Each Dec. 8, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a holy day of obligation.
But just whose conception does this feast celebrate? Since we are in the pre-Christmas season, people sometimes get confused and think this great church feast honors the motherhood of the Blessed Mother. However, a nearly-parallel Dec. 9 feast of the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches uses an older title that might make things more clear: “The Conception by St. Anne of the Most Holy Mother of God (the Theotokos).”
One titles given to Mary is “the Immaculate Conception” — a title by which she identified herself to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France, in 1858. As the Immaculate Conception, Mary is the patron of the United States, as well as of Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Korea, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Philippines, Spain, Uruguay and several other countries.
As we see from the Eastern churches’ title, the feast celebrates the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The celebration is nine months before the feast of Mary’s birth (Sept. 8).
This is a relatively new feast day on the Western church’s calendar; it was only made a holy day of obligation on Dec. 6, 1708, by Pope Clement XI. About 150 years later, on Dec. 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX pronounced as formal church doctrine that the Blessed Virgin “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”
Of course, the roots of the feast, and of the doctrine, go much farther back in history. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the feast of St. Anne’s conception — which is not entirely the same thing as a teaching on the immaculate nature of Mary — dates back to at least the seventh century in Palestine.
Not that there was ever lack of agreement on the unique place which Jesus’ mother holds in salvation history. Rather, the debate that arose came about over the question of whether or not Mary, as a creature of God, needed to be saved in the same manner as the rest of humanity. And, if so, in what way God did that to save her through Christ?
What most troubled people was the question of whether Mary was born with original sin, as the rest of us are. And if not, how did that happen?
Some of the greatest saints debated this. The early church often referred to Mary as “the second Eve” and cited her purity. However, that did not seem to lead them to declare her “immaculate” with any great speed.
Theologian Fr. William Most notes that a few church fathers even tried to say Mary was vulnerable to sin, even to the point of having doubts as she stood at the foot of the cross. “During the Middle Ages, authors such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas denied the doctrine (of Mary’s immaculate conception),” Fr. Most wrote.
However, the tide eventually turned and, by the 14th century, we heard from one of Mary’s great supporters: Blessed John Duns Scotus (d. 1308).
Marist Br. John Samaha said that Duns Scotus noted the prevalent difficulty in understanding: that Mary, like all of us needed to be redeemed, but how could she be redeemed by Christ, before Christ himself was born, much less before he had died on the cross?
“Duns Scotus pushed this obstruction from the path,” Br. Samaha said, “by showing that, instead of being excluded from the redemption of the Savior, Mary obtained the greatest of redemptions through the mystery of her preservation from all sin. This, explained Scotus, was a more perfect redemption and attributes to Christ a more exalted role as redeemer …”
From Duns Scotus’ time, the move to recognize Mary’s immaculate state from the first moment she was formed — through the great power of God — gained momentum.
Celebration of this Marian feast came to Europe from Italy which was strongly influenced by the Orthodox Church in Constantinople around the turn of the first millennium. From Italy, the feast seems to have jumped to England and returned to Europe, via the British Isles and France, about a century or so later.
Since England, and nearby Norman France, interacted heavily at the time, it is no surprise that, as “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes, “During the Middle Ages, the Feast of the Conception of Mary was commonly called the ‘Feast of the Norman Nation,’ which shows that it was celebrated in Normandy with great splendor and that it spread from there over Western Europe.”
On Feb. 28, 1476, Pope Sixtus IV adopted this feast of Mary for the entire church in the West. Pope Clement XI — who later also extended the feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary to the universal church — made the feast of the Immaculate Conception a holy day of obligation in 1708. Then, in 1854, any argument about Mary’s immaculate soul was settled by Pope Pius’ pronouncement.
Today, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a holiday in many nations, not all of which have strong Catholic ties — for example, Macau, Guam and parts of Switzerland, as well as Austria, Argentina and Spain. Their celebrations sometimes include parades and fireworks.
No matter how you celebrate the Dec. 8 feast, remember that Mary is the shining example of what God plans for all of us: an abundance of grace for eternity.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; catholiculture.org; EWTN.com; “Ineffabilis Deus”; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia.”