Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception - December 9, 2013
This year, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception will be celebrated on Monday, December 9 due to the fact that December 8 was an Advent Sunday this year.
On December 8, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Catholic belief that Mary was free from original sin from the moment of her existence was promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
While Marian devotion remains strong in the church, the Immaculate Conception is a complex concept that has interested theologians more than the ordinary faithful. Many people still wrongly assume that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ. In fact, it refers to the belief that Mary, by special divine favor, was without sin from the moment she was conceived. The main stumbling block for many Catholics is original sin. Today we are simply less and less aware of original sin. And without that awareness, the Immaculate Conception makes no sense.
The late American Bishop Fulton Sheen put it another way in 1974, speaking about the loss of the sense of sin. Sheen said: “It used to be that the Catholics were the only ones to believe in the Immaculate Conception. Now everyone believes he is the immaculately conceived.”
Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma in 1854, but the idea that Mary was born without the stain of sin did not appear out of the blue. It took shape after a long and complicated theological debate that, in some respects, still continues. Already in the earliest Christian times Mary was held to be an ideal model of holiness, and by the eighth century Eastern Christians were celebrating a feast in honor of Mary’s conception.
For centuries, theologians hesitated to say that Mary was completely free from original sin because they thought it would contradict a major tenet of the faith, the universality of redemption. In the 13th century, the Franciscan Duns Scotus found a new way to look at it, saying that Mary’s special role did not free her from the need of redemption — it simply required a different form of Christ’s mediating grace.
When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma, he referred explicitly to the biblical story of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. The angel Gabriel’s salutation, “Hail, full of grace,” is understood as recognizing that Mary must always have been free from sin. No other human being collaborated in the work of redemption as Mary did. The early church wanted to explain in a plausible manner how God’s Son could be “completely human, yet without sin.” Their answer was that the mother of God must have been without sin.
Within the Roman Catholic tradition we have given this preeminent disciple many names and titles out of love and honour. We celebrate three great moments of her life knowing that they represent all of our lives. Through the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, God was present and moving in Mary’s life from the earliest moments. God’s grace is greater than sin; it overpowers sin and death. Through her Immaculate Conception, Mary was called for a special mission.
The second moment of Mary’s life is the Incarnation. Through the virginal birth of Jesus we are reminded that God moves powerfully in our lives too. Our response to that movement must be one of recognition, humility, openness, welcome, as well as a respect and dignity for all life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. Through the Incarnation, Mary was gifted with the Word made Flesh.
The Church celebrates Mary’s final journey into the fullness of God’s kingdom with the dogma of the Assumption promulgated by Pius XII in 1950
. As with her beginnings, so too, with the end of her life, God fulfilled in her all of the promises that he has given to us. We, too, shall be raised up into heaven as she was. In Mary we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we in God’s. Through her Assumption, Mary was chosen to have a special place of honour in the Godhead.
What happens to Mary happens to Christians. We are called, gifted and chosen to be with Jesus. When we honour the Mother of God under the title “Immaculate Conception”, we recognize in her a model of purity, innocence, trust, childlike curiosity, reverence, and respect, living peacefully alongside a mature awareness that life isn’t simple. It’s rare to find both reverence and sophistication, idealism and realism, purity, innocence and passion, inside the same person as we find in Mary. Something inside us yearns always for innocence, purity, freshness and trust. If we lose these we find ourselves cynical and disillusioned with an unhappiness that comes precisely from having been around, from having had our eyes opened, from having knowledge without innocence. We need to hold that innocence and experience in a proper tension. Mary, Mother of the Lord teaches us how to do just that.
Let me share with you this poem written by a sister who made a retreat with me in Italy many years ago. She entitled the poem “Bellezza”, “Beauty.”
Don’t smile, brothers and sisters,
And don’t shrug your shoulders:
Our God is fascinating and what he does always surpasses the impossible God looked upon a woman and loved her,
And he who loves even before looking at the face seeks the beauty that lies in the heart.
God looked upon a woman who was from the race of the little ones without name,
Those that live far away from palaces-
Those who work in kitchens, those who come from the numbers of the humble and the forgotten,
Those that never open their mouths and who are accustomed to poverty.
God looked upon her and found her to be beautiful and this woman was joined to him as if her were her beloved- for life and for death.
From now on all generations will call her blessed. God looked upon a woman.
Her name was Mary.
As a woman who gives herself, she believed, and during the night, in a grotto, she cried out with pain, and from her womb God himself was born, bringing with him salvation and peace, like treasures for all eternity.
As a woman who surrenders herself and never regrets it, she believed against all the obscurity that enveloped her, against all the doubts that filled her.
From now on her name will be sung, because God took her and she gave herself to him, she, Mary, one of us. And God crowned her with stars and robed her with the sun, and under her feet God placed the moon.
Her name is Mary, and if you looked upon her Lord, it is because on our earth filled with women and men, you found such beauty.
On December 8 each year, we pray in a special way for the Church in the United States of America that is under the patronage and protection of the Immaculate Conception.