Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
“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.”
With these words in 1854, Pope Pius IX in the Papal Bull Ineffabilis Dei, declared Mary’s Immaculate Conception to be dogma. Pius was simply affirming a long-held belief of many Christians East and West before him, that Mary was conceived free of the stain of original sin, on account of Christ’s work, in order 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 Ss. Justin (AD 150) and Irenaeus (AD 180), saw Mary as the “new Eve,” who obeyed God where Eve disobeyed. Mary has also been called the “new ark” and Theotokos, God-bearer.
It is from these titles that the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and sinlessness unfolded. Thus St. 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”). St. 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).
Later Fathers, such as St. John of Damascus (d. AD 755) and St. Andrew of Crete (d. AD 740) continued this emphasis on Mary’s sinlessness as bearer of God. However, there was no official dogma of the Immaculate Conception as of this period. What most Church Fathers did agree on was Mary’s sinlessness 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.
The Feast of Mary’s Conception is clearly known as early as the 7th century in the East, and may even date to as early as the 5th century in the Churches of Syria. The feast spread to the West, at least by the 9th century. The feast and doctrine initially were opposed by the Dominicans, while the Franciscans argued on the Immaculate Conception’s behalf. For awhile, 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. The Orthodox and many Eastern Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Conception of Mary on December 9. This places Mary’s conception 9 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 9 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 a while to unfold, 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.