The Angelic Doctor helps us to understand the Immaculate Conception
It’s always been fashionable to dislike St Thomas Aquinas, but never possible to get away from him. In their Oedipal rage, young philosophers furiously tear off his mantle – some jettisoning the Faith, others God, and still others reason itself. Yet, long after there are positivists and Marxists and absurdists, there will still be Thomists.
Still, we may forget that the great Dominican friar was just that: a mendicant, a preacher. Though not quite the Dumb Ox his classmates thought him to be, Thomas was a man of simple faith who loved Truth for her own sake, not because – and even despite – any fame it brought him. In his biography of Aquinas, GK Chesterton recounts how “the Blessed Virgin appeared to him, comforting him with the welcome news that he would never be a bishop.”
The most famous instance of Thomas humbling his formidable intellect comes, quite fittingly, in the year leading up to his death. He was celebrating Mass when he entered an ecstasy, from which he didn’t emerge for some time. That experience marked the abrupt end of his writing career. When his secretary Reginald implored him to continue work on his unfinished Summa Theologiae, Thomas gently refused. “The end of my labors has come,” he told his friend. “All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.”
This same holy resignation – “true wisdom joined with simpleness”, as the Earl of Surrey wrote – is evident in the sermons he preached that year in a small country parish in Naples. They were received by the congregation with due fascination: “He often had to interrupt a sermon because of the tears of his audience,” writes Fr Louis Every. Lent was their occasion, though I find they do just as well for the start of the Advent season – especially on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
The finest of them is his “Exposition of the Angelic Salutation”. He asked a question that we in 21st century America may be no more capable of answering: why does the Angel Gabriel hail Mary, an honor no angel affords any other mortal in either the Old or the New Testament? Why does he not regard her as a mere vessel the way so many Protestants do? St Thomas’s reasons are characteristically brilliant, and yet he gives them with language that a 13th century Neapolitan peasant (and maybe even a 21st century American) could understand and appreciate.
The most interesting, I think, has to do with the line, “blessed is the fruit of thy womb”. Mary, as we know, is the new Eve. Just as our first mother ushered sin into the world, our Blessed Mother carried and raised and nurtured our Savior. “Thus Eve sought in the fruit and did not find there all the things that she desired,” Aquinas writes, “but the Blessed Virgin finds in her fruit everything that Eve desired.” This is what we look towards in Advent. Eve’s disobedience is undone with Mary’s fiat. The gates of Paradise are once again thrown open to humanity.
But why, then, is Advent a season of fasting instead of feasting? Because, just as the true fruit of Eden took on our flesh – here, in time and space – we must prepare ourselves to receive him: to be the garden ourselves. St Teresa of Avila writes movingly of tending to our souls as “making a garden in which the Lord is to take his delight.” She echoes the Book of Genesis, which says that, after eating the fruit and discovering their nakedness, Adam and Eve heard “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day”. We can hear that sound again, but only if we water the flowers. “By ‘water’ here I mean tears,” writes St Theresa: the sorrowful tears of the penitent and the joyful tears of the pardoned.
This is all very heady, but it boils down to something utterly divine in its simplicity. In fact, it’s the whole reason God made us, and the reason he sent his only Son to die for our sins. When we look into the infant face of our Lord on Christmas Day, we realize that that sweetness, that innocence, is what we were created for. It’s the sweet innocence of our first parents before they fell. It’s the sweet innocence that will be restored to the righteous on Judgement Day.
That’s why we fast, pray, and meditate. We bear our Crosses for the same reason Christ bore his: so that we can be happy with him forever.
And so the sharp winter becomes a new spring, and a new Eden teems beneath the frozen earth. We won’t see its first flower until 25 December, but that means we have the rest of Advent to prepare – tilling, turning, watering.