This coming Monday, December 9th, the universal Church will celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Though not a Holyday of Obligation this year because it has been transferred from its traditional December 8th observance, nonetheless, it is the day when we honor Our Lady as patroness of the United States. It’s also the feast day of our Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Sister Elizabeth Hałaj and Sister Elizabeth Kulesa.
So, if you miss Mass Monday, there is no serious sin committed this year. However, if you do come, I shall commend you for your fine loyalty and devotion to our Blessed Mother, and I assure you that she cannot fail to hear the prayers of her faithful sons and daughters and will entrust them to her own beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The observance of this solemnity originated in the 7th century – a feast which was first known as the “Conception of Mary by Saint Anne,” highlighting the fact that this mystery celebrates the dogma (firm Church teaching) that Mary was conceived without original sin (and not that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, as some people mistakenly believe). It was Pope Clement XI who established this solemnity for the entire Church in 1708. Then, about 140 years later, Pope Pius IX, in his apostolic letter, “Ineffabilis Deus,” wrote that God filled Mary “with the greatest abundance of His heavenly gifts, and her participation in the divine nature exceeds that of all the angels and saints together. Her life reflects so great a fullness of innocence and sanctity that a more exalted creature cannot be conceived of, except in the Creator Himself.” Saint John Paul, in his address of December 8, 1982, said that we look up to Mary “as on a Star that guides us, shining through the dark clouds of human uncertainty. The annual Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception shrines bright from within the background of the Advent liturgy. We contemplate Our Lady in the plan of salvation as the ‘Gate of Heaven’ through which the Redeemer comes into the world.”
To us, this may seem almost like celebrating a “non-event” or a very little appreciated event – a theological peculiarity, particularly in light of the earthiness of this season, the earthiness of a poor couple wandering about, in search of a home for the King of the Glory, who is silently insinuating Himself through the power of the Holy Spirit into the womb of a poor Jewish girl. But, the feast may seem more relatable to us if we have a pretty firm image of St. Ann and St. Joachim, the old couple whose life was incomplete without the little girl who would be their destiny and the destiny of the nations and the ages to come.
When we mark this solemnity, we celebrate a spark, a moment in time when the world was changed forever. We celebrate something different – not something that was. We celebrate what will be, and what we can become. What do we want to become? We all say that we want to be good, but sometimes we find it to be quite a struggle. We want to be holy, but sometimes it’s difficult to resist temptation. That’s why I recommend praying constantly the Hail Mary prayer – even without rosary beads in hand. It’s Mary who teaches us, in a motherly way, to listen to Jesus, just as she instructed the waiters at the wedding feast in Cana: “Whatever He tells you, do it!”
God saw fit to invite the Blessed Virgin Mary to become someone greater. God sees us as fitting to become greater. He invites us just as he did the Blessed Mother. This feast is about a simple spark, a moment in time in which everything was changed forever.
Will this feastday mean anything to us? Will we turn our lives over to God like Ann and Joachim did, like Mary did, like the baby Jesus did? Will we see our brothers and sisters around us, our family members, our coworkers, our fellow Catholics, even complete strangers and think about opening ourselves to them? Will we give our hearts, freely to God, freely to one another, those known and unknown? That is what we celebrate in the solemn feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception – the possibility of being open to what God desires to do with us and for us. Whatever God calls us to do, know and trust that it will be something great, just as He did for his own mother, Mary.