The CEC Dominicans

December 8, 2009

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Bartolome Murillo's Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin MaryToday is the day that the Church has set aside to commemorate the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Typically the Church acknowledges the day that a saint is born into eternal life and, therefore, celebrated the day of their death, however there are a pair of days on the Church calendar that take note of a Holy One’s date of conception. We observer Our Lord’s conception on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th, twelve months before Christmas!) and we observe Our Lady’s conception today, December 8th.

In the “High Church” segments of the Anglican Communion, the day is officially “The Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The Roman-Catholics celebrate “The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Therein lies a great deal of controversy for more than one reason.

The doctrine itself may have begun originally in England and the earliest written reference we have to the Feast comes from the 10th century English writer Eadmer. After the Conquest in 1066, the Normans suppressed observance and the legitimacy of the Feast was hotly contested throughout the Middle Ages. The doctrine was defended primarily by Franciscans, especially St. John Duns Scotus. It is surprising for many to learn that the Dominicans, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, did not believe in the Immaculate Conception. He did, however, agree to accept what Holy Mother Church decided on the issue. Pope Sixtus IV made the observance a Universal Feast, but refused to define the doctrine as dogma and therefore granted Roman-Catholics the freedom to accept or refuse the teaching without fears of being labeled a heretic.

In 1845, Pope Pius IX promulgated the Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus. The document stated, “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.” From that point on for Roman-Catholics, at least officially speaking, the matter was settled. Declaring a tenet of the faith a dogma means that for all intents and purpose if one does not believe the dogma, they are outside of the faith. In order to be considered a Roman-Catholic, you must believe in the Immaculate Conception.

For Roman-Catholics there is no discussion on the matter. We, however, are obviously not Roman-Catholics. Yet we cannot simply dismiss every teaching of the Magisterium with a gallant charge of “Popery” either. At one point, many of us would have called vestments and the Real Presence “mere popery” as well. I have said before that we are all about rescuing the babies of the catholic faith from the bathwater thrown out by the Reformation. We, as Christians who profess to be part of the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, must endeavor to find whether a legitimate tenet of the Faith or an inappropriate addition to the faith (along the lines of Limbo or the sale of indulgences).

There are principally three Scriptures used as proof of the doctrine. These are Genesis 3:15; Song of Solomon 4:7; and St. Luke 1:28. According to Roman-Catholic interpretation, the “enmity” between the woman and the Devil spoken of in that passage refers to the fact that the woman who would ultimately fulfill the prophecy, the Mother of God, would never be subject to sin and corruption and, thus, always at odds with the Devil. That certainly is one way of interpreting the passage, but it is far from a necessary interpretation. Likewise, Song of Songs 4:7 reads, “You are fair my love, and there is no spot in you.” “Spot” in that passage is macula in the underlying Latin. Being without stain or spot or blemish (of sin) would make one “Immaculate,” hence the name of the feast. However, once again, although the reading is possible, it is by no means the only way of interpreting the verse. The same may be said of the passage from the Gospel according to Saint Luke where Roman-Catholic interpreters take “Full of Grace” to mean “conceived without original sin.” All three of these passages might be read to support the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or they might be read otherwise. Scriptural evidence is, in short, non-conclusive.

Arguments from the Church Fathers are abundant but not entirely persuasive. Similarly, the arguments from reason are not entirely conclusive. The primary argument from reason suggest that if God had the power to preserve His mother from sin, and it was fitting that He do so, then clearly He would do it. After all, they assert, if you could preserve your mother from all corruption, wouldn’t you?

The history of the doctrine becomes far more interesting in 1858 when a young French girl reported seeing a young woman while gathering firewood. She would have around seventeen encounters with the woman whom, two years later, the Roman-Catholic bishops would officially declare was, in fact, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Of significance to this issue is the fact that on one of their encounters, the Blessed Virgin Mary declared “I am the Immaculate Conception.” It is truly is the case that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, that would seem to settle it. After all, if the Blessed Virgin Mary herself says, “I was conceived immaculately,” who are we to argue?
It seems as though the issue of how we should address the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary depends largely on how much credence one may place on private revelation. Did Bernadette really see the Blessed Virgin Mary? Did the Blessed Virgin Mary really say, “I am the Immaculate Conception”? If we cannot base doctrine on the Apocrypha, can we base it on private interpretation? I would love for the scholars of the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church to address this issue. I’m not convinced, however, it’s made the top ten list just yet.

Almighty God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin did make her a worthy habitation for Your Son and did by His foreseen death preserve her from all stain of sin: grant, we beseech You, that aided by her intercession, we may live in your presence without sin: We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.   Amen.



  1. Good information. I like the Anglican view since I am not convinced there is enough informaiton to justify the imaculate conception. Jesus is fully God and fully man. If He is fully man then He must get that humanness from someone, and that someone would have to be Mary. Since the fall, have we not all been subjected to the fallenness brought about by Adam’s sin? I believe it was Paul who said “all have fallen short of the glory of God.” If Mary was human, and she was, is not sin part of her nature as well? What about “original sin?” Where would it come into play? Much to think about. Help me out Fr. Scott.

    Fr. Bob +

    Comment by Fr. Bob — December 9, 2009 @ 2:13 am | Reply

  2. I hope that I made it clear that I was still a little up in the air on the issue myself. The Roman-Catholic argument about that passage goes something along these lines: St. Paul did say that “all have sinned an fallen short of the glory.” (Rom 3:23) It makes no explicit exception for Jesus, but we know from Hebrew that He was like us in all ways, yet without sin. Clearly, they say, Paul meant “all”… except Jesus. If, again they say, if an exception exists for Jesus, then why not for His mother.

    Beyond that, I think that a strong case could be made that “sin” is not a part of our human nature but rather a stain upon our nature. Therefore you could pass along full humanity without passing on sin. If, just as an out there example, Our Lord had married and had a child, He could have passed along fully and unadulterated humanity without passing along any sin. Right? I know it’s an out there example, but…

    Original sin is another HUGE issue that also underlies the theology of the Immaculate Conception. If sin or original sin is not passed on in some quasi-genetic way, then the state of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s soul is no longer such an issue.

    I wish I had a lot of good answers for you. I hope you have better answers for me when the bishop gets to town than I have for you now.


    Comment by sjl+ — December 9, 2009 @ 3:30 am | Reply

  3. I probably should stop here while it is still safe, but why not be adventurous. Let us continue our discussion with sin.

    We are told that through one man (Adam) sin entered the world and then spread to all men since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
    That sin affected not only mankind but also the whole earth. As through one man sin entered, also through one man (Jesus) sin was delt a mortal blow, since “by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

    Now for my thought. Was Jesus sinless because He was God or was He sinless because He chose to be? If He was sinless because He was God would that not make His sacrifice less than perfect? However if He was sinless because He chose to be “obedienct unto death” would that not make His sacrifice a more perfect one? We know that it is through “choice” that love is perfectly demonstrated. Is it through choice that “sacrifice” is made perfect?

    Plese don’t answer with “it’s a mystery” since that is mine to use next Thursday.
    God Bless you and yours,
    Fr. Bob+

    Comment by Fr. Bob — December 10, 2009 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

  4. So, while I was in Seminary a bunch of us were sitting out on someone’s porch ranting theologically over cocktails. One class-mate, a bit of a Calvinist at heart, declared “Jesus had no choice but to die on the cross; it was predestined.” Maybe it was the liquor talking. The next thing I know another class-mate has lept out of his seat and is, literally, hopping up and down in a circle screaming, “You can’t say that!” I think it was around Christmas time.

    My friend had such an adverse reaction to the statement because free-will is absolutely essential to Christ’s sacrifice. It He were unable to sin, if He lacked the capacity to, then there was no challenge in his overcoming sin. He had to be able to sin, so that resisting sin was something that he chose to do. Just as we had to have free-will in order for our choice to love God to be authentic and of worth, Jesus had to be able to sin (and chose not to) in order that His sacrifice would have real worth and merrit. Our Lord chose to obey, even unto death. That choice to suffer death is what undid the curse that came when Adam chose to eat of the forbidden fruit. Choice is an essential element of the equation here.

    Does that answer your question?


    Comment by sjl+ — December 11, 2009 @ 6:35 pm | Reply

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