Think of the first time you walked into the Mount’s Chapel of the Immaculate Conception or any large Catholic cathedral. When you walk into a great church, you encounter the majestic enterprise that is God’s work. How fitting it is that the sacred space where we meet God must be as magnificent as the one to whom we behold. So too, God’s first temple on earth must be all the more beautiful. When the Son of God took flesh and became incarnate in the Blessed Virgin, he willed that his first dwelling place be pure and stainless. On December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate the belief that Mary from the first moment of her conception was preserved from all sin by the merits of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This good news should give us a cause of joy knowing that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Amidst our brokenness, which is better: to despair at our human frailty or to hope in what God can do when we run to him. We in our journey of sainthood must look to Mary in her immaculate splendor as the model of holiness to which we aim and the principal patroness to whom we implore.
First, who is Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception? On December 8 1854, Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in a masterful apostolic constitution. In Ineffabilis Deus, he proclaimed, “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.” Mary was granted a special grace from God by the future merits of Christ. She was exempt from original sin and this exemption began at the first moment of her conception within the womb of her mother. Thus preparing her to be the Christ-bearer.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “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'” (CCC 492). Her total sinlessness was not for her, but was all for Jesus and all from Jesus. We should honor Mary in the same way God honors her. However, why does she hold this special privilege from God?
To understand the predilection God has for Mary, we go back to our beginnings. Immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve, we find a beautiful response to the first sin of humanity. In Genesis 3:15, also called the “Proto-Evangelium,” which means the “First Gospel,” God speaks to the serpent and sets the stage for the whole story of salvation. The verse states:
“I [God] will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman [Mary], and between your [the serpent’s] seed and her [Mary’s] seed; he [Jesus] shall bruise your [the serpent’s] head, and you [the serpent] shall bruise his [Jesus’] heel.”
God says that there will be a woman who will be actively opposed to the enemy that is the serpent. This woman cannot be Eve, because she has already succumbed to the serpent’s trickery. Thus there must come a woman who will not be affected by the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. The answer to the question of Eve is Mary! She will be in total direct opposition to the devil from the moment of her conception. Here in the beginning of Scripture, we find a prophecy of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception! It is fitting that the mother of our Lord would be born this way. This belief is held by many Church fathers as early as the third century. St. Irenaeus writes:
“In accordance with this design, Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word.’ But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin. And even as she, having indeed a husband, Adam but being nevertheless as yet a virgin … having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, became the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race. . . . And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.”
Mary in her wondrous fidelity broke the vicious cycle of sin. She is “spes nostrae” our hope. Sin offers us everything we could ever want, but in the end only leads to more shame and despair. In the moment after our sin, God responds the same way he did in Genesis. As a loving father, he beckons Eve and without missing a step, makes way for a plan of reconciliation found in the protoevangelion. When we sin, God quickly offers us a door of mercy and we must make haste to say yes the same way Mary did. At every moment to which we can respond to God’s call to holiness and love, let us courageously echo the words of Mary, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
What does this mean for us? We must imitate Mary as she imitates Christ. St. Maximilian wrote, “The Immaculata never had any stain of sin, which means that her love was always full, without flaws. She loved God with all her being, and love united Her with God in this perfect fashion from the first instant of her life, such that on the day of the Annunciation, the Angel could address her saying: ‘Full of grace, the Lord is with thee’ [Lk 1:28].” Mary in her immaculate heart holds perfect interior freedom that makes inner struggles and divisions foreign to her. She is incapable of doubt, skepticism, indecision, or anything that wastes time. All the faculties of her soul are fully oriented towards the love of God. She is void of all hatred and selfish desires. How great a reason this is for us today to fly to her patronage daily!
In a world that is more divisive than ever, let us ask for the intercession of the Immaculate Conception to heal the wounds caused by sin and to unite our lands to be one in Christ, a healed humanity. How fitting that the bishops of the United States of America would proclaim Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception to be the patroness of the whole country. It is to Jesus through Mary that hatred, violence and indifference will cease in the world. The Immaculate Heart of Mary will triumph over the culture of death, the disease of racism, and the industry of abortion. In light of this mystery, Jesus shows us that redemption is possible. The Blessed Virgin perfectly fulfills the purpose to which all of us are created: to know, love, and serve God and be transformed into the image of Christ.
Our deepest identity is not in what we do or what we look like, but to be loved by our Heavenly Father and to love from that outpouring. God works in Mary just as he does for us. “You are all-beautiful, my beloved, and there is no flaw in you” (Song of Songs 4:7). God’s plan is for my good and is at work even when I may not understand or see it all the way through. God will never tire in speaking to you that you are worthy, that you are good, and that you are loved. As we reflect on who is the Immaculate Conception, let us remember that who you are is more important than what you do. Let us go forth with a renewed conviction to make Mary’s mission to be our own: to announce the joyful news of God’s love and forgiveness and to bring all people to her Son
Oh Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.