Today, December 8th, Catholics around the world celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Read Luke 1:26-38.
Growing up, I always believed the Immaculate Conception to refer to the virgin birth of Jesus. In order to be a spotless, blameless, and sinless sacrifice on humanity’s behalf, he had to be removed from the stain of original sin and therefore (out of theologically necessity) needed to not be biologically connected with Joseph (since all men transferred sin according to tradition).
However, Catholics take this notion one step further and believe that Mary was conceived without sin. “Mary embodies all at once what God wills for his intelligent creation. But there remains a difference between Mary and us. We are healed of the wounds of sin. Mary never contracted them. We suffer the aftereffects of sin. Mary rejoices in God her Savior.” – Magnificat December 8th Advent Companion
Catholic tradition holds that, in order for Mary to be an acceptable “mother of God”, she needed to be free from sin at the time of Jesus’ birth and afterwards.
A common prayer is this “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.”
Mary serves as our “pattern of holiness” and the Annunciation (which was the announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ the Son of God.), becomes the culmination of her miraculous conception and special calling.
More to the point: Catholics believe Mary was specifically called and chosen at conception to birth the Son of God and therefore was given extra grace to protect her from all sin. She now intercedes on behalf of Christians for their purity and freedom from sin.
An interesting meditation from 1890 by John Henry Newman that shed even more light into the theology behind the immaculate conception is as follows:
“What is the highest, the rarest, the choicest prerogative of Mary? It is that she was without sin. When a woman in the crowd cried out to our Lord, “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee!” he answered, “More blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it.” Those words were fulfilled in Mary. She was filled with grace in order to be the Mother of God. But it was a higher gift than her maternity to be thus sanctified and thus pure. Our Lord indeed would not have become her son unless he had first sanctified her; but still, the greater blessedness was to have that perfect sanctification.”
I could list a whole hosts of prayers offered by Catholics to the Blessed Virgin Mary asking her to help them live a sinless life and so forth.
Growing up Protestant I always had a very negative view of Mary (or more specifically of how I believe Catholics worshiped her).
All of my friends would have to regularly recite the “Hail Mary” and I thought it was some sort of blasphemous prayer and borderline idolatry.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Her Magnificat (known also as Mary’s Song) found in Luke 1:46-55 is an amazingly profound, historical, and theological prayer…especially for a young Jewish girl!
Over the years, I have grown in deep appreciation and respect for Catholicism (the heritage, liturgy, saints, theology, authors, etc..) Living and serving in New York, many close friends and neighbors are committed Catholics and my friendship with them has shed much light.
I personally do not agree with everything they may or may hold doctrinally dear, nor follow all the practices, rites, and rituals, but I have gained much wisdom and insight.
One of them has been a newfound respect for Mary.
By venerating Mary (not worshipping), a few blessings and graces have occurred in my thinking and faith.
In the words of Brian McLaren, by honoring and celebrating Mary, “We come more fully to know who we are: simple humans, like Mary, called upon to bear Christ in our bodies, through our lives, to our world.”
I have realized, like Brian, just how impoverished my own Protestant faith and heritage is with its exclusively male focus. The incarnation and immaculate conception (of Christ) is a mysterious and beautiful story that “magnifies” the value of women, erases the shame of Eve, makes visible the importance of spiritual receptivity, and celebrates the richness and feracity of humble, simple submission.
For full disclosure, unlike some of my Catholic friends, I do not pray to Mary or have statues of her, although I understand and appreciate now more than before why they do.
Afterall, it was the Spirit of God that testified through Gabriel, through Mary, and through Elizabeth that Mary was in fact highly favored; that the Lord was with her, she was blessed, and all generations will call her blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for her.
Though I do not worship her, I do however look to her as an amazing example of faith and honor her in my heart. I praise God for her obedience, example, faith, and miraculous life of being in the will of God. I would imagine that Mary’s story and prayer echoed through the mind of her son, when he was at the cross and submitted to the will of God and, like his mother, prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
May we all follow in the example of Mary and have the same obedience and faith this Advent season.