The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
For a long time as a Protestant, and even up until I think my first celebration of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception - I was under the impression that this referred to the conception of Jesus! Au contrare, mon ami! This day commemorates the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. It is a miraculous event because at the very moment of her conception she was given a special grace - to be spared from the stain of Original Sin. This fact was defined, infallibly, by Pope Pius IX in 1854 in a sentence from the papal bull, Ineffabils Deus:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful. (Source).Something else that I, as a Protestant, did not realize is that the entire papal bull is not wholey infallible - just that sentence! Just where the definition is made is considered infallible, not the whole document. That was yet another common misconception of Protestants and goes along with the thinking, "Catholics believe popes are infallible." Which can be a true statement, but in actuality, Catholics only believe a pope is infallible when he speaks "ex cathedra" - that is, "from the Chair" (of St. Peter).
Why do Catholics make such a big deal of Mary?Well, she IS a big deal! Much in the same manner of how sin first entered the world through a woman, Eve; Mary is considered "The Second Eve" - in that through her and her fiat, the redemption of the whole world is made possible. We commemorate this with every "Hail Mary" we pray. Keep in mind, the "Hail Mary" comes straight from Scripture!
Luke 1:28 - And the angel (Gabriel) being come in, said unto her: Hail, (Mary), full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.Luke 1:42 - And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb (Jesus).Again, as a Protestant, I was not aware of how scriptural the "Hail Mary" prayer is.
What does it mean to be free from the stain of Original Sin?As we have already said, and most Christians agree with, sin entered the world initially through the act of a woman, Eve, and we call this the Original Sin. Every human being, save four (Adam, Eve, Mary and Jesus) are born with this fallen nature - a stain upon their soul. This fallen nature is enough to keep us from entering into Heaven - for nothing impure can enter there (Rev. 21:27). Making each and every one of us in need of a Savior, a Redeemer, who would make it possible to have every stain of sin washed away.
Mary was preserved from this stain for she was chosen, by God, to be the Ark of the New Covenant, the God-Bearer, the one who was given the singular honor to be the "Mother of our Lord" (Luke 1:43). Being this vessel to carry our Lord and God within her, she was given this gift of having not even the stain of Original Sin.
Being preserved from the stain of Original Sin does not mean she was preserved from the penalty of Original Sin - which is physical death. There is some room for debate here because, again, this is not part of the definition of the Immaculate Conception. Did she die or did she merely fall asleep (the Dormition, as our Eastern Catholics and Orthodox refer to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin). This will be the topic for another blog entry (and has been) for August 15th.