The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated every year on the eighth of December. Even though this feast day occurs in the liturgical season of Advent, which prepares for the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception asserts that, " from the first moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of Mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin."
Theological debate concerning the absence of original sin in the person of Mary began as early as the second century with the writings of Saints Justin and Ireneus. St. Ephraem of Syria wrote in the Nisibene Hymns: "Certainly You alone and your mother are from every aspect completely beautiful for there is no blemish in Thee, my Lord, and no stain in Thy mother." (Hymn. B. Maria 13:5-6)
This feast day had a very long and slow development. In the Eastern Church, the feast of the Nativity of Mary, September 8th, was celebrated as early as the late 6th century. In the early 7th century, the feast of the Mary's conception was observed in the East. In the West the feast of the Conception of Mary was introduced in Naples around 850 and in England around 1030. After the Norman conquest in 1066, it passed to Normandy, France, Spain, Germany and Belgium.
In the Middle Ages, Sts. Bernard of Clairvaux, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas as well as the first Franciscan theologians all objected to this feast based on the universality of sin and the need to be redeemed by Christ. The Franciscan theologian, Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) wrote on the question of Mary's sinlessness in his theological treatises and defended Mary's privilege in its fullness from the beginning of her life. Mary's conception without original sin was not seen as an "exception" but rather "preservation" from original sin. Mary was truly redeemed by the future merits of Jesus Christ, since she is not outside the universal need for redemption. She was preserved immune by the intervention of God. The Second Vatican Council uses the language of Duns Scotus and states that Mary was "redeemed in a more excellent fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son." (Lumen Gentium, 53)
After several centuries of controversy, Pope Sixtus IV intervened in the year 1476 with the constitution, Cum Praeexcelsa, whereby he permitted the liturgical celebration of the Mass and Office of the feast. He also dedicated a chapel to the Immaculate Virgin in St. Peter's Basilica. The Mass and Office of the Immaculate Conception was approved for the whole Church by Pope Innocent XII in 1695 and the feast was made a holy day of obligation by Pope Clement XI in 1708.
The apparitions of Mary to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830 under the image of the Miraculous Medal helped to give further support , with its invocation, "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee."
In 1847, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) consulted the cardinals of the church about the possibility of defining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, An encyclical, Ubi Primum, was sent to the 603 bishops of the world asking their thoughts . Only four or five bishops opposed definability and several others questioned the "opportuneness" of the definition. On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX solemnly defined the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception with the papal bull, Ineffabilis Deus. Several years later, in 1858, the Blessed Mother gave her name to St. Bernadette at Lourdes stating, "I am the Immaculate Conception."
As we celebrate the beautiful solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, may Mary's holiness encourage us to seek her help and continued protection in our own efforts to overcome sin and lead holy, sanctified lives.
The above article appeared in the Fairfield County Catholic January 1996. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.
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