Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you;–Verse for the Gospel acclamation, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
blessed are you among women.
The Church’s liturgical year begins with the first Sunday of Advent, which falls in late November or early December. Not long after this holy cycle starts, the Church observes the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8. On this first feast of the liturgical year, the Church shows us how Mary’s singular grace applies to each of us.
Here is one way to understand the meaning of the Immaculate Conception. When someone falls into a deep, potentially deadly pit, we seek to rescue him from it. This is what Christ does for us in Baptism—he rescues us from the deadly pit of original sin and infuses our souls with his sanctifying grace. But one person—Mary—was saved by Christ before her very conception; she was kept from falling into the pit entirely. In either case, through rescue or prevention, we all need saving, and Jesus is the one who does it.
Pope Pius IX, who served as pope from 1846 to 1878, promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and thereby made official this longstanding belief in Mary’s conception: “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.”
These words of Ineffabilis Deus echo throughout the parts of the Mass on December 8. The Opening Prayer, for example, recalls that the Father “preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw.” In the Prayer over the Offerings, the Church professes her faith that Mary, on account of God’s “prevenient grace,” was “untouched by any stain of sin.” Lastly, in the Prayer after Communion, we acknowledge that the Blessed Virgin “in a singular way” had been preserved from our common fault “in her Immaculate Conception.”
To appreciate more fully the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the Mass’s first reading from the Book of Genesis recounts the fall of our first parents. This account features a series of sins and accusations: Adam sins, he says to God, because of Eve, “the woman whom you gave to be with me” (Genesis 3:12). For her part, Eve blames her disobedience on the serpent who tricked her. The earth-bound serpent, alas, has no one else to pass on blame.
The eating of the forbidden fruit, however, is not in itself the core of Adam and Eve’s sin. Rather, it was their disobedience to God’s command. In this act, they manifested an unwillingness to listen to the loving, life-giving Logos spoken by the Father with the breath of the Spirit (see Genesis 1:1). To reject the Logos, or Word, is to reject life itself. To hear the Word with an open heart, on the other hand, is to give birth to the Word within one’s heart and soul, and then to resound with that Word in the world. Many generations later, it was Mary of Nazareth who heard God speak in such a way that she would give birth to the Word.
At the end of the Genesis account, God says to the serpent (and, indirectly, to Eve): “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This protoevangelium—or “first announcement of the good news” following the “bad news” of the Fall—comes to fruition in the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the home of Mary, the subject of the Gospel reading for the Mass of the Immaculate Conception.
The Gospel passage begins: “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!’” (Luke 1:26-28). The salutation “full of grace” suggests the immaculate (i.e., sinless) state of Mary’s soul.
Eve, our mother in the order of nature, said “no” to God’s good word, and death entered (see Romans 5:12-21, from the Office of Readings for the day). Mary, our mother in the order of grace, says “yes” to God’s word, which ultimately brings eternal life through her Son. Herein lies the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. For Eve, who at her tempting had not yet experienced the effects of the Fall, succumbed to a lie. Mary, who was born without sin, nevertheless was not impervious to its effects; yet she gave herself entirely to the Word. How do we understand this mystery? It comes down to grace—the grace not only of the moment but of that “singular grace” present at her conception. Mary worked with God’s grace to respond in love to the message of an angel.
By the Immaculate Mary’s “yes” to God, both heaven and earth are now more glorious than they had been in the beginning. Consider, for example, these extraordinary words of St. Anselm (c.1033-1109), given in the Office of Readings:
“God is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.”
None of us can claim to be, like Mary, conceived immaculate. Yet each of us, like Mary, is called to be a “worthy dwelling” for the Son of God and, because of him, attain the joyful perfection of heaven. Mary is a perfect model, and so it is appropriate that we hold her Immaculate Conception among the most solemn of solemnities in the liturgical calendar.
The above entry appears in Ascension’s book Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty, by Christopher Carstens, Denis McNamara, and Alexis Kutarna. Featuring each of the 17 annual solemnities, Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty examines the theological, spiritual, and liturgical foundations for each celebration; explains the beauty of the solemnity by a commentary on artistic illustration of the celebration; and offers ideas for living the solemnity in one’s daily life. Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty was awarded Second Place in the “Pastoral Ministry—Parish Life” category by the Catholic Media Association in 2023. See more about the book at https://ascensionpress.com/products/solemnities-celebrating-a-tapestry-of-divine-beauty.
Christopher Carstens is the editor of the Adoremus Bulletin.
Image Source: AB/Wikimedia. The Immaculate Conception, by Guido Reni (1575–1642).