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The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception Solemnity History, Information, Resources, Traditions & More

Immaculate Conception Feast Definition

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception celebrates Mary's conception without sin. It is a uniquely Catholic celebration, although Orthodox Churches celebrate Mary's (non-immaculate) conception. The feast falls on December 8th in the West and December 9 in the Orthodox East. Prayers: Immaculate Conception Prayers

Basic Facts

Liturgical Color(s): White
Type of Holiday: Solemnity; Holy Day of Obligation
Time of Year: December 8 (West); December 9 (East)
Duration: One Day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: Mary's Conception Without Stain of Original Sin
Alternate Names: N/A
Scriptural References: Exodus 25:11-21; Luke 1:28-30

Introduction

We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.

With these words, spoken in 1854, Pope Pius IX, in the Papal encyclical Ineffabilis Deus, declared Mary's Immaculate Conception dogma. Pius did not invent the concept. Rather, he was affirming a belief held by many Christians that came before him, from East and West, that Mary was conceived free of the stain of original sin, on account of Christ's work. God caused this immaculate conception in order to render Mary a pure vessel to bear God-made-flesh.

Mary, the one who is "full of grace" and the one whom "all generations will called 'blessed'" has been viewed as unique since the earliest days of the Christian faith. Just as Christ has been called the "new Adam," the Church Fathers, especially Saints Justin (AD 150) and Irenaeus (AD 180), saw Mary as the "new Eve," who humbly obeyed God, even though Eve disobeyed. The Church Fathers also called Mary the "new ark of the covenant" and theotokos, God-bearer. It is from these titles that the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception and sinlessness unfolded. Thus St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. AD 373) spoke of Mary as without stain or blemish, calling her "all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate" (see Nisibine Hymns, and "Precationes ad Deiparam"). St. Ambrose (d. AD 397) wrote "lift me up not from Sarah, but from Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled, but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin" (Commentary on Psalm 118). Augustine left open the possibility of Mary's sinlessness, even using language similar to the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception:

We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin (On Nature and Grace, 42).

Later Fathers, such as St. John of Damascus (d. AD 755) and St. Andrew of Crete (d. AD 740) continued this emphasis on Mary's sinlessness as bearer of God. John of Damascus wrote:

The Father's...sanctifying power overshadowed her, cleansed and made her holy, and, as it were, predestined her. Then Thou, Word of the Father...didst take flesh of the Blessed Virgin, vivified by a reasoning soul, having first abided in her undefiled and immaculate womb...(Sermon I: On the Assumption)

John also spoke of Mary's "holy, undefiled, and stainless soul" (Sermon II: On the Assumption). However, there was no official dogma of the Immaculate Conception as of this period. Most Church Fathers agreed that Mary was sinless at the time she gave birth to Christ. They disagreed as to whether Mary was made sinless at conception, birth, or when she said "yes" to God's call. Even some prominent medieval Western theologians (notably St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas*) denied Mary's Immaculate Conception, although not her sinlessness. Even today, Catholic and Orthodox theologians agree that Mary is the all-holy, blameless, "new ark"; the debate is not about Mary being sinless, but about when Mary was made sinless. Part of this disagreement is because the East does not believe in original sin as the Western Church defines it. Orthodox theologian John Myendorff, in Byzantine Theology, has suggested the East would likely accept the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception if they had a Western understanding of Original Sin. The East and West nonetheless seem to be getting at the same "mystery": Mary's sinlessness and holiness in her role as theotokos.

*- St. Thomas believed, like most at the time, in the entire personal sinlessness of Mary, and believed that Mary was made immaculate before her birth; His writings place this sanctification somewhere between conception and birth, at the time when her soul and body were joined, an event some medieval theologians believed occurred a short time after conception.

History

The Feast of Mary's Conception is clearly known as early as the 7th century in the East, and may even date to as early as the 5th century in the Churches of Syria. The feast spread to the West, at least by the 9th century. The feast and doctrine initially were opposed by the Dominicans, while the Franciscans argued in favor of the Immaculate Conception and its feast. For awhile, a great debate raged about the doctrine, even up until the 19th century. The Council of Basle in 1439 affirmed that the Immaculate Conception was a pious belief in accord with the Catholic faith. In 1476 Pope Sixtus IV approved the feast with its own Mass and Office, and in 1708, Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the universal Church, making it a holy day of obligation. In 1847, Pope Pius IX proclaimed Mary as patroness of the United States, under the title of her immaculate conception. Thus, to this day, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is the patronal feast of the United States.

The Orthodox and many Eastern Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Conception of Mary on December 9. This places Mary's conception 9 months, minus a day, from her birth (celebrated September 8). This apparently symbolizes that while Christ had a perfect humanity, even though Mary was the Mother of God, she did not (since Christ spent 9 full months in the womb, from March 25-December 25). However, the Orthodox do not celebrate Mary's immaculate conception on December 9 as Eastern Catholics do. The West observes the feast on December 8. While this dogma took centuries to develop and unfold, as did the dogma of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is certainly fitting for one whom the Eastern Christians call panagia, i.e. "all-holy," and who bore God-Made-Man, Jesus Christ.

Worship and Prayer Resources

Immaculate Conception Prayers
Akathist Hymn to the Holy Virgin Mary

Immaculate Conception Art, Photos, and Images

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Immaculate Conception (J. Bennett)

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Rosary and Bible (D. Bennett)

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The Immaculate Conception (Murillo)

More Liturgical Artwork

Mary Books and Devotions

              

              

Traditions and Symbols

Traditions
"Dance of the Six" in Spain

Symbols
Shield With Marian Symbol
Mary Treading a Serpent
Moon

Old Testament Typology Foreshadowing The Immaculate Conception
Eve, before the fall
The Ark of the Covenant

Frequently Asked Questions

1. When is the Immaculate Conception not a holy day of obligation in the United States?
The only time this solemnity is not obligatory is if December 8th falls on a Sunday. If this happens, the Sunday of Advent is celebrated instead, and the solemnity is celebrated on Monday, December 9th. In this case, it is not a day of obligation.

2. How Can the Immaculate Conception be True if it Was Not Made Dogma Until 1854?
First, recall that neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Churches believe in the concept of sola scriptura, the 16th century Protestant concept that doctrines must be proved from Scripture alone. Thus, just because the Immaculate Conception is not explicitly found in Scripture is not problematic. Second, just because a belief is made dogma in 1854 doesn't mean that the belief has not been true beforehand, or that is was invented in 1854. Belief in the Immaculate Conception goes back at least to the 4th century, and the titles and honors given to Mary that have led to the dogma unfolding (e.g. "New Eve," "Full of Grace," and "New Ark of the Covenant") go back to the time of the Apostles and early Church Fathers.

Truth unfolds, or rather, the implications and hows and whys of certain truths unfold. It took a hundred years after Jesus' birth for a gospel clearly outlining his divinity to appear, even though the earliest gospels hint at Jesus having the authority and attributes of God. It was over 300 years after Jesus' birth when the Trinity was clearly defined, even though Christians had been baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit since Apostolic Times. This delay in dogmatizing the Trinity does not mean that God was not a Trinity until AD 325, or that the early Christians did not believe in some type of Divine Triad. Rather, over time, with reflection and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Church comes to deeper understandings of certain truths. The same happened in the Old Testament, as we witness the Jewish people come to a deeper understanding of God, the afterlife, and other concepts that are more clearly developed in later biblical writings than earlier ones. Thus, in the Church and the Bible, later explanations of certain truths will be more complex than earlier explanations. Vatican II explains development like this:

The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her" (Dei Verbum 8).

Thus, just because the Immaculate Conception was not made dogma until 1854 does not lessen the importance of the feast, or render the dogma untrue. The reason Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception to be dogma was because so many people believed in it and cherished it, not to invent something new.

3. How Can Anybody But Christ Be Sinless? Doesn't Mary Need a Savior Too?
Only Christ is sinless on his own account. Mary was rendered sinless on account of a prevenient action of God, applying Christ's future merits and perfection to her. Mary did no work to make her a sinless vehicle for God-in-the-flesh. It was purely on account of God's grace, and the work of Christ, that Mary was made sinless.

Yes, Mary needed a savior. And Christ was an amazing savior to his mother, because through his merits as savior of mankind, God redeemed Mary in a most remarkable manner, preserving her from the stain of Original Sin. In fact, in Scripture Mary rejoices in the wonderful work of her savior, connecting her salvation in Christ with all generations calling her blessed:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant:
From this day all generations will call me blessed (Matthew 1:46-48).

4. Doesn't This Feast Emphasize Mary Too Much?
The Opening Collect for the Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception begins: "Father, You prepared the Virgin Mary to be the worthy Mother of Your Son..." As this prayer emphasizes, the Immaculate Conception is not so much about honoring Mary, but making Mary a worthy bearer of God the Son in the flesh. The Church, East and West, has always held that Mary was no ordinary mother, but the Mother of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. With this comes special graces and honors, not on account of who Mary is per se, but on account of who her Son is.

See A Brief Catechism About Mary

General Links

A Byzantine Defense of the Immaculate Conception Daniel Joseph Barton
A Brief Catechism About Mary
Christian and Church Year Books

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This page written by . Last updated 12-7-2014.



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