On Dec. 8, we celebrate the patronal feast of our country, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The feast is a most important one for us as it points to the prominent role that Mary has in our lives of faith.
Last year on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis reflected that Mary “lived a beautiful life” because she lived a virtuous life. The pope explained that, “the Word of God was her secret: close to her heart, it then took flesh within her womb. Remaining with God, dialoging with him in every circumstance, Mary made her life beautiful. Mary’s beauty is not found in her outstanding appearance, but in the total freedom from sin.” Indeed, understanding Mary’s Immaculate Conception will assist us more in finding the beauty of our lives.
The Immaculate Conception of Mary is understandably misunderstood. Oftentimes, it is believed that it refers to the doctrine of our faith which tells us that Jesus was conceived without original sin in Mary’s womb. However, it does not. Mary’s Immaculate Conception refers to the fact that she herself was conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, without original sin. When the doctrine was infallibly defined by Blessed Pope Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1854, he proclaimed, “We declare, pronounce and define that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instance of her conception, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin by the singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God in virtue of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, and that this doctrine was revealed by God, and therefore, must be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
The Immaculate Conception has much to say to all of us about Mary, about the reality of sin, about the sanctity of our lives and, most of all, about the primacy of Christ. It is not a theological wonder, but a reality of our faith that makes a difference in the way we live daily in relation to God. It especially has much to say to our society today which has lost a sense of the realities included in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception makes clear the eminent and singular place she holds in the life of the Church and in heaven. Chosen by God to be the first to share in the fullness of Christ’s redemption, Mary did not have the least complicity with sin. Her Immaculate Conception is the basis for Mary’s being able to be completely free from the slightest sin all during her life. God bestowed such favor on Mary not for her sake, but for ours. She stands as the sinless one, the perfect disciple, the model of the Church, and the promise of our resurrection through her Assumption, body and soul, into heaven. In her, we see the promise of salvation fully accomplished. We should not believe that Mary’s Immaculate Conception made things easy for her. Like all of us, she had to cooperate with the grace of God in her life. That is why she is such a perfect model.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception reminds us of the reality of sin, both original and personal. Sin is real, and it is the refusal of God’s life. It entered the world through the selfishness of Adam and Eve. By its very nature, sin marred God’s creation and his plan. We are all born with original sin, not through any fault of our own, but through the human condition which we inherit. We are prone to sin because of original sin. However, the infinite love of God for us cannot be blunted even in the face of sin. God sent his Son to us that he might restore his creation and plan.
While we have been redeemed, we still bear the effects of original sin. Mary’s sinlessness reminds us of the perfect attitude toward God which should have been that of Adam and Eve and should be our own. Mary could only remain sinless through the favor of God which is held out to all of us. We still live in an imperfect world and only the grace of Christ can perfect it. Mary is our hope in the face of our own sinfulness which is always overcome by God’s merciful forgiveness.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception also speaks of the sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception. The human person comes into existence then, and God’s plan for each individual begins to unfold. Such was true for Mary from the instant of her conception in the womb of St. Anne. God’s plan for her was unique and her Immaculate Conception is the first event in that singular plan. So it is with all of us and every individual human life made in God’s image and likeness. Every life is sacred and unique, never to be repeated again. In our own day and age, the Immaculate Conception of Mary speaks volumes as to why abortion is evil and contradictory to the unique purpose and sanctity of every life. It speaks to us of the value and dignity of every person at every stage of life until natural death.
The Immaculate Conception of Mary speaks to us of the primacy of Christ for our world and in our lives. It is he who is the Lord of life and the restorer of God’s plan. He has redeemed us by giving his life so that we might be free from sin and able to live God’s life. From the moment of Mary’s conception, God’s gift of his Son was on the way. In him, Mary’s purpose was fulfilled, as is that for each and every one of us.
This is well summed up in the words of St. Paul which are read on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. “Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved. … In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ.” (Eph 1:3-6, 11-12).
It is fitting that we focus our attention on Mary during the season of Advent as we prepare for the celebration of the birth of her Son. She is truly the central figure of the Advent Season for, through her consent, the Son of God was conceived in her womb and born at Bethlehem. Her quiet life anticipating the redemptive action of her Son, which had already been accomplished in her, is what the season of Advent is all about.
As we celebrate the Immaculate Conception and look to Mary during this season of Advent, may her Immaculate Conception speak to us of those realities which will draw us closer to her Son and make our celebration of Christmas a more fruitful one in our lives and for our world today. May it help us find true beauty in life.