December 8: Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary—Solemnity
Patronal Feast of the United States—Holy Day of Obligation
c. 15 BC
Patron Saint of the United States, clothmakers, clothworkers, coopers, upholsterers, the Amazon rainforest, and numerous dioceses, cities, and countries
Liturgical Color: White
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. ~From the Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854
In 1854, Pope Pius IX issued an apostolic constitution called Ineffabilis Deus by which he declared the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be a dogma of faith. This definition was a response to the longstanding devotion and theological consensus that had built up over the centuries. By declaring a dogma of faith, the Holy Father used his highest papal teaching authority, binding every Catholic to accept this teaching.
Ineffabilis Deus begins by stating that the creation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was in the mind of God from all eternity. She is the Father’s “singular delight,” and “under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.” This statement should leave us with a profound faith in the Immaculate Conception and an acknowledgment of the great and incomprehensible mystery we celebrate. Only in Heaven, as we behold the Beatific Vision, will our minds also behold the beauty and profound mystery of God’s greatest act of creation in the person of the Mother of God. Her life is not an end in itself. She is not worshiped. She is not God. She is, however, to be loved and honored in a singularly unique way, for she is God’s most glorious creation and will be honored as such forever.
The first thing we must know about our Immaculate Mother is that she needed a Savior, just as all humans do. Her Savior is her Son, just as He is our Savior. However, in her, salvation was given “by a singular grace and privilege.” We are saved by the washing away of original sin through baptism. The Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from original sin from the first moment of her conception. She still suffered the effects of original sin, just as her Son did, in that He suffered and died. But her salvation transcended time in that the merits of salvation won by her Son Jesus’ Incarnation, death, and resurrection saved her from original sin at the very moment of her creation.
Mary’s role is first alluded to in the book of Genesis. We read about the fall of Adam and Eve, introducing Original Sin into human nature, thus requiring a Savior. Genesis 3:15 presents what many have called the Protoevangelium or “First Gospel” because, in mysterious language, it presents Christ as the New Adam and the Blessed Virgin Mary as the new Eve: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.” The “enmity” between the serpent and the “woman” reveals Mary’s complete opposition to the evil one and to sin. The “offspring” is Jesus and He will crush the head of satan, destroying sin and evil forever. This passage also reveals that Jesus invites His mother to participate in this act of salvation in a unique way. “They will strike at your head…” implying both Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary overcame sin and satan together, by the power of God, but through the motherhood of Mary, the new mother of all the living and the mother of those in the new order of grace.
The Blessed Virgin Mary has also been traditionally seen as the new Ark of the Covenant. The first Ark was a sacred vessel that contained the Ten Commandments, manna, and Aaron’s rod. The Ark was a symbol of God’s divine presence that only the High Priest could approach once a year after rigorous purification rituals. The Blessed Virgin Mary, being the new Ark of the Covenant, should also be treated with the greatest veneration, for she bore the divine within her womb and He came forth from her own body. Only the Great High Priest, Jesus her Son, could dare to approach and dwell within her.
At the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel came to the Virgin and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). This passage points to the Immaculate nature of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To be “full of grace” affirms the fact that grace so permeated Mary’s soul that sin had no place within her. Not only was she created free from sin, she also remained sinless throughout her life through the merit of her ongoing assent to God. Her prayerful response to the archangel was not only her response at that moment but was her continuous response to God throughout her life, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
From at least the seventh century, churches in the East celebrated in the liturgy Mary’s conception in Saint Anne’s womb. The Church in the West soon followed, emphasizing the immaculate nature of her conception. In the fifteenth century, Pope Sixtus IV approved a liturgical celebration for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and then extended that feast to the entire Western Church. In the centuries that followed, successive popes issued clearer teachings in support of the definition of the Immaculate Conception. Because of this ongoing and deepening definition of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX lifted this teaching to the highest level possible when he issued Ineffabilis Deus in 1854.
If we turn again to the beginning of that constitution in which the Holy Father said that “no mind can succeed in comprehending fully” the Blessed Virgin Mary, then we will realize that the little we know and understand about her remains a deep mystery that we will only fully comprehend in Heaven. Therefore, as we honor the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s immaculate nature, we also must anticipate a continual unfolding of who she is. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not the end but the beginning. After that pronouncement, subsequent popes have continued to deepen their teaching on her. In 1904, Pope Pius X spoke of Mary as the Mediatrix of Graces. In 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven; in 1954, he established the Feast of the Queenship of Mary. Vatican II spoke of Mary as Mother of the Church and the Mediatrix of Grace.
As we celebrate this great Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, try to ponder the incomprehensible nature of the Mother of God. Knowing that she is an impenetrable mystery will help us honor her with the reverence and awe she deserves. The best news of all to ponder is that this perfect creation of God is not a distant icon to adore, she is our own caring mother, a mediatrix of God’s grace. Her tender care for her children will never waver, and her intercession will always bring to us all good things we need to achieve salvation.
Most holy Mother, you are the Immaculate Conception, God’s most precious treasure and His singular delight. To your intercession and mediation I entrust my life. Take me to your Son and pour forth His grace upon me and upon the whole world. I entrust to you every care, concern, confusion, struggle, and cross. I turn to you for every grace of faith, hope, and love from Heaven, so that I can become more fully conformed to the image of your Son Who alone is the Savior of the World. Mother Mary, the Immaculate Conception, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854.
Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “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.”
Hence, if anyone shall dare — which God forbid! — to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.