Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vulgate Verse: immaculate

Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The verse I wanted to comment on today comes from one of the more controversial books of the Bible, called the "Song of Songs" (or "Canticle of Canticles"), and also the "Song of Solomon" (based on its traditional attribution to Solomon, to whom other wisdom books are attributed as well). In Latin, the book is called Canticum Canticorum. This ancient collection of love songs, seemingly ill-suited to the Bible's religious project, has been interpreted allegorically: instead of being about the love of a man and a woman, the songs are considered to be an expression of the soul's love for God (or the love of God and the church, God and his people, and so on). You can read more about the Song of Songs in wikipedia.

The particular verse I want to comment on here is Song of Songs 4:7, which reads:

Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te. (Latin)

"Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee." (King James)

The word that I want to focus on here is the Latin word macula, translated as "spot" here in the King James version. The Latin word means a spot or a stain, and corresponds quite nicely to the Hebrew word used here, moom. The hymn of praise here to the woman who is unspotted or unblemished eventually leads us to the Virgin Mary. Here's how.

From this word macula we get the English word "immaculate," which means un-spotted, un-stained. In the history of the Catholic Church, this word has taken on extraordinary importance because of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Most people seem to think, incorrectly, that Immaculate Conception means the same thing as the virgin birth, the conception of Jesus without a human father.

The Immaculate Conception, however, is something much more arcane. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary herself was conceived in an unusual way, created without original sin in the womb of her mother, traditionally known as Anna. Although Mary was conceived through sexual intercourse between a woman and a man (Anna's husband is traditionally known as Joachim), she was born suffused with divine grace, which preserved her from the state of original sin so that the body in which Jesus would later be conceived would be a fit vessel, unpolluted and unstained. Mary is thus the woman who is without the stain of original sin, the woman who is divinely without a blemish, without a macula; she is the immaculate product of the immaculate conception. You can read more about the fascinating notion of the Immaculate Conception at wikipedia. It is one of the distinctive doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, not shared by other Christian churches.

You might also have encountered this Latin word macula through its Italian reflex, macchia, which gives us the word "stained, spotted" - macchiato. Yes, a caffè macchiato is a spotted coffee, stained with a dollop of milk. It is not immaculate - it is maculate coffee, caffè macchiato.

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