Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Immaculate Conception

Today, December 8, is the celebration of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It is a holy day of obligation within the Church, which means that Catholics are required to attend Mass on this day.

I think there is a large amount of confusion among non-Catholics with regard to the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. Many probably assume that this refers to the conception of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. While this is one of the great mysteries of Christianity, it is not what is referred to here.

The Immaculate Conception refers specifically to the birth of the Virgin Mary. This Catholic doctrine affirms that Mary was born without sin. She is the new Eve. She was conceived by God with an immaculate soul so that she could become the vessel through which Jesus would be born into the world.

"Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!" This is the greeting of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary when he appeared before her. The Archangel treats Mary with royal respect when he addresses her with the word "Hail". Like Eve, Mary is "full of grace". Gabriel adds the words, "The Lord is with you." The word "angel" comes from the Greek word for messenger. Thus, the words of Gabriel to Mary are a message from God.

Mary is startled by these words and silently wonders "what sort of greeting this might be." To which the Angel replies, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."

Mary is the favored one of God, or perhaps the favorite. Although there is no mention of the parents of Mary in the Bible, tradition says that her parents were St. Joachim and St. Anna.

The Virgin Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception is the patron saint of the United States, although this seems to go unnoticed among American Catholics. The national basilica in Washington, D.C. is named the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
In the sixth month 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!"

But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.

And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end."

And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?"

And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible."

And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

And the angel departed from her.
 – Luke 1:26-38


  1. I just got back from Mass. I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that the reading from the Gospel for today was Luke 1:26-38. I had no idea that this would be the case. In a way this is not a big surprise because this is the passage from the Bible that most clearly highlights the saintliness of Mary. And it is also from this passage that the opening words of the Rosary are derived:

    "Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you!"

    Please continue praying the Rosary for the upholding of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. "For with God nothing will be impossible."

  2. Thanks very much for this. I too didn't realise the opening the Hail Mary was actually what the Angel Gabriel was never explained to me at school! ... Being Orthodox, our small town had no Greek school or church when I was a kid, so we all went to Catholic School (which was just plain fun - I say this to counter the 'myth' that all Catholic schools were somehow always full of horrors) ... I learned to say my Hail Mary's without really knowing where the words came from!

    In Greek Orthodox tradition Saint Mary is revered and there are a lot of stories about her childhood and the years just before she marries Joseph.

    Thanks for the information in this article. Its quite amazing. Also, she is the patron saint of America...who would have thought?!!


  3. Hi Marty. Actually the images in the last two articles are both of Orthodox origin. The wedding photo from the previous article is Greek Orthodox. I actually thought about you as I selected that picture.

    And the icon tradition comes from the Orthodox church. The Catholic Church has learned about icons from the Orthodox and Eastern Rite traditions. One example is the Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon which is very highly revered in the Catholic Church. Still, I understand that in the Orthodox Church the icons have an even deeper meaning and are considered divinely inspired – something like the way that scripture is divinely inspired.

    I noticed that in the Greek Orthodox church shown in the wedding that the central image is of Mary with the infant Jesus. Part of the Protestant movement is iconoclasm – rejecting religious images. To me this smacks of a sort of intellectualism that seeks to abstract God. And in so doing it removes the spiritual aspects of worship.

    God in Protestantism then becomes either a sort of mathematical abstraction – a product of the intellectual mind. Or else a very close personal friend, in analogy to a human friend. What is missing is the spiritual and mystical quality of God. And what is also missing is that this spiritual world in which God exists, lives alongside the physical world in which we conduct our secular lives. And so Protestants have a difficult time I think with the manifestation of the spiritual world in the physical world – angels are a perfect example of this.

    The spiritual world is not a totally separate world that we cross over into when we die (and hopefully go to Heaven.) But it is a reality that sits beside our physical reality that we perceive with our senses, and the two are constantly interacting.

    I believe that Jesus, as both man and God, was able to perceive both realities simultaneously; side by side. He could see the physical woman at the well, and also the angels and demons around her. And in the spiritual reality time has a completely different meaning, almost as if it doesn't exist. So Jesus could see her past and even her future as well. Although, because of the gift that man has received from God of free will, I don't believe that the future is written in exact terms. We are free to either embrace or reject God.

    And with the coming of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the Cross, man has been given an even greater freedom. We are given a clear path (way) to the Father that previous generations had to struggle to find through prayers, good works and sacrificial offerings. We can be forgiven by Jesus Christ and transformed into true children of God.

    Mary is the first to receive this gift since she is the first to receive the Holy Spirit. And it is through her that Christ enters into the world. Without her sacrifice, the rest of us would not have been able to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    The Bible does not speak in great detail about Mary. The next few lines of the Rosary come from Elizabeth's (the mother of John the Baptist) greetings to Mary. When her son leaps in her womb at the arrival of Mary, Elizabeth exclaims, "Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the fruit of your womb!" (Luke 1:42)

    What a debt we owe to Mary. She suffered the humiliation of giving birth in a stable. And she suffered greatly at the foot of the Cross when her Son was crucified. She did not know or understand what was happening to and through her, and yet at every step of the way she had faith in God her Lord. Mary's affirmative statement "I am the handmaid of the Lord" has alternatively been translated "I am the slave of the Lord".

  4. Hi Michael - yes I recognised the pictures; I've stood as a 'bridesmaid' in a line like that. It's not really a bridemade in the western sense. I believe it is like being a witness and an advocate for the bride in the process going before God in marriage or something like that.

    I have JUST THIS MOMENT FOUND OUT (I'm not sure if you've heard about this?) the Holy Tree in Glastonbury - the tree that sprouted from Joseph of Aramethea's staff, as legend would have it, had been HACKED DOWN BY VANDALS TODAY!!

    Locals were crying and praying at the site. Its shocking! I use to live in a small town not far from Glastonbury, this is a very special area in the west country and I am very shocked - I cannot believe WHO would do such a mindless sacriligeous thing!!

    This is one of England's most violent days in history.

  5. Marty. That is very sad news. I had never heard of the Holy Tree in Glastonbury, but obviously it had a profound Christian significance for many people. This is more than just some prank. It is a violation of the beliefs of many Christians. And when I say "violation", I mean it in the sense of when a woman's body is violated.