The Immaculate Conception, John the Baptist, and Arresting Strangeness

This weekend the liturgy presents us with two striking figures: It’s the second Sunday of Advent, so the Gospel focuses on John the Baptist, but this weekend is also the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, so we are encouraged to ponder the mystery of Mary who was conceived without original sin.

JRR Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, coined an interesting literary term: arresting strangeness (cf. Tolkien, Essay on Fairy-Stories). He says that one of the advantages of the fantasy genre is the ease with which an author can utilize arresting strangeness. This is when the oddity of a character or scene stops us in our tracks and we are forced to ask, “What is going on here?” This technique is used effectively when the arresting strangeness draws us into a deeper truth contained within the character or scene.

Although Tolkien coined the term arresting strangeness, God was using the technique long before The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien himself points out. The Bible and our Tradition are filled with true stories that should continually make us stop and ask, “What is going on here?” The trouble is that we have gotten so comfortable with the strangeness of the stories that we are no longer arrested by them.

We have two big examples this weekend. The first is the Immaculate Conception. The tradition is that Sts. Anne and Joachim were married for forty years, but they had no children. They were ridiculed for their infertility, and they were told that God had cursed them, but then they conceived a child (cf. The Protoevangelium of James). Do you think the people of Nazareth shrugged their shoulders when they heard the news that Anne was pregnant? No. They stopped in their tracks and asked, “How can this be? What is going on here?” God chose Anne and Joachim in their old age to be the parents of Mary so that we would all know it was by His grace that she was conceived. They were forced to ask, “Who is this woman? How can this be?”

The story of the conception of St. John the Baptist follows the same pattern. The people of Bethlehem knew there was something special about John, and that continued to be the case throughout his life. St. Luke beautifully utilizes the technique of arresting strangeness. He sets the scene for his introduction to John’s adult ministry by listing the big names at the time: the emperor, the governor, the king, and the high priests. This was the standard way for a classical historian to set the scene for the triumphant introduction of a hero, but then St. Luke turns the technique upside down and says, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert” (Lk 3:2). Everything about John is meant to make us stop and ask, “What is going on here?” Why is he in the desert? Why is he at the Jordan? Why is he wearing camel skin and eating locusts? Why is he baptizing? And why is he calling people to repentance? Next week I will discuss some of the answers to these questions, but for now the point is that we must stop when we see strange things and look for an explanation to the strangeness. We must realize that God is offering us a window into His mystery.

The Church is full of strange things that are meant to make us stop and ponder a mystery: We walk through the doors of the church and the first thing we do (hopefully) is dip our fingers into a bowl of water and make the sign of the cross. That is a strange thing to do! Why do we do it? Then we walk up to our pew and we (hopefully) genuflect toward the tabernacle. What for?  Why do we have a huge statue of a dead man hanging on a cross? Why all the statues? Why an altar? Why is the altar higher than the rest of the church? There are, if the parish has kept the traditions of the Church, innumerable examples of strange things we do that should make us stop and ask, “What is going on here?” The problem is that we have become so familiar with these things we no longer stop to ask, “Why?” Unfortunately, because many priests and people don’t know the answers, they have also stopped the practices.

It’s been interesting in the past couple of weeks preparing for the Nativity pageant, which will take place prior to the Christmas Eve Mass. Almost all of the kids are completely unchurched, so they are constantly asking me questions about what things are and why I am doing certain actions. The Church isn’t anything like their normal experience. It’s sad to see that they haven’t learned these things, but it’s also exciting to see their openness to the mysteries that are being made available.

Now, we are in a difficult place today as a Church. The number of people practicing their faith is declining rapidly. It’s easy to blame others - the sins of priests and bishops, Hollywood, the schools, the internet, and I am not saying that there’s no fault in those places; however, improving the situation in our own parish won’t happen by complaining about things outside of our control. Therefore, I am going to give three simple examples of how reclaiming arresting strangeness in our own lives will make us holier and bring people back to the Church.

  1. Make the sign of the cross and genuflect with reverence. When a non-Catholic sees us make the sign of the cross, it should prompt him to say to himself, “That really seemed to mean something. I wonder what?” Much of the time I think people see Catholics make the sign of the cross and they say to themselves, “That was a strange spasm. He might want to get that checked.” Similarly, the genuflexion is meant to be a sign of reverence for Christ, who is present in the tabernacle. Therefore, if you believe that He is present and you are able to get your knee to the floor, then please get your knee to the floor.

  2. Go to confession. Has a non-Catholic ever asked you if you go to confession? Have your kids ever seen you go to confession? The Church recommends that we go to confession once a month. The minimum requirement is once per year to be considered a practicing Catholic. Confession is a gift that allows us to know without a doubt that we are forgiven of our sins and Christ is giving us His grace to avoid future sin, and yet most Catholics avoid the sacrament. Why? Sure, it takes humility to go to confession, but humility is the foundation of the spiritual life. The world needs to know that Christ offers the forgiveness of sins, and the only way they will learn that is if we actually live as though we believe it.

  3. Keep the Lord’s Day Holy. This is so simple and it should be easy, and yet it’s not for most people. God has asked us to set aside a day for rest - a day to worship Him and to rest from work. That should be liberating news, but we so easily lose sight of what’s truly important. Missing Sunday Mass for anything other than serious illness or really bad weather, is a serious sin. If we miss Sunday Mass for work, vacation, preparing a meal, sports, or whatever it may be, we are saying that those things are more important than our relationship with God. I guarantee you, that if you are faithful to keeping the Lord’s Day Holy, people will think you are strange, but they will be intrigued. I can also guarantee you that if you aren’t faithful to keeping the Lord’s Day Holy every week, it’s unlikely that your family or friends will think much about you telling them that they should go to church.

I am not saying that we are doing any of these things for the sake of being seen or to draw attention to ourselves. We do these things because they are the means by which God makes us holy. We are all called to be holy, the Latin word for holy is sanctus, which means set apart. It’s a natural consequence of being set apart that people will think we are strange; however, in God’s providence that strangeness can be a means of drawing others into a relationship with God. This Christmas, don’t be afraid to be strange. “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Scott Murray