Blessed Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
The Church’s liturgical calendar is one of many methods by which the Church gently guides Catholics along the path of holiness. Developing from the ancient Jewish calendar and the life of Christ, the Church’s calendar has over the centuries identified key events of eternal significance for memorial safeguarding and celebration. Some of these celebrations are obligatory for faithful Catholics to keep by participating at Holy Mass. They are like great windows by which we peer into the heavenly realm and by which we are more closely fitted to the Kingdom of God. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is one of these great Holy Days of Obligation for Catholics in the United States. Because it is fixed on December 8, which reasonably is set nine months before the feast of the Birth of Mary, it always occurs during the Advent Season. Both Advents of Our Lord, that of the babe born of the Virgin Mary and the return of the Risen Christ at the culmination of time, are pointed to in this great Solemnity. Nothing in Our Lady’s life is accidental, and all of it points ultimately to Jesus, her Son. The Immaculate Conception explains how Mary is the pure vessel of God’s preparing and choosing. From her very conception God preserved her from the defect of Original Sin that is the otherwise common inheritance of humanity from our first parents. Throughout her life, she, a creature, remained ever faithful, the willing servant who humbly accepted in total what God asked of her life at the Annunciation. Thus, the infallible dogma of the Immaculate Conception defines for us how foundational and sure Mary’s role is for all the created order. How the Church came to understand in time this great mystery of our faith is a worthy subject of reflection and an excellent example for teaching the concept of the unfolding of dogma in salvation history, for theologians have traced it from the pages of holy scripture throughout the entire history of salvation to its definitive statement by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
However, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is more than a concept or an anniversary date. It is profound in implication for how we live out our lives as Christians. Mary became her Son’s first and best disciple and remains our most powerful intercessory ally in the communion of the Saints. In Mary’s life, we see faith in its purest form and are comforted that she is given to us by Jesus himself from his cross as our adopted mother. Jesus knows that she will be the best of mothers for us, and we can trust that she will always guide us to him. By honoring and imitating her as our mother, we Christians mature in our faith and become beacons of light to others who, like orphans in the storm of life, often aren’t aware of the many benefits of her sheltering mantle.
All families have valued traditions as well as requirements. Keeping the Holy Days of Obligation, including this one, the Immaculate Conception, are among the solemn requirements enjoined upon us by the Church. Familial love, though, is hardly encompassed by regulation, and the dogmas of the Church are invitations to deepen family ties. Two beloved traditions approved by the Church for universal consideration regarding Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception are the devotions to Our Lady of Lourdes and to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. While neither of these is required for our salvation, they both shed light on the significance of the Immaculate Conception and help us to enter into the faith more completely. To Bernadette Soubirous, Mary revealed that she is the Immaculate Conception, that is, the Immaculate Conception is not just a miraculous event, but part of her very identity. To Catherine Labouré, Mary directed the creation and spread of the Miraculous Medal, with its inscription, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Finally, both holy traditions are intimately related to that most efficacious crown of prayer to Our Mother: the Holy Rosary. This year, hear afresh the Church’s call to prepare for Christmas by honoring first his mother as the Immaculate Conception. By keeping holy this Solemnity, you will deepen your faith, enrich your witness, and be strengthened for the revelation of the Coming of the Lord.