By Father Nile Gross, Guest Column
This week the Church celebrates one of her most important, yet misunderstood, solemnities – the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Unfortunately, many Catholics mistakenly believe this celebration refers to Christ himself rather than to our Blessed Mother.
So, what exactly are we celebrating on this holy day of obligation? What is the Immaculate Conception of Mary?
Pope Pius IX defined this teaching in his 1854, “Ineffabilis Deus”: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”
Here, Pius states emphatically that in order to prepare humanity for the birth of Jesus Christ, Mary was herself conceived free from original sin and its effects.
Such a grace bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin was not a necessary one but was fitting as it demonstrates the deep love God has for humanity. Mary, as a symbol of the Church, should be “full of grace,” “all holy” and “most pure.” By her Immaculate Conception, Mary becomes the perfect vessel from which the Son of God comes into the fallen world of man. She cooperates with her Son in the redemption of the world and becomes a perfect example to all humanity of how to live the Gospel.
The teaching of the Immaculate Conception finds support in Scripture and the Church’s tradition.
Scripture alone does not prove that Mary was conceived without sin. Instead, the greeting of the angel Gabriel, in which she is referred to as “full of grace” or “favored one” (Lk 1:28), strongly suggests this teaching. Mary is described as “full of grace” and “favored” by God before she accepts the task of bearing the Christ, not as a result of her assent. She cannot be both “full of grace” and fallen as a result of original sin at the same time.
Church fathers such as Andrew of Crete, Augustine and Ephrem emphasized the sinlessness of Mary from her conception using this same Gospel passage.
Why do we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary on Dec. 8? The Church celebrates the birthday of Mary on Sept. 8. Therefore, her conception would have occurred nine months prior – Dec. 8. This year, because the solemnity falls on a Sunday of Advent, the celebration is moved to Monday, Dec. 9.
Father Nile Gross serves at Notre Dame Seminary as associate academic dean and as director of the master of divinity program, intellectual formation and sacred liturgy. He also is director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship.