I can imagine the conversations some of you will have (had) at work tomorrow/today.
“Why do you have to go to Church on a Thursday/Friday?”
“It’s a Holy Day of Obligation.”
“What’s that mean?”
“We have to go to Mass because it’s a special holiday in the Church.”
“The Immaculate Conception.”
“What is that???”
“It’s when Mary was conceived.”
“Why on earth would that be a holiday?” (insert criticisms about Mary)
I would imagine that this is where many of us would get stuck. Or perhaps we’d get hung up, trying to remember if this is the day Jesus was conceived. Short answer, no, it’s not… even if we just read that story from the gospel. Jesus’ conception is on the Annunciation, exactly nine months before Christmas.
But maybe there’s still some confusion with your non-Catholic coworker. Maybe he/she thinks the Immaculate Conception is the same as the Virgin Birth. No, that’s actually what happened at Christmas. Maybe he/she thinks it’s the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Well, while we do believe that, it’s not the same as the Immaculate Conception.
So how do we answer this criticism or perhaps an innocent question from a coworker? How do we explain it to our friends at school? I’ll tell you how, in six logical steps.
- It’s all about Jesus. If it wasn’t for Jesus, then we wouldn’t honor Mary at all. I mean, there are plenty of women in the Bible who don’t get nearly the attention that we give to Mary. So obviously there is something special about her. And that is that she gave birth to Jesus. It what we believe about Jesus that makes us devoted to Mary.
- Jesus was both God and man. In other words, he had both a human nature and a divine nature. But where did he get each of his natures?
- Jesus’ always had a divine nature. There was not a time when God did not exist. Jesus has been the second person of the Trinity from all eternity, and he shares a divine nature with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
- Jesus’ human nature had to come from somewhere or someone. And that someone was Mary. Mary gave Jesus his human nature. He developed inside of her womb and had her DNA.
- If Jesus, the perfect God-man was to take his human nature from a woman, then that woman needed to be spotless as well. She would need to be preserved from the stain of original sin.
- Mary would have been preserved from original sin from the very first moment of her life. Well, we know that life begins at conception, so that must be the moment that God preserved her. That is the Immaculate Conception. That is what we celebrate today.
Mary, from the very first moment of her life, was sinless. Not only that, but she continued throughout the rest of her life free from sin. She never sinned. She was full of grace, and she found favor with God, as the angel declared.
This belief is part of our sacred Tradition, handed down to us from time immemorial. Christians throughout the ages have always believed in the sinlessness of Mary and in her Immaculate Conception. Yet, it was not an official, defined teaching of the Church until a certain moment in history. That moment came on this date in 1854, when Pope Pius IX issued the very first “ex cathedra” dogma of the Church. That is, by his authority, handed down to him as the successor of St. Peter, he officially proclaimed what the universal Church had always believed—that Mary was preserved from original sin from the very first moment of her life.
This belief was corroborated in a miraculous apparition of Mary just four years later. In 1858, in a small mining town in the mountains between France and Spain, a poor, young girl named Bernadette went down to the riverbank to gather wood. She had been there many times before. But this time, something very peculiar caught her eye. She looked up from the river to the small grotto, a natural niche in the rock. A bright, shining woman appeared, clothed in white, with a blue sash around her waist. She was beautiful to behold, and she spoke no words. Young Bernadette was not sure what to do, but she saw the lady with a rosary draped over her arm. So Bernadette began praying the rosary. As soon as she stopped praying, the mysterious lady vanished. Bernadette was curious, to say the least, so she returned to that spot another day. The lady appeared again, and this time Bernadette spoke to her, and asked her name. The lady did not give her name, but instructed Bernadette to pray for poor sinners, and gave her this message: Penance, penance, penance! She also asked Bernadette to come back every day for two weeks. Bernadette then went to the local priest, who instructed her to ask the lady’s name once again. Bernadette complied, and on the 16th time Bernadette saw her, the mysterious lady finally responded with a smile, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Bernadette didn’t understand what this meant. The radio hadn’t been invented yet. She couldn’t read the newspapers because she was uneducated and illiterate. She didn’t speak Spanish, and she didn’t speak French. Rather, she spoke only a local dialect. There is no way that this poor, illiterate girl in an isolated mountain town would have known what these words meant. And yet, she reported it to the priest. She told the whole story, again and again, and soon there were clergy from Rome who came to question her and discover how she knew what she knew. Finally, after all the questioning was done, it was confirmed. Our Lady had appeared at Lourdes, and she even called herself “The Immaculate Conception.”
And so the Church on earth celebrates with the Church in Heaven, confident that our Lady was conceived without sin, and remained without sin all the days of her life.
Now, we can’t just leave it there, because our theology is not disconnected from the reality of the world we live in. So, we must ask, “What does the Immaculate Conception mean for us? Why is Mary’s sinlessness important to you and me?”
Imagine with me that, for the next five minutes, you could go without sinning. Think you could do it? Not so hard to imagine. After all, you’re in church. It’s easier to avoid the temptations of the world in here. Now, imagine you could go the next hour without sinning. A little harder, but sure, most of us could do it. Now what if you could make it a whole day without sinning? It would be difficult, sure, but many of us could do it.
Now, if you can go five minutes without sinning, then why not a whole hour? And if a whole hour, why not a whole day? And if a whole day, why not a week, month, or year? If your answer to this scenario is that it’s impossible, because sin is inevitable, then take a second look at Our Lady.
She was immaculately conceived, yes, but she shared in our human nature. She was clean, but not divine like Jesus. Mary had the possibility of sinning, yet she did not. She was conceived sinless and remained sinless thru her whole life.
But hold on a second, father! The whole point of this day is that Mary didn’t have original sin. But I learned in CCD that concupiscence is a result of original sin. So, if Mary never had original sin, she must not have had concupiscence. Gotcha, father!
Now hold your horses, pardner. Everything you just said is correct. Mary didn’t have concupiscence, that is, the tendency to sin. But you know who else didn’t have concupiscence? Adam and Eve. They were created in original friendship, without the tendency to sin. But did they sin? You bet your buchta. So, if it was possible for Adam and Eve to sin without the pull of concupiscence, then it was also possible for Mary to sin, even if she lacked concupiscence.
And yet she didn’t sin. Her life was completely given over to the will of God. It doesn’t mean she didn’t suffer. She certainly did. It doesn’t mean she didn’t worry. She certainly did. It means she never failed to love and obey God. She never failed to love her neighbor. She chose, with her own free will, to place her whole being at the service of God.
What her life means for us is that sin is not inevitable. We have the power to avoid it. We have the grace of the sacraments to help us. We have our brothers and sisters in Christ to help us. We can live lives of holiness, following the law of love. That is the lesson of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us.
Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us.
Mary, help of Christians, pray for us.
Mary, patroness of the United States of America, pray for us.