The Immaculate Conception
What does the Immaculate Conception mean?
The perfect image of the Immaculate Conception is St. Anne pregnant with the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was in her womb where Our Lady was immaculately conceived.
And so when we use the term Immaculate Conception, and with the said imagery in mind, there should be no reason for confusion as to who was immaculately conceived, whether it was Jesus or Mary. The answer is Mary.
Of course, Jesus Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary free from all sin, but this mystery about the birth of Jesus pertains to another doctrine that we refer to as the “Virgin Birth” or the Incarnation.
The dogma explained
The Immaculate Conception is the conception of the Mary, free from original sin by virtue of the merits of her son Jesus. Her conception was not virginal, meaning she had human father and mother, but it was special and unique in another way. The Church teaches that God acted upon Mary in the first moment of her conception in the womb of her mother St. Anne, keeping her immaculate.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way: “To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary ‘was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.’ The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as ‘full of grace.’ In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God's grace” (490).
Promulgated on December 8, 1854 by Pope Pius IX, the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus proclaimed Mary’s Immaculate Conception as an independent dogma, although it is very much rooted in the mystery of Christ’s life. This grace is clearly a privilege of the Blessed Mother, but it also highlights the dignity and holiness required to become “Mother of God." The Immaculate Conception is the source and basis for Mary's all-holiness as Mother of God.
More specifically, according to the said apostolic constitution, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception states “that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege from Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was kept free of every stain of original sin."
This dogma has both a "negative" and a "positive" light to it, one complementing the other. The "negative" meaning emphasizes Mary's freedom from original sin, thanks to the anticipated or retroactive (in the document the term used is preventive) grace of Christ's redemptive act. The “positive” meaning is that by the same token, the dogma suggests Mary's all-holiness. This is the consequence of the absence of original sin. Mary's life is permanently and intimately related to God, and thus she is the all-holy.
The purification of Mary
Having understood then deeper meaning of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, we may ask: Why did Mary need purification in Luke 2:22-39?
First, it must be understood that in the Old Testament, uncleanness was associated with four things: 1) food, 2) leprosy, 3) contact with a corpse, and 4) childbirth and sexual functions causing any discharge from the genitals. The purification of Mary in Luke’s Gospel is connected with the requirements of Leviticus 12:1-8.
According to John McKenzie’s Dictionary of the Bible, we cannot define exactly what clean and unclean mean. To be clean meant to be fit for participation in cult. To be unclean was somehow a physical quality. By the time of Jesus, it was no longer clear to the Hebrews what the basis for uncleanness is.
Our Lady who was free from sin and full of grace was simply being obedient to the demands of Jewish ritual law and went through the prescribed ceremony of purification.
The Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. In many Catholic countries, it is also a holy day of obligation or patronal feast, and in some a national public holiday.
Article written by Gem Penetrante for Christian Catholic Media
Gem Penetrante is a freelance editor, columnist, language teacher and Catholic seminarian from the Philippines.