The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation, is one of the beautiful feasts of the Church. On this day, December 8th, we celebrate with joy that Mary, predestined by God to be the Mother of our Redeemer, was full of divine love from the very first moment of her existence. Thus, the angel Gabriel at the moment of the Annunciation, greeted her as “full of grace.”
The Church’s belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary grew and developed through the centuries. It was an intuition of the people of God that the Mother of Christ was all-holy, that she was free of all stain of sin. For centuries, theologians debated whether or not Mary inherited original sin. If Mary were immaculately conceived, would this not be a denial of the revealed truth that all people needed redemption by Christ?
It was a Franciscan scholar in the early 14th century, Blessed John Duns Scotus, who helped explain how the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the truth of the universality of Christ’s redemptive act could be compatible. He argued that Mary, like all human beings, needed to be redeemed by her Son. He argued that Mary was preemptively delivered by Christ’s grace from original sin. God is not limited or constrained by time. Duns Scotus’ notion of “anticipatory” redemption helped the Church discern the truth of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Mary was indeed redeemed by Jesus her Son, by anticipation. God granted her this unique grace that no other human being has received, the grace of redemption at the first moment of her existence. Thus God prepared a pure vessel for the dwelling place of His Son.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was defined by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1854. He wrote: “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.” Notice: it was by the merits of her Son that Mary was redeemed, just as we are redeemed by the merits of Jesus. Mary’s unique privilege was that she received the grace of redemption at the first moment of her existence in the womb of her mother. By God’s grace, Mary also remained free of any personal sin throughout her whole life.
At Mass on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we hear these words of Saint Paul in the second reading: “God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before Him” (Ephesians 1: 3-4). This great blessing comes to us through faith and baptism. We become “new creatures” by our purification from sin. We become “holy and without blemish,” temples of the Holy Spirit, blessed with the supernatural life that grows by the power of God’s grace. It should not surprise us that God would prepare the mother of His Son by a special consecration, preserving her from sin from her conception so that she would be “holy and without blemish,” cleansed in advance to have the Son of God dwell in her body.
Our vocation as Christ’s disciples to become holy, with God’s grace, shines forth in Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Pope Benedict XVI said the following: “Looking at Mary, we recognize the loftiness and beauty of God’s plan for everyone: to become holy and immaculate in love, in the image of our Creator.”
Mary, full of grace, teaches us to say “yes” to the Lord’s will. She always said “yes” to God’s will. Her “yes” at the Annunciation (the Gospel on December 8th) opened to us the path to salvation. Through her “yes,” God’s Son became incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary teaches us to say “yes” to her Son and “no” to the deceptions of the Evil One. She teaches us to say “yes” to the Lord who destroys the power of evil with the omnipotence of His love.
In Mary’s Immaculate Conception, we behold the beautiful revelation of God’s redeeming love in Christ. In her, the graces of the Holy Spirit were totally uninhibited by the consequences of original sin. Thus, we can have confidence when we turn to her and invoke her intercession. We can pray in the words that appear on the Miraculous Medal revealed to Saint Catherine Laboure at Paris in 1830, 24 years before the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
We celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception during the season of Advent. Advent is a season of hope. The Immaculate Conception of Mary fills us with great hope, hope in the coming of our salvation in Christ. In the latter part of Advent, we contemplate the coming of Christ at Christmas. Naturally, we contemplate Mary His mother, who not only carried Jesus in her womb, but in her soul. She was truly the dwelling place, the tabernacle, of the Lord, where God made Himself incarnate and became present on this earth. She teaches us by her faith and love to receive the Lord into our hearts and into our souls.
In 1846, 8 years before the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Bishops of the United States, at the sixth provincial council of Baltimore, petitioned the Holy See that Mary, under the title of her Immaculate Conception, be named Patroness of the United States. Blessed Pope Pius IX granted this request the following year. In 1857, just three years after the proclamation of the dogma, the Diocese of Fort Wayne was established. Our first bishop, John Henry Luers, named Mary, under the title of her Immaculate Conception, the patroness of our diocese when he decided to build our Cathedral and dedicated it to the Immaculate Conception in 1860. On December 8th, therefore, we celebrate the patronal feast of our nation and of our diocese. In our prayers, let us ask our patroness, Mary, the Immaculate Conception, to intercede for our nation and our diocese.
May we always cherish our rich heritage of devotion to Mary, the Mother of God and Mother of the Church! Blessed be her holy and Immaculate Conception! May she accompany us with her love this Advent and Christmas and throughout our pilgrimage of life!