Today is a Holy
Day of Obligation in the United States, a day on which we celebrate the
Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (the Immaculate Conception has been,
since 1846, the Patroness of the United States). Note that it is she,
Mary herself, who is the Immaculate Conception; the day does not refer to
Mary's conceiving Jesus by the Holy Ghost, but to the conception of Mary
in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, by Mary's father, St. Joachim. What
makes her conception immaculate is not that she was conceived by the Holy
Ghost of a virgin, as was Christ Our Lord, but that from the very moment
of her conception, she was filled with grace by God, Who knew, in His
omniscience, that she would say "yes" to the Angel Gabriel and become the
Mother of the Savior. Exactly nine months from now, on September 8, we will
celebrate Mary's birthday.
Most of what we know about Mary's parents, SS. Anne and Joachim, is derived
from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of St.
James and the Gospel of the Nativity of
Mary. St. Anne is the patron of childless people, pregnant women, and
grandmothers (her Feast Day is 26 July); St. Joachim is the patron of
grandfathers. (In the painting above, St. Anne sits in the chair, and her
husband stands at her right. Cleophas is seen in the right-hand corner
reading, and Jesus, Mary and Joseph are in front).
As said, at the very moment of Mary's conception in St. Anne's womb, God
filled Mary with grace and preserved her from the stain of sin so she might
be a pure vessel by whom Christ could enter the world; "Immaculate Conception,"
then is a title for Mary -- a title reflecting her being and which reveals
that the New Adam saved the New Eve from the stain of original sin in an
act foretold in the first Book of Scripture:
I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed:
she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.
Adam and Eve, Mary
and Jesus -- the only four persons with human natures who were, in their
first moments, without sin (and, of course, Mary and Jesus remained
Mary is the All Holy, and it had to be this way: Christ took from her His
very Flesh and Blood -- the Flesh that was scourged for us, the Blood
that was spilt for us, the Bread of Life that saves us!
Symbols for the day are any of the usual Marian symbols (the color blue,
her crown of 12 stars representing the 12 Tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles),
but especially those which emphasize her purity, such as lilies and her
There are no special practices today that I know of, but, as with all Marian
Feasts, it is a good day to pray the
Litany of Loreto, the
Little Crown of the Blessed Virgin, the
Akathistos Hymn to the Theotokos, the
Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Ocean),
the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, etc. (You
can download the Litany of Loreto in Microsoft Word .doc format, in
English or in
The Epistle reading
today will be from Proverbs 8:23-25, the Gradual will be Judith 13:23, the
Tract will be Psalm 86:1, and the Gospel will be Luke 1:26-28.
Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin
by Dom Gueranger, O.S.B.
At length, on
the distant horizon, rises, with a soft and radiant light, the aurora of
the Sun which has been so long desired. The happy Mother of the Messias was
to be born before the Messias Himself; and this is the day of the Conception
of Mary. The earth already possesses a first pledge of the divine mercy;
the Son of Man is near at hand. Two true Israelites, Joachim and Anne, noble
branches of the family of David, find their union, after a long barrenness,
made fruitful by the divine omnipotence. Glory be to God, who has been mindful
of His promises, and who deigns to announce, from the high heavens, the end
of the deluge of iniquity, by sending upon the earth the sweet white dove
that bears the tidings of peace!
The feast of the blessed Virgin's Immaculate Conception is the most solemn
of all those which the Church celebrates during the holy time of Advent;
and if the first part of the cycle had to offer us the commemoration of some
one of the mysteries of Mary, there was none whose object could better harmonize
with the spirit of the Church in this mystic season of expectation. Let us,
then, celebrate this solemnity with joy; for the Conception of Mary tells
us that the Birth of Jesus is not far off.
The intention of the Church, in this feast, is not only to celebrate the
anniversary of the happy moment in which began, in the womb of the pious
Anne, the life of the ever-glorious Virgin Mary; but also to honour the sublime
privilege, by which Mary was preserved from the original stain, which, by
a sovereign and universal decree, is contracted by all the children of Adam
the very moment they are conceived in their mother's womb. The faith of the
Catholic Church on the subject of the Conception of Mary is this: that at
the very instant when God united the soul of Mary, which He had created,
to the body which it was to animate, this ever-blessed soul did not only
not contract the stain, which at that same instant defiles every human soul,
but was filled with an immeasurable grace which rendered her, from that moment,
the mirror of the sanctity of God Himself, as far as this is possible to
a creature. The Church with her infallible authority, declared, by the lips
of Pius IX., that this article of her faith had been revealed by God Himself.
The Definition was received with enthusiasm by the whole of Christendom,
and the eighth of December of the year 1854: was thus made one of the most
memorable days of the Church's history.
It was due to His own infinite sanctity that God should suspend, in this
instance, the law which His divine justice had passed upon all the children
of Adam. The relations which Mary was to bear to the Divinity, could not
be reconciled with her undergoing the humiliation of this punishment. She
was not only daughter of the eternal Father; she was destined also to become
the very Mother of the Son, and the veritable bride of the Holy Ghost, Nothing
defiled could be permitted to enter, even for an instant of time, into the
creature that was thus predestined to contract such close relations with
the adorable Trinity; not a speck could be permitted to tarnish in Mary that
perfect purity which the infinitely holy God requires even in those who are
one day to be admitted to enjoy the sight of His divine majesty in heaven;
in a word, as the great Doctor St. Anselm says, 'it was just that this holy
Virgin should be adorned with the greatest purity which can be conceived
after that of God Himself, since God the Father was to give to her, as her
Child, that only-begotten Son, whom He loved as Himself, as being begotten
to Him from His own bosom; and this in such a manner, that the selfsame Son
of God was, by nature, the Son of both God the Father and this blessed Virgin,
This same Son chose her to be substantially His Mother; and the Holy Ghost
willed that in her womb He would operate the conception and birth of Him
from whom He Himself proceeded.
Moreover, the close ties which were to unite the Son of God with Mary, and
which would elicit from Him the tenderest love and the most filial reverence
for her, had been present to the divine thought from all eternity: and the
conclusion forces itself upon us that therefore the divine Word had for this
His future Mother a love infinitely greater than that which He bore to all
His other creatures. Mary's honour was infinitely dear to Him, because she
was to be His Mother, chosen to be so by His eternal and merciful decrees.
The Son's love protected the Mother. She, indeed, in her sublime humility,
willingly submitted to whatever the rest of God's creatures had brought on
themselves, and obeyed every tittle of those laws which were never meant
for her: but that humiliating barrier, which confronts every child of Adam
at the first moment of his existence, and keeps him from light and grace
until he shall have been regenerated by a new birthoh! this could not
be permitted to stand in Mary's way, her Son forbade it.
The eternal Father would not do less for the second Eve than He had done
for the first, who was created, as was also the first Adam, in the state
of original justice, which she afterwards forfeited by sin. The Son of God
would not permit that the woman, from whom He was to take the nature of Man,
should be deprived of that gift which He had given even to her who was the
mother of sin. The Holy Ghost, who was to overshadow Mary and produce Jesus
within her by His divine operation, would not permit that foul stain, in
which we are all conceived, to rest, even for an instant, on this His Bride.
All men were to contract the sin of Adam; the sentence was universal; but
God's own Mother is not included. God who is the author of that law) God
who was free to make it as He willed, had power to exclude from it her whom
He had predestined to be His own in so many ways; He could exempt her, and
it was just that He should exempt her; therefore, He did it.
Was it not this grand exemption which God Himself foretold, when the guilty
pair, whose children we all are, appeared before Him in the garden of Eden?
In the anathema which fell upon the serpent, there was included a promise
of mercy to us. 'I will put enmities,' said the Lord, 'between thee and the
Woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head.' Thus was salvation
promised the human race under the form of a victory over satan; and this
victory is to be gained by the Woman, and she will gain it for us also. Even
granting, as some read this text, that it is the Son of the Woman that is
alone to gain this victory, the enmity between the Woman and the serpent
is clearly expressed, and she, the Woman, with her own foot, is to crush
the head of the hated serpent. The second Eve is to be worthy of the second
Adam, conquering and not to be conquered. The human race is one day to be
avenged not only by God made Man, but also by the Woman miraculously exempted
from every stain of sin, in whom the primeval creation, which was in justice
and holiness, will thus reappear, just as though the original sin had never
Raise up your heads, then, ye children of Adam, and shake off your chains!
This day the humiliation which weighed you down is annihilated. Behold! Mary,
who is of the same flesh and blood as yourselves, has seen the torrent of
sin, which swept along all the generations of mankind, flow back at her presence
and not touch her: the infernal dragon has turned away his head, not daring
to breathe his venom upon her; the dignity of your origin is given to her
in all its primitive grandeur. This happy day, then, on which the original
purity of your race is renewed, must be a feast to you. The second Eve is
created; and from her own blood (which, with the exception of the element
of sin, is the same as that which makes you to be the children of Adam),
she is shortly to give you the God-Man, who proceeds from her according to
the flesh, as He proceeds from the Father according to the eternal generation.
And how can we do less than admire and love the incomparable purity of Mary
in her Immaculate Conception, when we hear even God, who thus prepared her
to become His Mother, saying to her, in the divine Canticle, these words
of complacent love: 'Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot
in thee! It is the God of all holiness that here speaks; that eye, which
sees all things, finds not a vestige, not a shadow of sin; therefore does
He delight in her, and admire in her that gift of His own condescending
munificence. We cannot be surprised after this, that Gabriel, when he came
down from heaven to announce the Incarnation to her, should be full of admiration
at the sight of that purity, whose beginning was so glorious and whose progress
was immeasurable; and that this blessed spirit should bow down profoundly
before this young Maid of Nazareth, and salute her with, 'Hail, O full of
grace!' And who is this Gabriel? An Archangel, that lives amidst the grandest
magnificences of God's creation, amidst all the gorgeous riches of heaven;
who is brother to the Cherubim and Seraphim, to the Thrones and Dominations;
whose eye is accustomed to gaze on those nine angelic choirs with their dazzling
brightness of countless degrees of light and grace; he has found on earth,
in a creature of a nature below that of angels, the fulness of grace of that
grace which had been given to the angels measuredly. This fulness of grace
was in Mary from the very first instant of her existence. She is the future
Mother of God, and she was ever holy, ever pure, ever Immaculate.
This truth of Mary's Immaculate Conception_ which was revealed to the apostles
by the divine Son of Mary, inherited by the Church, taught by the holy fathers,
believed by each generation of the Christian people with an ever increasing
explicitnesswas implied in the very notion of a Mother of God. To believe
that Mary was Mother of God, was implicitly to believe that she, on whom
this sublime dignity was conferred, had never been defiled with the slightest
stain of sin, and that God had bestowed upon her an absolute exemption from
sin. But now the Immaculate Conception of Mary rests on an explicit definition
dictated by the Holy Ghost. Peter has spoken by the mouth of Pius; and when
Peter has spoken, every Christian should believe; for the Son of God has
said: 'I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith fail not.' And again:
'The Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you
all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said
The Symbol of our faith has therefore received not a new truth, but a new
light on a truth which was previously the object of the universal belief.
On that great day of the definition, the infernal serpent was again crushed
beneath the victorious foot of the Virgin-Mother, and the Lord graciously
gave us the strongest pledge of His mercy. He still loves this guilty earth,
since He has deigned to enlighten it with one of the brightest rays of His
Mother's glory. How this earth of ours exulted! The present generation will
never forget the enthusiasm with which the entire universe received the tidings
of the definition. It was an event of mysterious importance which thus marked
this second half of our century; and we shall look forward to the future
with renewed confidence; for if the Holy Ghost bids us tremble for the days
when truths are diminished among the children of men, He would, consequently,
have us look on those times as blessed by God in which we receive an increase
of truth; an increase both in light and authority.
The Church, even before the solemn proclamation of the grand dogma, kept
the feast of this eighth day of December; which was, in reality, a profession
of her faith. It is true that the feast was not called the Immaculate Conception,
but simply the Conception of Mary. But the fact of such a feast being instituted
and kept, was an unmistakable expression of the faith of Christendom in that
truth. St. Bernard and the angelical doctor, St. Thomas, both teach that
the Church cannot celebrate the feast of what is not holy; the Conception
of Mary, therefore, was holy and immaculate, since the Church has, for ages
past, honoured it with a special feast. The Nativity of the same holy Virgin
is kept as a solemnity in the Church, because Mary was born full of grace;
therefore, had the first moment of Mary's existence been one of sin, as is
that of all the other children of Adam, it never could have been made the
subject of the reverence of the Church. Now, there are few feasts so generally
and so firmly established in the Church as this which we are keeping today.
The Greek Church, which, more easily than the Latin, could learn what were
the pious traditions of the east, kept this feast even in the sixth century,
as is evident from the ceremonial or, as it is called, the Type, of St. Sabas.
In the west, we find it established in the Gothic Church of Spain as far
back as the eighth century. A celebrated calendar which was engraved on marble,
in the ninth century for the use of the Church of Naples, attests that it
had already been introduced there. Paul the deacon secretary to the emperor
Charlemagne, and afterwards monk at Monte-Cassino, composed a celebrated
hymn on the mystery of the Immaculate Conception we will insert this piece
later on, as it is given in the manuscript copies of Monte-Cassino and Benevento.
In 1066, the feast was first established in England, in consequence of the
pious Abbot Helsyn's being miraculously preserved from shipwreck; and shortly
after that, was made general through the whole island by the zeal of the
great St. Anselm, monk of the Order of St. Benedict, and archbishop of
Canterbury. From England it passed into Normandy, and took root in France.
We find it sanctioned in Germany, in a council hold in 1049, at which St.
Leo IX. was present; in Navarre, 1090, at the abbey of Irach; in Belgium,
at Liege, in 1142. Thus did the Churches of the west testify their faith
in this mystery, by accepting its feast, which is the expression of faith.
Lastly, it was adopted by Rome herself, and her doing so rendered the united
testimony of her children, the other Churches, more imposing than ever. It
was Pope Sixtus IV. who, in the year 1476, published the. decree of the feast
of our Lady's Conception for the city of St. Peter. In the next century.
1568, St. Pius V. published the universal edition of the Roman breviary,
and in its calendar was inserted this feast as one of those Christian solemnities
which the faithful are every year bound to observe. It was not from Rome
that the devotion of the Catholic world to this mystery received its first
impulse; she sanctioned it by her liturgical authority, just as she has confirmed
it by her doctrinal authority in these our own days.
The three great Catholic nations of Europe, Germany, France, and Spain, vied
with each other in their devotion to this mystery of Mary's Immaculate
Conception. France, by her king Louis XIV., obtained from Clement IX. that
this feast should be kept with an octave throughout the kingdom; which favour
was afterwards extended to the universal Church by Innocent XII. For centuries
previous to this, the theological faculty of Paris had always exacted from
its professors the oath that they would defend this privilege of Mary; a
pious practice which continued as long as the university itself.
As regards Germany, the emperor Ferdinand III, in 1647, ordered a splendid
monument to be erected in the great square of Vienna. It is covered with
emblems and figures symbolical of Mary's victory over sin, and on the top
is the statue of the Immaculate Queen, with this solemn and truly Catholic
To God, infinite
in goodness and power,
King of heaven and earth, by whom kings reign;
to the Virgin Mother of God, conceived without sin,
by whom princes command, whom Austria,
devoutly loving, holds as her Queen and Patron;
Ferdinand III, Emperor, confides, gives, consecrates himself,
children, people, armies, provinces, and all that is his,
and erects in accomplishment of a vow
this statue, as a perpetual memorial.
But the zeal of
Spain for the privilege of the holy Mother of God surpassed that of all other
nations. In the year 1398, John I., king of Arragon, issued, a chart in which
he solemnly places his person and kingdom under the protection of Mary
Immaculate. Later on, kings Philip III. and Philip IV. sent ambassadors to
Rome, soliciting, in their names, the solemn definition, which heaven reserved,
in its mercy for our days. King Charles III., in the eighteenth century,
obtained permission from Clement XIII. that the Immaculate Conception should
be the patronal feast of Spain. The people of Spain, which is so justly called
the Catholic kingdom, put over the door, or on the front of their houses,
a tablet with the words of Mary's privilege written on it; and when they
meet, they greet each other with an expression in honour of the same dear
mystery. It was a Spanish nun, Mary of Jesus, abbess of the convent of the
Immaculate Conception of Agreda, who wrote God's Mystic City, which inspired
Murillo with his Immaculate Conception, the masterpiece of the Spanish school.
But, whilst thus mentioning the different nations which have been foremost
in their zeal for this article of our holy faith, the Immaculate Conception,
it were unjust to pass over the immense share which the seraphic Order, the
Order of St. Francis of Assisi, has had in the earthly triumph of our blessed
Mother, the Queen of heaven and earth. As often as this feast comes round,
is it not just that we should think with reverence and gratitude on him,
who was the first theologian that showed how closely connected with the divine
mystery of the Incarnation is this dogma of the Immaculate Conception? First,
then, all honour to the name of the pious and learned John Duns Scotus! And
when at length the great day of the definition of the Immaculate Conception
came, how justly merited was that grand audience, which the Vicar of Christ
granted to the Franciscan Order, and with which closed the pageant of the
glorious solemnity! Pius IX. received from the hands of the children of St.
Francis a tribute of homage and thankfulness, which the Scotist school, after
having fought four hundred years in defence of Mary's Immaculate Conception,
now presented to the Pontiff.
In the presence of the fifty-four Cardinals, forty-two archbishops, and
ninety-two bishops; before an immense concourse of people that filled St.
Peter's, and had united in prayer, begging the assistance of the Spirit of
truth; the Vicar of Christ had just pronounced the decision which so many
ages had hoped to hear. The Pontiff had offered the holy Sacrifice on the
Confession of St. Peter. He had crowned the statue of the Immaculate Queen
with a splendid diadem. Carried on his lofty throne, and wearing his triple
crown, he had reached the portico of the basilica; there he is met by the
two representatives of St. Francis: they prostrate before the throne: the
triumphal procession halts: and first, the General of the Friars Minor
Observantines advances, and presents to the holy Father a branch of silver
lilies: he is followed by the General of the Conventual Friars, holding in
his hand a branch of silver roses. The Pope graciously accepted both. The
lilies and the roses were symbolical of Mary's purity and love; the whiteness
of the silver was the emblem of the lovely brightness of that orb, on which
is reflected the light of the Sun; for, as the Canticle says of Mary, 'she
is beautiful as the moon. The Pontiff was overcome with emotion at these
gifts of the family of the seraphic patriarch, to which we might justly apply
what was said of the banner of the Maid of Orleans: 'It had stood the brunt
of the battle; it deserved to share in the glory of the victory.' And thus
ended the glories of that grand morning of the eighth of December, eighteen
hundred and fifty-four.
It is thus, O thou the humblest of creatures, that thy Immaculate Conception
has been glorified on earth! And how could it be other than a great joy to
men, that thou art honoured by them, thou the aurora of the Sun of justice?
Dost thou not bring them the tidings of their salvation? Art not thou, O
Mary, that bright ray of hope, which suddenly bursts forth in the deep abyss
of the world's misery? What should we have been without Jesus? And thou art
His dearest Mother, the holiest of God's creatures, the purest of virgins,
and our own most loving Mother!
How thy gentle light gladdens our wearied eyes, sweet Mother! Generation
had followed generation on this earth of ours. Men looked up to heaven through
their tears, hoping to see appear on the horizon the star which they had
been told should disperse the gloomy horrors of the world's darkness; but
death came, and they sank into the tomb, without seeing even the dawn of
the light, for which alone they cared to live. It is for us that God had
reserved the blessing of seeing thy lovely rising, O thou fair morning star!
which sheddest thy blessed rays on the sea, and bringest calm after the long
stormy night! Oh! prepare our eyes that they may behold the divine Sun which
will soon follow in thy path, and give to the world His reign of light and
day. Prepare our hearts, for it is to our hearts that this Jesus of thine
wishes to show Himself. To see Him, our hearts must be pure: purify them,
O thou Immaculate Mother! The divine wisdom has willed that of the feasts
which the Church dedicates to thee, this of thy Immaculate Conception should
be celebrated during Advent; that thus the children of the Church, reflecting
on the jealous care wherewith God preserved thee from every stain of sin
because thou wast to be the Mother of His divine Son, might prepare to receive
this same Jesus by the most perfect renunciation of every sin and of every
attachment to sin. This great change must be made; and thy prayers, O Mary!
will help us to make it. Pray we ask it of thee by the grace God gave
thee in thy Immaculate Conceptionthat our covetousness may be destroyed,
our concupiscence extinguished, and our pride turned into humility. Despise
not our prayers, dear Mother of that Jesus who chose thee for His dwelling-place,
that He might afterwards find one in each of us.
O Mary! Ark of the covenant, built of an incorruptible wood, and covered
over with the purest gold! help us to correspond with those wonderful designs
of our God, who, after having found His glory in thine incomparable purity,
wills now to seek His glory in our unworthiness, by making us, from being
slaves of the devil, His temples and His abode, where He may find His delight.
Help us to this, O thou that by the mercy of thy Son hast never known sin!
and receive this day our devoutest praise. Thou art the ark of salvation;
the one creature unwrecked in the universal deluge; the white fleece filled
with the dew of heaven, whilst the earth around is parched; the flame which
the many waters could not quench; the lily blooming amidst thorns; the garden
shut against the infernal serpent; the fountain sealed, whose limpid water
was never ruffled; the house of the Lord, whereon His eyes were ever fixed,
and into which nothing defiled could ever enter; the mystic city, of which
such glorious things are said. We delight in telling all thy glorious titles,
O Mary! for thou art our Mother, and we love thee, and the Mother's glory
is the glory of her children. Cease not to bless and protect all those that
honour thy immense privilege, O thou who wert conceived on this day! May
this feast fit us for that mystery, for which thy Conception, thy Birth,
and thy Annunciation, are all preparationsthe Birth of thy Jesus in
Bethlehem: yea, dear Mother, we desire thy Jesus, give Him to us and satisfy
the longings of our love.