Mary as having the kind of grace referred to in the phrase “grace under pressure.” Her road was no walk in the park, either. Imagine explaining your pregnancy to your parents, to your fiancé. Imagine watching your child die a painful and ignominious death. These things require grace, along with a spine of steel and a faith that can not only move mountains, but make them dance. I long for this kind of grace.

Advent is a good time to think about Mary, to ponder her strength and sacrifice. God, capable of anything, instead of sending down His son fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, decides to go the old-fashioned route, the humble route: His son comes as a baby, just like the rest of us. He is born of woman. And what a woman she must have been! I can only aspire to be like her, to ask her to shower a little of her grace on me. So that whatever God asks of me, I can answer as Mary did — yes. Always yes.


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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