The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated on 8 December and was declared a dogma of the Catholic Church Pius IX in 1854:
‘In the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, savior of the human race, the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin. This doctrine has been revealed by God and must therefore, be believed by all the faithful.’
The teaching about the Immaculate Conception has been surrounded by debate both before and after the proclamation of the dogma including and within the Catholic Church itself. Even the two great western Fathers, St Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas, taught that Mary was conceived with original sin like any other human being and was later sanctified in the womb of her mother.
For that reason it is important we familiarise ourselves with the actual teaching and on what it is based.
- The feast commemorates the conception of Mary in the womb of Ann.
- Mary was conceived in perfect holiness, without stain because she was to receive the Word of God.
- Some of the debate has centred around the different understanding of original sin. The Immaculate Conception is linked to the tainting of humanity by the fall of Adam. (Romans 12:18 and Ephesians 2:3). As a result of the fall of Adam and Eve all humanity was tainted by sin.
- The dogma of the Immaculate Conception recognises that Mary was born without the stain of sin.
That is because she would be the vessel of salvation. The temple which would carry Christ in his humanity.
- The origin of the feast is ancient. In the Eastern Church the commemoration of the birth of Mary has existed since at least the fifth century.
- The Syriac Father St Ephrem as early as the fourth century proclaimed:
‘There is in you, Lord, no stain, nor any spot in your mother.’
‘You Jesus and your mother are the only ones who are beautiful in all aspects. Because in you, O Lord, there is no deformation, and in your mother, there is no stain.’
‘As lightning illuminates what is hidden, so also Christ purifies what is hidden in the nature of things. He purified the Virgin also and then was born, so as to show that where Christ is, there is manifest purity in all its power. He purified the Virgin, having prepared Her by the Holy Spirit… having been born, He left Her virgin. I do not say that Mary became immortal, but that being illuminated by grace, She was not disturbed by sinful desires”
7. The context of the meaning of St Ephrem’s last quote is explained by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and should not be taken to mean that Mary was purified after conception:
492 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”. The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love”.
8. Like Jesus who is the New Adam, Mary is the New Eve.
St Ephrem explains
‘The two women were pure and simple, Mary and Eve. One of them, however, became the cause of our death and the other, the cause of our life.
9. There is a scriptural basis for the dogma. In the gospel Mary is greeted as “highly favored,” “The Lord is with you,” “blessed among women.” (Luke 1: 28) “You have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30).
10. Mary is the Mother of God and part of God’s plan of salvation. We should not be surprised that as part of that plan, Mary would be conceived free from sin.
On this great feast may we all be inspired to aim to be as perfect as the Mother of God.
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