Feast Day December 8
The name of this festival is sufficient to awaken delight in the hearts of all true children of Mary, and to incite them to the most tender devotion; but its grandeur demands to be spoken of in particular, and recommended to the special attention of the faithful. Joachim and Anna, the holy parents of the Blessed Virgin had been united almost twenty years, without having been blessed with a child to inherit their temporal possessions or their virtue. This barrenness, which in ancient times was considered a great dishonor, and a curse of the Almighty, saddened the holy couple greatly; but they submitted to the divine will and bore with patience the shame which was attached to it.
The Almighty, however, who had chosen them to become the parents of the most blessed child, after having tried their patience for twenty years, sent an angel to them, who announced that Anna would give birth to a daughter, who was destined to become the mother of the long-promised Messiah. Joachim and Anna, greatly rejoicing continued the prayer which they had until then offered to God to ask His blessing, and to thank Him for His grace.
The angel’s words were fulfilled, St. Anna, in due time, brought forth the pure, unspotted daughter, who was destined to become the Mother of God, the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. Several centuries ago, the question arose whether the Blessed Virgin was conceived, like all other human beings, in original sin, or if she had been exempted from it. No one doubted that she was free from original sin at her birth, and sanctified before she was born, as it is known from Holy Writ that the same grace was bestowed on the holy prophet Jeremias, and on the forerunner of Christ, St. John the Baptist, who surely cannot be compared in dignity with the Mother of the Saviour.
The only doubt was, whether Mary had been defiled, at least for a short time, by original sin, and had afterwards been purified; or if her blessed soul had been created in sanctifying grace, and had thus been so entirely exempted from original sin that she had not been for one moment defiled by it. There were several who, in their zeal for the honor of the Redeemer of mankind, maintained the former, without sinning by this against their faith, as the Church had not yet pronounced the latter as an article of faith.
There were, however, a great many more who taught the latter, and confirmed it by many reasons. The latter were supported by several universities, religious societies, entire countries and kingdoms, ecclesiastical and temporal authorities; and the doctrine became so firmly established, that it was strictly forbidden, under pain of severe punishment, to teach or maintain the contrary.
The principal of these reasons is drawn from the high dignity to which Mary was chosen by God, when He elected her to become the mother of His only Son. This dignity is so high, that it is but right to recognize Mary as free from original sin.
“It is but just,” says St. Anselm,” that the Blessed Virgin should shine with a purity which, after that of God, must be recognized as the greatest.” Had Mary been defiled with original sin, and then purified from it, how much greater would her purity have been than that of St. Jeremias and St. John, who also were sanctified before they were born? It would not then have been the greatest, which, after God, we can imagine.
The souls of Adam and Eve would have been more stainless in their creation. St. Bonaventure says: “It is but fit that the Blessed Virgin should be without any stain, and that she should so entirely conquer Satan, that she was not even for one moment subject to him.” If Mary’s soul had been, only for one moment, spotted with original sin, she would have been subject to Satan for that length of time; she would have been a seat, a dwelling of the devil, a slave to him, and a child of divine wrath. Would it have been suitable that the only Son of God should dwell nine months in the womb of a created being, who before, though for ever so short a space of time had been a dwelling of Satan?
Can we think, without trembling, that she, who was chosen from all eternity to become the mother of our Lord, had been a slave of the devil, an object of divine wrath? If this had been the case, Satan could have boasted that, before Christ, he had inhabited the Ark which was destined by the Almighty, not to preserve manna, or the lifeless tablets of the law, but to keep, during nine months, the holy Law-giver Himself.
Would this have been worthy of Christ?
No one will dare to say it. Hence, the honor of Him, whom Mary gave to the world, demands that she should have been conceived immaculate. The high dignity to which Mary was raised allows not the thought that she, even for one moment, was defiled with original sin.
St. Augustine, when expounding to some heretics that nobody had lived on earth without sin, added: “Except the Blessed Virgin, whom, out of reverence to her Son, I will not allow to be named, when there is question of sin.” This holy teacher believed Mary exempt from all sin, and although he was discussing actual sin, yet the reason which he gives for her being pure from all actual sin is as strong when applied to original sin.
The honor of our Lord, that is of our Saviour, demands that we recognize Mary as having been free not only from actual, but also from original sin. We honor Christ by believing that He had a mother always immaculate. To say that His Mother ever was defiled with sin, and hence that, at least for a time, she was a slave of Satan, cannot but dishonor Him.
Besides this, it is certain that God loved Mary more than all other creatures, as He raised her above them all by choosing her to become the Mother of his only Son. We cannot therefore doubt that He was more liberal to her in bestowing graces than He was to others.
He created the Angels and our first parents in sanctifying grace; why should we not then believe that He created Mary also thus, and that He bestowed upon her the grace of never being defiled by sin? God could give her this grace; who dares to doubt it? He preserved her from the stain of original sin, because He is Almighty. It was also right that He should impart such grace to her, because He had chosen her as His mother.
Why should we not then be convinced that He imparted this grace at the moment of her creation, since we know that He bestowed more graces upon her than upon other creatures? The Angelic doctor says: “We believe rightfully that she who gave life to the only Son of the Father, received greater graces than all others.” Thence we must also believe that she received the grace of exemption from original sin.
Therefore the holy Fathers say that she was pure from all sin, entirely free from every spot, and that she was always more holy than the angels. “Who is now more holy than she? Not the Prophets, not the Apostles, not the Martyrs, not the Patriarchs, not the Angels, not the Cherubim or Seraphim,” says St.Chrysostom.
St. Ephrem writes: “Mary the Virgin, Our Lady, is undefiled and far from a stain of sin.” St. Ambrose, also, calls the Blessed Virgin “free from every stain of sin.” St. Epiphanius has these words: “She stands higher than them all, except God. She is by nature more beautiful than the Cherubim, the Seraphim, and all the heavenly hosts.” How could all this be said truthfully of her, if she had not been free from original sin?
Other holy Fathers, and celebrated Doctors of the Church, speak still more clearly. We will cite only a few. St. Peter Damian says: “The flesh which Mary took of Adam refused to take the stain of Adam.” St. Anselm writes: “If Jeremias, the prophet, was sanctified before he was born, and if the forerunner of Christ, St. John, was filled with the Holy Ghost: who will dare to say that Mary, in her conception, was deprived of the grace of the Holy Ghost?”
And again : “If God preserved the good Angels from sin, while others fell, could He not preserve His future mother from all sin? He had decreed from all eternity that she should become the Queen of Angels: how can we then believe that she was put lower than the Angels?”
And again: “My tongue dares not utter, and my mind is loath to think that Our Lady, who has been raised so high by the power of the Almighty, on whom the wisdom of the Most High bestowed so many graces, and whom the mercy of God chose as Mother, that she in her conception was burdened with sin, brought by jealousy into the world.”
St.Ildephonsus speaks as follows: “It is known that she was free from original sin, through whom not only the curse resting upon the children of Eve was dissolved, but through whom, also, blessing was imparted to all.”
Omitting other declarations, I will only add the words with which the learned and pious Thomas a Kempis addresses the Blessed Virgin: “Thou art most beautiful in thy Conception: thou who art created to be the tabernacle of the Most High! Thou art, O glorious Virgin, not only partly beautiful, but wholly. In thee is no spot of sin, neither of a venial, nor of a mortal, nor of original sin. Never has a spot been in thee, never will one cast a shadow upon thee!”
It is true that, according to the general law, all men descending from Adam are conceived and born in original sin. But could not He who gave this law, exempt Mary, as He exempted Her from other general laws? The law of God was given to Eve, for all mothers, in these words: “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” and yet Mary was excepted from this law, as she not only brought forth her Son without pain, but with inexpressible joy.
Assuerus, the King, had forbidden, under pain of death, that any one should come into his presence uncalled; but he excepted his beloved Esther from this command. “Not for thee, but for all others exists this command,” said he.
Why should we not believe that Christ the Lord exempted His mother from a general law, since He loved her more than Assuerus loved Esther? It is true, all men are conceived in original sin, according to the general law. Mary alone is exempted, by a special grace, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and Redeemer.
Jesus Christ redeemed all mankind, hence also Mary; but He redeemed Mary in a special and peculiar manner. “Other men,” says St. Bonaventure, “have been raised from their fall by the Saviour; but Mary has been upheld by Him, that she should not fall.”
And again: “He redeemed her from original sin, not as if she had been defiled by it; but He preserved her by an especial grace, so that she should not be stained by it.” In a similar manner David thanked the Lord for having released him from the sword of the wrathful Saul, by preserving him from it.
Hence, it is evident, as we have said before, that Mary was conceived without original sin. To teach the contrary was, in former times, forbidden by several decrees of the Apostolic See. At present, it would be an error against the Faith; for although the holy Church believes only what God has revealed, and what, from the beginning of Christianity, was taught by Christ and His Apostles, she does not always pronounce these truths in the same solemn and explicit manner.
The Apostles placed only twelve articles of faith in the general creed; but later, the errors which, at various times, were broached by heretics, required that the articles of faith should be more defined and made more explicit.
In regard to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was not a heresy against it that occasioned the solemn declaration, but the universal desire of the Christian world, and the many miracles which had taken place by invoking Mary’s assistance, in virtue of this prerogative.
The holy Father, Pius IX., found himself therefore, at last, induced to ask the opinion of the bishops of the entire Catholic World. Having obtained this, he invited many of them to Rome, where in the Church of St. Peter, on the 8th December, 1854, surrounded by two hundred Prelates of the Church, and a large number of the faithful, after invoking the Holy Ghost, the Pope, as successor of St. Peter, and head of the Church, with tears of emotion and piety, solemnly declared that, “It is a truth revealed by God that Mary was conceived without original sin.”
Rome and the entire Catholic World celebrated amid rejoicings this definition, so consoling to us and so glorious to the Blessed Virgin. We do not believe anything new by this, but we believe it now with that authority which the holy Church, built upon a rock, has given it as to an undoubted truth.
Hence, pay a special devotion to this article of faith, and honor it by saying the office of the Immaculate Conception, or at least to say a short prayer in honor of the Blessed Virgin every day.
Only one request more: Endeavor, above all things, by frequent invocations of the spotless Virgin, to obtain grace from God, to continue without sin, a life which you began in original sin, and to close it without sin, whenever it shall please the Almighty to call you.
To the faithful of the United States of America, this devotion is so much more earnestly to be recommended, as Mary in her Immaculate Conception has been solemnly chosen as their patroness, whom they are exhorted to invoke as their special advocate at the Throne of the Almighty.
I. The Blessed Virgin was exempted by special grace from original sin. Her soul was created in sanctifying grace, and constantly remained in it. Although you have not received a like favor, but were conceived and born in original sin, the merciful God ordained that you should be cleansed from it by holy baptism.
Thousands and thousands of persons had not this grace. They died, and daily die, in original sin without holy baptism. These can never go to heaven, as nothing unclean can enter there, if they have not at least desired to be baptized.
Why then has the Almighty conferred upon you, in preference to so many thousands of others, the grace of holy baptism? Why did He not let you die in original sin, like so many others?
Ah! There is no other cause to be found but the infinite mercy of God towards you. On this day, give fervent thanks to the Almighty for so great, so inestimable a grace which has drawn so many other graces after it, and will still draw many more.
But remember that baptism alone is not sufficient for salvation. “To holy baptism must be joined a Christian life,” says St. Augustine; “for he who said, ‘unless ye are born again of water and the Holy Ghost, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven,’ has also said, ‘If your justice is not greater than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye can in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
II. As the Blessed Virgin was exempted from original sin, so also did she remain free from all actual sin. She never offended God, and never lost the grace which she received in her Immaculate Conception. There are several Saints, who during their lives committed no great sin. It is also known, that many earnestly endeavored to avoid the least evil; but it is not known of any Saint that he never committed a venial sin, at least by imprudence or surprise.
Only of the Holy Mother are we assured that, by special grace, she remained free from all, even the slightest sin. How is it with you? How long did you preserve the sanctifying grace received at baptism?
No longer than until you committed your first mortal sin. And how soon after baptism, and how often have you been guilty of it! how horribly have you defiled your soul! Repent, today, with your whole heart, of your misdeeds; seek to cleanse your soul most perfectly from every stain of sin, and to keep it henceforth unspotted.
For those defiled with mortal sin, heaven will be closed as surely as for those who are not cleansed by baptism from original sin.
Pray today that the Immaculate Virgin may obtain for you from God the grace to cleanse your conscience perfectly, and to keep it pure in future. You can do nothing more agreeable to her, and you cannot more surely gain her protection, than by following her example, and guarding yourself against all sin.
“For,” says St. John of Damascus, “she abhors sin, and delights in virtue.”