All About the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
Feast of the Immaculate Conception Definition and Summary
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 8 in the West and December 9 in the Orthodox East.
Prayers: Immaculate Conception Prayers
Liturgical Color(s): White
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
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.
These words, spoken in 1854 by Pope Pius IX in the papal encyclical Ineffabilis Deus, declared Mary's Immaculate Conception a matter of dogma. However, Pius did not invent the idea that Mary was conceived without sin. Rather, he was affirming a belief held by many Christians who 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 Saint 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"). Saint 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 Saint John of Damascus (d. AD 755) and Saint 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 Saint Bonaventure and Saint 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.
*Saint Thomas Aquinas believed, like most at the time, in the entire personal sinlessness of Mary, and he 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.
The Feast of Mary's Conception was clearly known as early as the seventh century in the East, and many even date it to as early as the fifth century in the Churches of Syria. The feast spread to the West by at least the ninth century. The feast and doctrine were initially opposed by the Dominicans, while the Franciscans argued in favor of the Immaculate Conception and its feast. For a while, 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 nine 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 nine 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 dogma 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
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 8 falls on a Sunday. If this happens, the Sunday of Advent is celebrated instead, and the solemnity is celebrated on Monday, December 9. 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? Neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Churches believe in sola scriptura, the 16th century Protestant concept that doctrines must be proved from Scripture alone. Thus, just because the Immaculate Conception is not explicitly spelled out in Scripture does not mean it is problematic. Second, just because a belief is made dogma in 1854 doesn't mean that the belief has not been true beforehand, or that it was invented in 1854. Belief in the Immaculate Conception goes back at least to the fourth century, and the titles and honors given to Mary that 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 magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed (Luke 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.
This page written by David Bennett.
Last updated 12-5-2014