O Mary, Conceived Without Sin, Pray for Us Who Have Recourse to Thee

‘The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things…’

Diego Velázquez, “Immaculate Conception,” 1618
Diego Velázquez, “Immaculate Conception,” 1618 (photo: Public Domain)

Catholics in the United States observe Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, as a holy day of obligation. (We celebrate the Nativity of Mary on Sept. 8, i.e., nine months hence). I fear many of them are unclear about what is the meaning of what they are observing.

When we speak of the “Immaculate Conception,” we are speaking of the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, not of Jesus. We are speaking about Mary, conceived of Anna and Joachim, not Jesus, “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,” as we profess in the Creed. 

(This is separate and distinct from what we call the “Virgin Birth,” i.e., the fact that Mary, without loss of her virginity, gave birth to Jesus Christ. I make this point because the Gospel used for this feast is actually about the Annunciation of the Virgin Birth, not about the Immaculate Conception. Perhaps that confuses some people. The Immaculate Conception is alluded to in Scripture and grounded in Tradition, but there is no Gospel about it per se.)

Mary was kept free, by God’s grace, of the stain of sin. On this feast, we need to recall some basic truths, not so much about Mary as about ourselves.

All human persons but for Jesus and Mary are sinners. Jesus is the God-Man; Mary was preserved from sin by God’s grace. 

The fact that all other human beings are sinners does not mean that sin is somehow “natural” or “part of our human nature.” It is neither. God did not create us as sinners. We chose that all by ourselves.

Just because a phenomenon is widespread does not mean it is normal. Well, wait — that depends on how you define “normal.” If you mean “normal” in relation to a statistical “norm,” I guess something as widespread as sin is “normal.” After all, all but two members of humanity are affected by it.

But when the Church speaks of “normal,” she does not mean “statistically frequent.” She means what is normal in the sense of proper functioning, the way things are supposed to be and to work. Hearts are supposed to beat. That’s normal. If we abuse them and clog up our arteries, causing them to fail, that’s not normal heart function (even if it is statistically normal, given the typical American diet). A normally functioning heart beats and circulates blood.

In that sense, sin is not normal, regardless of how widespread it is. That’s not how the human person was supposed to be.

So, when we consider Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception, we can look at this mystery in one of two ways. We can see it as a special privilege of hers, which it was. God loved no other human being more than Mary.

But we can also see it as showing us what we were supposed to be. We can see Mary not (just) as unique and privileged, but as a real, living and breathing example of what humans beings should have been like but for sin

St. John Paul II often quoted the Second Vatican Council that “Jesus Christ fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” Perhaps we do not really appreciate the radicalness of what Vatican II taught and John Paul repeated. Vatican II did not say “Jesus Christ fully reveals God to man,” a statement that is true and been taught by the Church from the beginning. Vatican II does not deny that truth. But it asks us to look at Jesus, who is “true God and true man,” from a different angle. As God, Jesus shows us who God is. But, as man, Jesus shows us what real humanity — humanity free of the stain of sin — is.

We can take that teaching one step further. Mary, as the Immaculate Conception, also shows us what a human being should be and, by her fiat, makes clear our calling as disciples of the Lord. To look at Mary is not, then, to think only of how God specially graced her, but also at how she is a model for the kind of life that is truly human.

Unfortunately, because of sin, man cannot live that life by his own power. We speak of sin as “spiritual death,” and while we can all kill ourselves, physically and/or spiritually, none of us can give back the life we freely threw away. Only God can do that. Only God can forgive sin … or give us the grace to avoid all sin. 

God gave Mary a very special and unique grace in the Immaculate Conception. 

Jesus is God and Man. Mary’s holiness is the gift of God’s grace. Our own holiness, however partial it may be in comparison to Mary’s, is likewise the gift of God’s grace.

That is why we invoke Mary as “conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.”

That is why, when Mary appeared at Lourdes in 1858, she called herself the “Immaculate Conception.” Her message to Bernadette Soubirous was “penance.”

When we understand what the Immaculate Conception means, we can also understand why its natural accompaniment is penance. As one free of the slavery of sin, Mary knew just how toxic sin was. So she calls her sons and daughters — her children committed to her by her Son (John 19:27) – to do their part so God can do his part, i.e., forgive us, because she wants to save us from what destroys us.

Not only should we all individually have recourse to “Mary, conceived without sin,” but remember that our country is also under Mary’s patronage under that title.

Today’s feast is depicted in art by the Spanish master, Diego Velázquez, who painted it in 1618 in Seville. Although Pope Pius IX formally proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, it had been believed in the Church for many centuries before (dogmas don’t just fall out of nowhere), and seemed especially popular in 17th-century Seville. He was a Baroque painter who was a particular master of contrast between light and darkness, evident in this painting. Art historians say it was painted along with a painting of St. John on Patmos. The painting hangs today in the National Gallery in London.

Mary mirrors the “woman” described in Revelation 12:1, “clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The vision is described as a “great sign,” and clearly it is in its eschatological import — just two weeks away, on the First Sunday of Advent, we were told about the “great signs in the heavens, the sun and moon” connected with Christ’s Second Coming. Since, for God, “a thousand years are like a day in [his] sight” (Psalm 90:4) — a poetic way of saying that all time that we call past, present and future is simply “present” for God — we are very much living in that space of the final days, bookended on one side by Christ’s Resurrection that sets the redemption of the universe in motion and his Second Coming that accomplishes it. (Incidentally, some of these same signs were revealed by Our Lady to St. Catherine Labouré when she called for striking of the Miraculous Medal.)

Velázquez’s Mary is clothed with the sun, standing atop the moon, and crowned with twelve stars. The clouds in the sky are not just “landscaping.” In the Old Testament, clouds serve to cloak the Divine Glory, so Mary is depicted in this eschatological pose against the background of heaven (to which she would be assumed and crowned queen). But her gaze downwards, in humility and towards the earth at the bottom of Velázquez’s painting, is tied up with her hands lifting them up to heaven in prayer. She prays for us, especially if have recourse to her, and especially now and at the hour of our death.

So …

… it’s Advent, a time when we focus on the sin that hinders our life and the need for penance to repair that. That is what the Immaculate Conception is about, an especially appropriate feast to get us ready for the roughly two weeks left so that this Mother can lead us to her Son at Christmas.