Feast of the Immaculate Conception

December 8, 2016 / By: Michael Hollerich

Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation in the American Catholic liturgical calendar. It is also the patronal feast day of the United States, since Mary is our national patron. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, an enormous, architectural mishmash in Washington, D.C., is the largest Catholic church in North America. In New Orleans, visitors to St. Louis Cathedral can see a fascinating mosaic over the Mary altar that shows her giving aid to the forces of Andrew Jackson against the British, a motif whose inspiration goes back to medieval Constantinople. 

Students routinely confuse the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, defined as a revealed dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854, holds that she was conceived in the womb of her mother without the stain of original sin, a unique dignity judged befitting of her status as the mother of the Savior. The pope sent a circular to the world’s bishops to confirm that belief in her exemption was universally held. Since the doctrine does not appear attested in Scripture, its status as revelation depends on its affirmation in apostolic tradition, broadly understood.

Today's Mass readings are nonetheless apt. Genesis 3:15 is sometimes called “the proto-evangelium,” “the first gospel,” because from antiquity its typological application saw “the woman’s seed” as Jesus and Eve herself as Mary. Older Catholic churches often have a statue of Mary standing on the globe of the world with her foot planted firmly on the head of the serpent (“she [feminine pronoun in the Latin translation of the Bible] will crush your head and you will bite at her heel”).

Ephesians 1 contains a magnificent statement of Christ’s centrality in the cosmic work of redemption, and its presence in the lectionary for the day makes clear that Mary’s unique status is inseparable from Jesus. Whether that makes her a “coredemptrix” in Christ’s salvation is another matter.

The Lukan account of the Annunciation contains Mary’s “Yes” to the unexpected news from the Archangel Gabriel. Seen in the broader biblical context, it is the culmination of numerous unexpected births. It reminds us that the gift of new life, however unexpected, is always Good News indeed. 

Michael Hollerich, Professor of Theology