Today 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.