There are lots of confusions around this feast, so let’s take a moment to clear things up.
Many – Catholics included – wrongly believe that this dogma of our church has to do with the conception of Jesus – “born of a virgin,” as we say in the creeds. But no: It has to do with the conception of the Blessed Mother. We believe that she was conceived in the usual way by her parents, but that – this is the point – at the moment of her conception God allowed her to share (“in advance,” as it were) in the redemptive grace of Christ so that she was never affected by original sin. (Note that this is not to say that Mary did not need the grace of Christ – only that she was given the gift of it before the Incarnation.)
Another confusion – more common among non-Catholics – is that this teaching was somehow “added” to the faith by papal decree. While it’s true that the formal definition of the dogma came only in 1854 (in the Papal decree Ineffabilis Deus), the belief has a long history.
Almost as soon as technical theology came to be written among believers, in the fourth century St. Gregory Nazianzus (at the time the Archbishop of Constantinople and greatest of the early theologians), called her “prepurified” at the Annunciation – simply codifying an already-common conviction among ordinary Christians. Feasts devoted to this belief were celebrated in both Eastern and Western Christianity through the following centuries, and finally in the early nineteenth century bishops from around the world were pressing the pope (at the time Gregory XVI), to define the dogma formally for the universal church.
Gregory’s successor, Pope Pius IX, officially consulted with the bishops of the world and, on hearing from them that Mary’s Immaculate Conception was a universal belief of the faithful and that the time was right to recognize this fact, confirmed it as a dogma of faith. The belief itself was in no way new: What was new was only the official recognition of what had long been commonly believed by Catholics throughout the world. This wasn’t “added to” Catholic belief: it simply made explicit what was common belief from as far back as we can discover.
And so to a final dangerous misunderstanding: that dogmas like Mary’s Immaculate Conception are “facts out there” that we’re required to believe, but which have little or nothing to say about how we live. (To take an example, I might believe that the Amazon is the longest river in South America on the testimony of geographers – but so what? I’m not planning on going there any time soon…)
Instead, we need to explore what this teaching says about our own condition and God’s path to us. Here’s the key thing: We can expect that God will do for us what God did for Mary! Not, that is, that we’re free from original sin (a bit of thinking about our history should clear that up); but that, Just as God prepared Mary in advance for the vocation He was to give her, so God has in advance prepared each of us for the vocation God is calling us to. Just as God anticipated Mary’s needs and met them, so God anticipates and meets ours.
Whenever we celebrate the feast of a saint or of a doctrine of our church, it’s too limiting to think that we’re celebrating only “what God did someplace else and at some other time for someone else.” There’s a truth to that – after all, we celebrate history, not myth – but it’s too-limited a truth: The more full truth is that we celebrate “what God did, and still does, for someone else and for us, somewhere else and right here.” I admit that’s a mouthful, but it’s the deeper truth of every feast.
So join us tomorrow to celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary – and consider, as you prepare: What can I trust that God has already done for me, so that I can succeed in the trials of my own life of discipleship? Until next week, peace!
(Masses are Monday at 8am, 9am, and 7:30pm. This is a Holy Day of Obligation.)