We declare, pronounce, and
define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the
first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by
Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human
race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed
by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
As I mentioned on Thanksgiving day, which was the feast of
the Miraculous Medal, this feast of the Immaculate Conception is of particular
importance to those living in these United States, as it was designated as the
nation’s patronal feast by the bishops at the First Council of Baltimore in
1846. In the Universal Church it is one of the few feasts that is
celebrated even when it lands on one of the first-class Sundays of Advent.
I was rather happy with myself, last year and the year
before, with my sermons for this feast of the Immaculate Conception. I
thought I had done a proper job of explaining the parallel between Adam and Eve
on the one hand, and Jesus and Mary on the other. I thought I had done a
proper job of explaining why the Redeemer of mankind had to have been born of a
sinless mother. And I thought I had done a proper job of explaining how
the Church could know the reality of the Immaculate Conception, and how the Pope
could define it as “a doctrine revealed by God.”
My happy attitude was taken down a peg or two recently,
when someone asked a rather simple question: “Father, if we celebrate
the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, why do we celebrate Jesus’
birth on the 25th, a mere seventeen days later—shouldn’t His birth come nine
this year I will be a little more basic.
When we speak of the “Immaculate Conception,” we are
referring to the conception of Mary, and not that of her Son Jesus. What
we are saying is that in the very normal human manner, a Jewish priest named
Joachim, together with his wife named Anna, conceived the girl-child who would
be named Mary, and who would be born roughly nine months thereafter. The
December 8th conception corresponds to date of September 8th, on which the
Church celebrates the birth of Joachim and Anna’s little girl—although,
those dates are more conjectural than they are important to the story.
There is more to the story—it is not in the canonical
Gospels, but in the apocryphal book called the “proto‑Gospel of Saint
It speaks of a child born to
elderly parents, who had given up hopes of children, but who were made fertile
by their prayers to the Lord. Our Anna has her parallel in the Anna of the
First Book of Kings—barren for many years, the Lord gave her Samuel, who would
grow to be a great priest in Israel.
In speaking of the Immaculate Conception, we are saying
that although this conception of Mary by Joachim and Anna took place in the
normal human manner, the creation of Mary’s soul by God was unique.
Since the sin of Adam and Eve, no soul had been created in the state of grace.
From Adam, up until Joachim, human children were born in the state of original
sin—not a personal sin, of course, but a radical inability to merit God’s
graces. In this Immaculate Conception God made a singular
exception. Knowing that Mary would grow up and be the Mother of the
Redeemer who would restore mankind to grace through the Cross and the
Sacraments, God allowed Mary to benefit in advance, and created Her soul in the
state of grace.
This Immaculate Conception of Mary took place only a decade
or two before the birth of Christ, probably in the Bethesda neighborhood in a
house near a deep pool known as the “Probatica,” off the northern side of
the Temple at Jerusalem.
Like all events that take place in created time, the
Immaculate Conception was known—planned, really—in the mind of God before
the creation of the first angel and before the creation of the first molecule of
the material universe—from all eternity, as we say. God knew that Adam
would not persevere in grace. God knew that someone of more upright stuff
would have to be provided—and planned a new Adam and new Eve in Jesus and
Mary. We got a little bit of the “flavor” of this in today’s
The Lord possessed me in
the beginning of His ways, before He made anything from the beginning. I was set
up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. The depths were not as
yet, and I was already conceived....
The Church is simply “accommodating” the Old Testament
Book of Proverbs to Mary, but the resulting picture has to be quite accurate.
Nothing God does is by accident.
Just one more thing, if I may. The English Romantic
Poets are often difficult for Americans to read—some of them seem to have
written in code, so that only a handful of English teacher‑savants are
capable of translating them for their hapless students. Yet we have a poem
about Mary, in which at least a few lines are perfectly clear. William
Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a short piece called “The Virgin,” containing a
line or two that every adult in the English speaking Catholic world has heard:
Woman! above all women
Our tainted nature's solitary boast;
“Our tainted nature's solitary boast”! That says
an enormous amount. It excludes our Lord, of course—we can boast about
Him—He shared our nature as well, but being God gave Him ... shall we say ...
an advantage. Adam and Eve also were created in grace, like Mary—but
threw it away in exchange for piece of fruit. We can boast about Mary
because she was tenacious; she held on. Mary remained in the innocence of
her Immaculate Conception as she grew ... as she became the Mother of God ... as
she offered Him up to the Father on the Cross—she remained in the innocence of
her Immaculate Conception until that day on which she left this world and was
taken body and soul to Heaven.
“Our tainted nature's solitary boast”! All of the
achievements of mankind pale in comparison with Mary’s creation and
perseverance in grace. Symphonies and skyscrapers, radio and television,
splitting the atom and landing on the Moon are of absolutely no value to
one who loses his soul! And, on some level, Mary could have
faltered, possibly losing the soul of all mankind! But she did not;
she did persevere in grace. “Our tainted nature's solitary boast”!
It remains for us to learn the lesson of Mary. We
who were not conceived immaculate have the means of Baptism, Confession, the
Blessed Sacrament, and all of the other helps left to us by her Son. We
can imitate Mary, in a rather glorious fashion, if we choose to.
In fact, she tells us how to go about imitating her in the
words we already heard in the epistle:
Now, therefore, children,
hear me: blessed are they who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and
refuse it not. Blessed is the man who hears me, and who watches daily at my
gates, and waits at the posts of my doors. He who shall find me shall find life,
and shall have salvation from the Lord.