MOTHER! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied;
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
Before her wane begins on heaven’s blue coast;
Thy Image falls to earth. Yet some, I ween,
Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend,
As to a visible Power, in which did blend
All that was mixed and reconciled in Thee
Of mother’s love with maiden purity,
Of high with low, celestial with terrene!
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
"The Immaculate Conception of our Lady, was one of the Church of England's gifts to the rest of the Western Church. We borrowed it from the East in Saxon days; Norman bishops tried to ban it on the grounds that it wasn't observed in Rome; but we hung on to it and eventually Rome came round to our way of thinking. An early contribution of the Anglican Patrimony!"
So mused Fr John Hunwicke on his blog back in December 2009. Two years before that he preached at Pusey House, Oxford:
In a sermon I preached forty years ago, at the Mattins of Christmass Day in the year of my diaconate, I said that the Incarnation meant that God was in the belly of a Palestinian peasant girl who is Queen of Heaven. Critics fell into three categories: those who disliked my phrase because of its physicality and because it placed the origins of our faith among foreigners (surely Mary must have been a middle-class Englishwoman and if not a member of the WI then at least of the Young Wives); those who didn't like the phrase Queen of Heaven; and those who disliked both.
'The Immaculate Conception'. It's a lovely rolling phrase, isn't it (we classicists would analyse its rhythm as the trispondaicus). And it's a phrase, too, that can scare people silly. Is it sometimes the physicality - again, of conception - that disturbs them; conception, a process that occurs a little way south of the tummy button? Not the sort of thing the fastidious want to have dragged in front of their noses. C S Lewis points out that the devils too are fastidious in their horror at the flesh: Screwtape refers to a human as 'this animal, this thing begotten in a bed'. Or perhaps people are scared of the word 'Immaculate'; perhaps it suggests foreign religion - little old Irish women clutching their rosaries or Spanish ladies in black making their nine successive First Saturday communions in honour of the Immaculate Heart (a devotion which Cardinal Ratzinger with gentle irony once called 'surprising for people from the Anglo-Saxon and German cultural worlds'). But 'immaculate' is a completely biblical concept in its Hebrew and Greek equivalents: it means spotless; and only what is without blemish is truly for God (for example, a spotless sacrificial lamb). Because Mary is to be wholly for God, is to give God his body, to give God his endowment of genes, give God the food of her breast: so Mary by God's gift is to be the Immaculate, the one without blemish, the one in whom the Divine likeness has never been marred.
It is because Mary alone in the roots of her being is unmarked by sin that Mary alone is truly and wholly free. In our hearts, too, we should make her free and 'fear not'; she is never to be locked up in the tourist industry as a statue of doubtful taste carried in processions by foreign peasants for the English to photograph from within their coaches; Mary is not to be locked up by the Heritage business in a Merry England; she is not to be the Madonna of the Art Historians imprisoned in coffee table books.
If Mary is the Mother of God Incarnate, she is our Mother too, because we are in Christ, limbs of his body by our baptismal incorporation. Mary comes to us tonight, and what would a mother bring us her children except food; food for her children in exilio; food packed for our journey. Mary comes to this place and to this moment of time; Mary comes, bright with all the beauties known by men and angels; Mary comes to set upon our lips the blessed fruit of her womb Jesus.