Genesis 3:9-15, 20
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Today, Holy Mother Church commemorates and celebrates the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. This feast celebrates the Church’s dogmatic teaching that the Blessed Mother was given the gift from God of being conceived without original sin. That is to say, that from the moment of her conception, Mary was given the grace not only of freedom from original sin, but of being the only human being other than her Divine Son who lived a life without sin. The Church teaches that the Blessed Mother was given this very special Grace of liberation from the effects of sin in part because she would be the Mother of God, she would bear the second person of the Blessed Trinity in her womb for nine months. As any scholar of the Old Testament could tell you, God could not dwell in the presence of sin.
Even though the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was infallibly defined in 1854 by Blessed Pope Pius IX, the Immaculate Conception is something that has been believed as a matter of reality in our faith for many centuries. We see evidence of the reality of the doctrine that Mary was conceived without sin when the angel Gabriel greeted her to announce to her that Christ was going to be born and that she was going to give birth to him. The older translations of today’s Gospel render Gabriel’s greeting as “hail, full of grace,” and we still say that every time we say the Hail Mary. Some Catholic commentators through the years, going back even to some of the Church Fathers themselves, have said that this expression “full of grace” literally means that Mary was filled with an abundance or with the fulness of sanctifying grace. Gabriel did not merely address the Blessed Mother as “Mary,” but as “Full of Grace,” or the “Highly Favored One,” because she wasn’t just another woman, she was about to be the Mother of God.
This was an entirely unique greeting for a person, the Blessed Mother, who was, in the words of Lumen Gentium (56), “filled with an entirely unique holiness,” someone who had free will, and could have easily said no…but she was unimpeded by all of the imperfections of human nature that come with sin, so Mary was able to give herself over totally to the will of God, completely able to cooperate with the Plan of Salvation. It is true that she sets a holy example for all of us, because we are all called to cooperate with the Plan of Salvation in our own lives, as well as in the work of the Church, but by God’s gift, Mary was able to cooperate fully and completely with that plan from the moment of her conception.
What the Church does not teach us about the Blessed Virgin Mary, unlike what some of our Protestant brethren seem to think that we believe about her, is that Mary is in any way Divine…she was not and is not Divine. The Church teaches that the gift of being conceived without original sin was given to her by virtue of the fact that she was to be the Mother of God, so it is safe to say that other aspects of our humanity are things in which Our Lady shared and that she fully understands, and that reality is what makes her such a powerful intercessor for us in our prayers.
In the year 1846, the Bishops of the United States unanimously chose Our Lady as the patroness of the United States under the title of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. This was done some years before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was infallibly defined. The fact that the doctrine was already widely believed (as an example, Mary Immaculate had already been seen as the patroness of Spain officially since 1760 and unofficially for two centuries before, and since so much of the Americas was still under Spanish dominion or influence meant that among Catholics, devotion to Mary Immaculate in this part of the world was already widespread) prompted the Holy Father to grant the request of our Bishops the following year. It is the patronage of Our Lady over our country which causes this day to be a holy day of obligation in the United States.
Because Mary Immaculate is the patroness of the United States, whenever we hear of people saying special patriotic Rosaries, or participating in activities such as the recent 54-day Rosary novena which many people participated in prior to the recent election should not only be encouraged, but widespread in the Catholic Community. Further, whenever we pray the Rosary, which I hope is every day, our prayer intentions should include our country and it’s conversion to Catholic truth, as well as for our leaders and all of those in authority. Our Lady is a powerful intercessor against heresy.
Four years after the Church formally defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Bernadette Soubirous experienced the first of her apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Lourdes. She was only fourteen years old at the time, and in the French society of that day, the reality that her family was very poor meant that she had no social standing, so when she tried to explain that she was having visions of a beautiful lady in what we know today as the Grotto at Lourdes, no one believed her, at first not even her parish priest gave any credence to what she was saying. It wasn’t until the lady that she was seeing identified herself, and then Bernadette shared this that people began to wonder if there was a whole lot more to the story.
The lady in the Grotto did not identify herself simply as Mary. Instead, she identified herself with words that a Pyrenean peasant girl with little theological education at the time would not have been very familiar with. She said “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
And on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception, it is fitting that we remember the words of the intercessory prayer that is inscribed on the Miraculous Medal of Our Lady: “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”