The Significance of the Immaculate Conception

The Catholic Church has believed in Mary’s freedom from sin for millennia.

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), “The Immaculate Conception”
Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), “The Immaculate Conception” (photo: Public Domain)

Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception Dec. 8 as a holyday of obligation. What we are celebrating is perhaps a little more obscure.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception affirms that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without stain of original sin. The dogma refers to Mary, not to Jesus (even though it is the story of Jesus’ conception that is featured in the Gospel for the Solemnity).

How does this dogma fit into Catholic theology?

St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941), the Polish saint who gave his life for another man by volunteering to take his place in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz, was particularly devoted to the Immaculate Conception. His monthly publication and the movement he inspired was the “Knights of the Immaculata.”

Catholics the world over can now get a better sense of the richness of Kolbe’s thought, thanks to Nerbini International of Lugano, Switzerland. It has recently published a two volume collection, The Writings of Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe. Volume II (over 2,500 pages) contains translations of his writings. (Volume I is a collection of his correspondence.)

Kolbe’s explanation of the importance of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception deserves our attention.

God the Father loves from eternity. His Love can only find an eternal response appropriate to Him, i.e., the Son. From the Love of Father and Son for each other “proceeds” the Holy Spirit. God’s Love and His Being are one and the same.

So why is it that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary?

Because He is nothing less than the Love of God, proceeding from the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is the fruitfulness of God’s Love, of Father for Son and Son for Father. This is why we confess the Holy Spirit as “the Lord and Giver of Life.” It was the “Spirit of God” that breathed upon the waters (Genesis 1:2).

God’s Love, the Holy Spirit, gives life at the beginning of creation, and gives life at the beginning of the new creation in the womb of Mary. And just as the love of the Father and Son for each other leads to the Holy Spirit, who “proceeds” for them (words which begin to crack when we recognize we are applying them to categories of eternity), so the Holy Spirit begins the work that leads man back to the Father.

For it is the Spirit Love of God that conceives the Son, and the Son who, by His death and resurrection, reconciles man to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit upon humanity to continue that work of sanctification.

But He did it through Mary for—as St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort notes—the Holy Spirit realizes His fertility not within the Trinity (since He neither begets any divine Person nor does one proceed from Him) but, with Mary, in fashioning the human nature of Jesus. It’s not that the Spirit needs Mary to express His life-giving lordship but, with her, He reveals God’s radical desire to make humanity in God’s own image in a supernatural way that man could never have conceived (see 1 Corinthians 2:9). He gives life to the Divine-human Person of Jesus Christ, who leads His brothers and sisters into a filial relationship to the Father that Adam could never have imagined (Romans 8:15). That’s what we mean by felix culpa!

The Spirit is the Love of the Father and the Son, “the love with which God loves Himself, the love of the whole Most Holy Trinity, fruitful love, conception.” If marital love leads to “two in one flesh,” then how much more intimate is that perfect love, perfectly accepted by the human being Mary, which “makes her fruitful, and that from the first moment of her existence for her whole life, i.e., forever” (II, 2302).

And since the Holy Spirit is the agent of human sanctification (remember, we are made into Temples of the Holy Spirit [1 Corinthians 6:19] who prays in us [Romans 8:26]), is it not fitting that His Spouse should be an intercessor for our salvation?  Jesus gives us Mary as His Mother (John 19:27), but the Holy Spirit gives us Mary as she who, with Him, is concerned for our sanctification. “Mary, as the Bride of the Holy Spirit, and therefore high above every created perfection, thoroughly accomplishes the will of the Holy Spirit who dwells in her, and that from the first moment of her conception” (II, 2135).

For if, through her, Mary’s Spouse launches the work of sanctification by the conception of Jesus, then Mary—free of the stain of sin—is no indifferent bystander to that work. Making her will His, she cannot not be joined to the battle against sin and death that her Son’s life, death and resurrection will win.

“And so, in the return to God, the equal and opposite reaction proceeds in the opposite way to that of creation. In the case of creation, [all comes] from the Father through the Son and the Spirit, while here, through the Spirit, the Son becomes incarnate in the womb of her and, through Him, love returns to the Father. She then, woven into the love of the Most Blessed Trinity, becomes from the first moment of her existence, forever, eternally, the complement to the Most Holy Trinity” (II, 2302).

The Immaculate Conception is something I suggest is particularly important right now in our American context.

The Church in the United States, which is under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception, has been rocked by the fetid scandal of sexual abuse and homosexual acts of the clergy. Sordid revelations of clerical behavior have become, in this 2018 Summer of Shame, practically a daily affair. If there was ever a time for our Episcopate to exercise moral backbone, it should start with rededicating this local Church to its patroness to whom we should have immediate recourse.

While the formal dogma of the Immaculate Conception may date only from 1854, the Church herself has believed in Mary’s freedom from sin for millennia (see, e.g., Kolbe’s account of his fellow Franciscan Duns Scotus’ role in defending the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: II, 1899-1903). While too many Catholics seem like Jesus’ Samaritans who, when it comes to the Immaculate Conception, honor “what [they] do not know” (John 4:22), and while some theologians have been prone to downplay the dogma in the name of ecumenical peace and quiet, the significance of the Immaculate Conception is particularly important for our day. This is no dry, theological proposition. As Kolbe shows us, it represents nothing less than the possibilities of man when God’s Love and man’s response are perfectly aligned. On that, a little Jewish girl can teach us a lot.