The Feast of the Immaculate Conception in Rome
LONG BEACH, CA (Catholic Online) Today we celebrate with profound joy the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
At the outset, I hasten to stipulate what the Immaculate Conception is not because, for whatever reason, people, even Catholics, often confuse the Immaculate Conception with the Incarnation.
The Immaculate Conception does not refer to the conception of Jesus in the womb of His mother, Mary. That exceedingly momentous event, 'when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," in the virginal and spotless womb of His mother is solemnly commemorated by the Church nine months before Christmas on March 25 (Solemnity of the Annunciation).
The Immaculate Conception, in contrast, refers to the conception of Mary as the fruit of the pure, marital embrace of her holy parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne. The Church has solemnly defined that "from the first instant" of Our Lady's conception God mightily intervened and by a singular grace and privilege, and in view of the foreseen merits of her Son's saving Death, preserved her from every stain of sin.
This means that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin and furthermore that she never committed any sin, not even a venial sin, throughout her whole life, until the day she was gloriously assumed into heaven body and soul.
The Collect from today's Mass expresses this sublime truth in succinct, precise and accessible language:
"O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son, grant, we pray, that, as you preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw, so, through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence ." (Collect from the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Many modern Protestant Christians reject this teaching and see it as one fraught with serious flaws. They argue that it is a Catholic invention that has no basis in Scripture. They further contend that if Mary never sinned then she did not need a savior and this is not only wrong but an affront to Christ Himself who shed His blood on the cross for the redemption of all mankind.
Before I give a brief response to these objections, I think it is illustrative to point out that the Protestant reformers of the 16th century would not exactly agree with many of their modern Protestant counterparts, especially some in the Evangelical wing who tend to be more pronounced in their denial of Catholic Marian doctrines.
The German reformer, Martin Luther, was profuse in his praise of Mary and defended not only her sinlessness but also her Divine Maternity, her Perpetual Virginity, her Assumption into heaven and Marian devotions. Most Evangelical Christians, for whom I have the utmost respect (they are our allies in the defense of life, marriage and religious freedom), would be shocked to know this. But it is true and easy enough to find out but not so easy to explain away.
One of the scriptural sources of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is Luke 1:28. Tons of ink has been spilt over this verse alone and one could go on endlessly examining it. The key element of this verse is the Greek word, kecharitÃ´menÃ§. Some translations render this word, "highly favored." Indeed, the Blessed Virgin Mary was "highly favored" by God but the original Greek conveys something more.
Without going into a long, detailed word analysis, suffice it to say that, kecharitÃ´menÃ§, translated properly, "full of grace," implies a permanent quality of utter holiness that embraced Mary's whole life, from beginning to end, and that this perduring sinlessness was not of her own making but rather one which was received as a free gift from God, a grace (in Greek, charis, a word which is contained in the very word kecharitÃ´menÃ§).Â
This is, in Biblical terms, what is meant by the theological term, Immaculate Conception. Immaculate comes from the Latin, sine and macula, literally, without stain. Mary is, by God's grace, full of grace from beginning to end.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, far from indicating that Mary had no need of a savior, teaches that she was redeemed, but in a most lavish way.
We are redeemed by the grace of Christ after the fact of our sins. Mary was redeemed by the grace of Christ before sin could even get near her. This was so God could "prepare a worthy Mother for [His] Son" (Preface of today's Mass).
Here's how the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it:
"The 'splendor of an entirely unique holiness' by which Mary is 'enriched from the first instant of her conception' comes wholly from Christ: she is 'redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son'" (492).
We might say, tweaking the lyrics of a popular Protestant hymn, that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was wrought by a "most amazing grace."
Sin makes us enemies of God. The name "Satan" means "adversary" or "enemy." We may not think of it in these terms but every sin, even the smallest of sins, makes us, in some sense, adversaries or enemies of God. When one sins, one is opposing God and His divine will.
God chose Our Lady and made her Immaculate so that He would have a most faithful ally in carrying out His plan of redemption. She was not, as some might be tempted to think, a mere passive instrument in the hands of God, a kind of disposable incubator for the Word Incarnate. On the contrary, she was a real, flesh and blood, human being, who cooperated freely with God's plan of salvation.
In the prayers of today's Mass we ask God our Lord through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary that we may be "cleansed" and "delivered from all our faults," and "healed" of the wounds caused by our sins. In the Preface, she is called an "advocate of grace and a model of holiness."
In our own struggle to be "holy and without blemish before God" we have no greater aide than Mary Most Holy who by her free and total "yes" to God crushed the head of the ancient serpent, the devil, and opened the door of the world to the Word made flesh, our Redeemer.
In closing, let us turn to Immaculate Mary, our Mother, in the words of the ancient prayer, Alma Mater Redemptoris, and say to her:
Loving mother of the Redeemer, gate of heaven, star of the sea, assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again. To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator, yet remained a virgin after as before. You who received Gabriel's joyful greeting, have pity on us poor sinners. Amen.
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