Each Advent the Church focuses its attention on the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the drama of the Nativity by celebrating the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. We mark this great occasion exactly nine months before the feast of the Nativity of Mary on September 8th, though it is not entirely clear which celebration was first established historically.
It is appropriate that the Church remembers Mary not only on Christmas Day on account of her motherhood of Christ, but on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception when we learn what was necessary so that Mary could become the mother of the redeemer. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854, teaches us that in order for Mary to be the human mother of the Incarnate Word, it was fitting in the eyes of God that she be completely free from sin.
The title “Immaculate Conception” thus refers to Mary’s sinlessness—to our belief that she was untouched by the stain of original sin as well as by any personal sin. Catholics are occasionally confused by the title “Immaculate Conception”, thinking it refers to the miraculous conception of Jesus; as noted, however, the term does not refer to him directly, though ultimately it has its origins and divine motivation in Christ.
To understand how this is so one has to turn to the mystery of sin itself, and in particular to the Church’s teaching that all of humanity, with the unique exception of Mary, is born under the dominion of original sin. The first reading today from Genesis reminds us of this sad state of affairs when, after describing the roots of man’s tendency toward sin through the symbolic images of the serpent, the tree, the fruit, and the man and woman in the garden, the author of Genesis recounts God’s words to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers” (Gen 3:15).
You and I are part of that figurative offspring, and the enmity of sin is alive in us as well. It is only through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ that we are freed from such sin and its consequences. Mary, the “new Eve” makes that liberation possible by consenting to the incarnation with the perfect freedom born of the sinless heart which is hers through the Immaculate Conception.
The good news does not end there; however, just as God chose Mary for this singular honor, “we also were chosen” as St. Paul teaches us in the second reading, destined for redemption “in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things” (Eph 1:11).
Mary’s unique election in being preserved from original sin was owing to “a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race”. Our election to redemption in Christ from original sin is a free gift that we are given through our baptismal union with him—something that can be received by all!
This is a source of great hope for us, since as St. Paul himself notes in his letter to the Romans, even though original sin marks all of us, except for Mary, Christ’s salvation extends to all of us as well.
With this in mind we rejoice on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, thankful for Mary’s sinless beginning, which through Christ makes possible a blessed and joyous ending for all…“for nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.