As we are moving into the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 8th December, it is worth taking a moment to consider what this beautiful solemnity actually means.
Belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was not always a dogma of the Catholic Church. However, from the earliest times of the Church, it was certainly an increasingly widely held belief – although at times, also a contentious one. Throughout the centuries there have been various proponents of this belief – early amongst them were St Hippolytus, who alluded to this belief around the year 235; and then St Ephraim around thirty five years later, followed by the great St Ambrose around twenty years after, who declared that Mary was “free of every stain of sin”. Much later, there was Blessed John Duns Scotus, St John Eudes and various other saints across the years.
In the year 1830, the Blessed Virgin gave the world the Miraculous Medal through St Catherine Laboure, and on that medal, it refers to ‘Mary, conceived without sin’.
It was not until 8 December 1854 that the Holy Father, Pope Pius IX, declared in his document ‘Ineffabilis Deus’ that –
“..by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of Her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
Interestingly, just four short years later, the Blessed Virgin appeared to St Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes; when She finally consented to give the child Her name, She said this –
‘I am the Immaculate Conception’
Clearly, then, the Blessed Virgin Herself is pleased with this title of ‘Immaculate Conception’. She has every right to be. And at Fatima in 1917, She spoke about Her ‘Immaculate’ Heart – something She could only say if She were entirely Immaculate.
‘Immaculate’ means ‘clean’, very simply put; but here it really means much, much more. In the case of Mary, it means entirely spotless, without any trace of sin. It refers back to the Book of Genesis –
‘I will put enmity between thee and the Woman, thy seed and Her seed. She shall crush thy head..’
This ‘enmity’ means there was no common ground whatsoever between the Blessed Virgin and Satan – at no moment did he ever have any power over Her by means of original or actual sin.
It also refers to the salutation of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, and which we recall every time we pray the ‘Hail Mary’ –
‘Hail Mary, full of grace’.
Gabriel did not call Mary by name; rather, he called Her “full of grace”. Not ‘partly graceful’, or ‘with some grace’, but ‘full’ of grace – She has the very fullness of God’s grace, by God’s own providence and design.
Interestingly, the original Greek word that is used – ‘Kecharitomene’ – spans the tenses of the verb, indicating that this being ‘full of grace’ has always been so; it is not simply happening at that moment. As one scholarly work notes –
“It is permissible, on Greek grammatical and linguistic grounds, to paraphrase ‘kecharitomene’ as ‘completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace’. (“Greek Grammar of the New Testament” – Blass and DeBrunner)
These two verses noted above form the Biblical foundation for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
The crucial thing here is to recall precisely why She was conceived immaculate; it was so that She would be a fitting Mother of the Son of God. She would be His first tabernacle, His first monstrance, His first altar. It would not have been fitting for the all holy and pure Son of God to be born of a woman who was anything other than perfect, the very pinnacle of the human race. And so, while the Immaculate Conception says a great deal about the Blessed Virgin, it says a great deal more about the Son of God. This Child took human flesh – from where? From His Mother. His Immaculate Mother. A clean thing cannot come from something that is not clean.
For us, this feast is a truly beautiful one; the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin is the moment in which the story of our salvation begins – the moment in which the first rays of rising Son are beginning to glow behind the hills of human history, promising something wonderful to come.
Today, as we consider the beauty and the meaning of this solemnity, let us take a moment to thank the Merciful Father for this singular grace and privilege given to the Woman who would be found worthy to be the Mother of God; and to find some little way to honour Her today in our lives and in our prayers.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee.