Feast of the Day: The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
December 8 is the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, a solemnity celebrating the conception of the Virgin Mary. According to apocryphal writings, Mary’s parents were Joachim and Anna. Mary’s conception, which occurred in the natural way, was special in that Mary was spared the “stain” of original sin.
There has been a long tradition of celebrating the feast of the Virgin’s conception by her mother. There has also been a long tradition that Mary was redeemed in anticipation of the redemption of all humanity by her son Jesus. St. Thomas Aquinas and others taught that Mary’s redemption occurred sometime after her conception, to conform with the scripture that all men and women have sinned except Christ. The issue has to do with the fact that God’s becoming fully human in the mystery of the Incarnation, when Mary conceived Jesus, could only have occurred in one who was sinless and not subject to the pain and weakness of a fallen human nature. When the angel Gabriel saluted Mary, he addressed her as Full of Grace. This greeting would not have made sense – according to the long tradition of theology – if Mary were tainted by the fallen state that afflicts every other human until Baptism.
Devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, was recorded in early feasts emphasizing her role in salvation history. Mary’s “yes” to the angel Gabriel set everything in motion when she was overshadowed by the power of the Most High. During the controversies about the nature of Christ in the early centuries, titles given to Mary became very important. If Jesus was truly human and divine, Mary became Theotokos – Mother of God. If Jesus was not truly God, Mary was called Christotokos – Mother of Christ.
Exactly how and when Mary was delivered from the sinful state all humans share was not formally defined by the Catholic Church until 1854 by Pius IX. Contrary to the theology of several prominent saints, Mary, from the first moment of her existence, was spared the blockage of grace we call original sin.
An Episcopalian priest, Fr. Matthew Moret, has produced a very short You-Tube video, “Making Sense of Sin,” which succinctly reviews previous conceptions of sin and what these conceptions say about our conception of God. The common concept of sin as a transgression sets God up as the cosmic Judge. Our relationship is not personal but juridical. God’s love becomes conditional on our surrendering our will to His. This concept can be one of a vindictive or manipulative God. Our concept of sin can alienate us from God, contrary to His Divine mercy, love, and grace, which never leave us. Fr. Moret’s short but excellent video presents Kathryn Tanner’s concept of sin as blockage. God continues to heal us, to provide for us in all ways, but we have a diminished capacity to accept or even recognize God’s continual outflowing of good and love to us. Sin is far from trivial, as demonstrated by the brief slide of an entrance to a Nazi death camp.
Mary, Full of Grace and Mother of God. There must have been no blockage. How did that happen?