What is meant by the “Immaculate Conception?”

The Immaculate Conception is a teaching of the church that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception. This is not a teaching found in the New Testament, which contains no stories about the conception, birth or childhood of Mary. It developed in the Middle Ages, as a way of better understanding Mary’s special role as the Mother of God. It was finally declared to be a dogma of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

The feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated on December 8 and is one of the special holy days of the Church calendar. In the early 19th century the bishops of the United States declared Mary to be our patron under the title of the Immaculate Conception.

The meaning of this teaching is not to be found in biology but in the realm of the spiritual. While the gospels do not speak of Mary’s conception, the gospel of Luke says a great deal about Mary as a person who has been blessed. Just as Jesus experienced in the coming of the Holy Spirit an awareness that he was the beloved son of God; so Mary hears the angel Gabriel speak of her as the “favored one” and the one whom “The Lord is with” (Luke 1:28).

Gabriel assures Mary that she has “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). When she then visits her cousin Elizabeth, the latter’s greeting to Mary is “most blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:42). Elizabeth echoes this in her greeting. “blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45). In her great prayer in response to Elizabeth’s words, Mary exclaims “from now on all ages will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49).

The message is that Mary has received a grace from God that she has done nothing to merit or earn but with which she has been freely gifted. This is a grace that will support her in carrying out the mission that God has in store for her. Yet it is also quite clear in Luke’s gospel that God allows Mary the freedom to accept or refuse this great plan for which God has created her. Her generous acceptance confirms her grace-filled spirit, and the special relationship she has with God. Matthew F. Kohmescher, in his book Catholicism Today: A Survey of Catholic Belief and Practice (Paulist Press, 1999) states that “Mary was conceived in the state of friendship with God. She was never in a state of non-friendship.”

The feast of the Immaculate Conception reminds us of the special favor that Mary received, and that this was an anticipation of the redemption that Christ would accomplish for all. We, too, have been loved into existence by God, and have received the gift of faith and the gift of God’s grace we have done nothing of ourselves to merit. So we can truly say with Mary “The Lord has done great things for me.”