Reflection on the Immaculate Conception
On the 25 March in 1858 the twelve-year old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous felt drawn to the grotto where a beautiful lady had been appearing to her frequently since 11 February that year. Bernadette asked her who she was, and the lady in white said in the local dialect, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
It would be difficult to say how much that statement might have meant to the barely literate Bernadette. The clergy knew its significance. Only four years earlier Pius IX had defined the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of faith.
There can be some confusion about the meaning of this doctrine. Some people confuse it with the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. No. The Immaculate Conception is the conception of Mary. But it is still a big mouthful. The problem is with the word “immaculate.” This is a negative word, meaning, “not spotted or stained.” The stain in question is of course original sin. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception can be put quite simply, “whatever original sin is, Mary never had it.” But original sin is also negative. Sin is a privation, namely something missing, in this case the grace of Christ. The doctrine of original sin means that all are born in a state of lacking grace and salvation. Each one is in need and has to receive grace as a gift. A child born of two saints is still a child that is short of grace. Grace, in other words, cannot be inherited.
At this point we can say that the Immaculate Conception means that Mary was never in a state of lacking grace. We can state the doctrine positively and say that from the very first moment of her existence, Mary was the most beloved of God and enjoyed grace, which made her holy, sharing in the life of the Trinity.
The Eastern Orthodox and other Churches do not celebrate this feast; they do not accept the doctrine either. Original sin was a Western problem, and this doctrine was hammered out in North Africa through St. Augustine’s controversy with Pelagius, who more or less stated that we could save ourselves. Not so, replied Augustine. We need grace. The Eastern Churches have a major celebration of the Presentation of Mary on 21 November. The idea that Mary was presented in the Temple as a young girl is making the same point: Mary always belonged to God. She was always full of grace. Thus far from being negative, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a positive affirmation about God’s gift of grace and holiness to Mary.
If we wish to reflect deeper on the Immaculate Conception, the obvious place to go is the Mass text for the feast. In particular we should read the Preface, that is the opening part of the Eucharistic Prayer that comes before the Holy Holy. Whenever we celebrate Mass the preface reminds us why, today, we should thank God. It may be for a great feast like Easter or Christmas; it may be for a penitential season like Lent; it may be the occasion of a funeral or a wedding. All of these have their own prefaces which invite us to praise and thank God for the mystery we are celebrating on a particular day. There are also more general prefaces in use for weekdays or when there is no special occasion, feast or season.
When we look at the preface of the Immaculate Conception we find two themes interwoven: this feast of Mary is related to both to her Son and to the Church. It reads:
Father all powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.
You allowed no stain of Adam’s sin to touch the Virgin Mary.
Full of grace she was to be a worthy mother of your Son,
your sign of favour to the Church at its beginning,
and the promise of its perfection as the bride of Christ, radiant in beauty.
Purest of virgins, she was to bring forth your Son,
the innocent Lamb who takes away our sins.
You chose her from all women
to be our advocate with you and our pattern in holiness.
In our joy we sing to your glory wit all the choirs of angels, Holy, holy…
The preface is relates Mary to her Son. One reason for the Immaculate Conception according to this lovely preface is that it would have been completely inappropriate for the Mother of the Second Person of the Trinity to have been under the reign of sin. In our time we have lost both a sense of sin and a sense of holiness, so that we may not feel or appreciate the urgency of sinlessness in the Mother of God.There is utter incompatibility between God and sin. By God’s grace, Mary was then to have been “a worthy mother of your Son.” In being the mother of God she was to be “purest of virgins to bring forth your Son.”
But the preface also points to Mary’s relationship to the Church, to us. She is God’s “sign of favour to the Church at its beginning, and the promise of its perfection as the Bride of Christ, radiant in beauty.” For a world that has no hope apart from God, the Immaculate Conception affirms that sin can be overcome, that the sin that weighs down the Church will be conquered by Jesus Christ, and the Church will one day be radiant in beauty. The Church is to be patterned on Mary: she is chosen uniquely to be our advocate and our pattern in holiness. The perfection of God’s place is already visible in Mary; we wait for God’s salvation to clothe us perfectly too.
The feast is therefore a celebration of what God has done for Mary because she was destined to be the Mother of God; it also celebrates what God has done for the Church by giving it Mary as advocate and model of holiness, as well as the perfect holiness and beauty that God will eventually give the Church. These truths are not a complete account of all God’s favours to Mary. But they are themes that we do well to consider as we begin our liturgical pilgrimage once more to walk with John the Baptism and Mary y and so prepare to marvel once more at the wonder of the Incarnation.
To return to Lourdes. “I am the Immaculate Conception” is clearly a confirmation for the Church of the proclamation of Pius IX in 1854. But can one go further? Given Mary’s total love of God, surely one of the gifts that she treasured most was to have always been in God’s love, never, even for an instant been separated from his love and grace. To have been sinless is not an achievement but pure gift. A gift of perfect love for the God she loved so perfectly is surely one of Mary’s deepest joys.