In the early 1980s, the late and much loved Kevin Donovan SJ went part-time on the faculty at Heythrop College in order to become a parish priest in north London. The opening line of his first lecture after the move ran: ‘Now that I’m working in a parish, I’m coming to realise that theology is as important as candles.’
Just let that line sink in. It might mean that theology is trivial, a waste of time; it could be suggesting that theology at its best is an act of worship. The irony hints at how churchy activity of any kind is always dealing with far more than it can really handle. And yet the juxtaposition also jangles: life with candles and life with high theology, as in different ways both Kevin and his students were realising, do not quite fit together.
When we speak of Mary as conceived without original sin, we are using a theological idea—original sin—to name a reality of faith more naturally expressed by lighting a candle. And the theology does not quite work.