This celebration is especially appropriate at the beginning of Advent, when we recall the two great figures of expectation who prepared for the coming of Christ: John the Baptist and Mary. Forming a virtual liturgical Ode to Joy, the readings resound with affirmations of the gracious love of God showered on Mary and on all who believe in her son. The formal feast dates from the declaration made by Pope Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1854, that Mary from the first moment of her conception was, by the singular grace and privilege of God and the merits of Jesus Christ, preserved from all stain of sin. Yet Mary’s sinlessness had ancient roots in the church, and in 1846 the U.S. bishops had chosen Mary as patroness of this land under the title of the Immaculate Conception.
While in popular piety this feast is often confused with the Virgin Birth of Jesus, which the Gospel announces, the feast does not suggest that Mary was herself conceived in any miraculous manner. The greeting of Gabriel that Mary is a recipient of God’s favor and gracious love, full of grace, captures the meaning of the feast. Mary is one who does not turn away from God (Thomas Aquinas’s definition of sin) but is totally open to God’s love, captured in her final words: I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.
While celebrating the unique sinlessness of Mary, the feast should not detract from Mary’s humanity. All the Gospels picture Mary as somewhat puzzled by her son’s mission; her son will be a sign of contradiction, and a sword will pierce her heart; she will suffer the horrible pain of a mother watching a brutal execution. The reading from Ephesians reminds us that a graced and blessed life is also God’s plan for every Christian. God chose us to be blessed in Christ before the foundation of the world, and destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ. The fullness of God’s grace and love that embraces Mary from the first moment of her existence is to touch every Christian. We celebrate this feast with Mary as model and companion along our pilgrim journey toward the total embrace of God’s love and grace.