The dogma of the Immaculate Conception wasn’t made up by Pope Pius XI in 1854, when he solemnly defined it. As early as the 5th Century, there was recorded discussion of the matter. St. Augustine opposed it because he believed that original sin was transmitted by human biological reproduction, and therefore Mary must have inherited it along with everybody else except Jesus who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. But alongside that theological belief there was also growing in East and West a liturgical celebration of the Conception of Mary. In the 15th Century the Feast was promulgated for the whole Church, without defining it as a dogma. In 1661 Pope Alexander VII stated that “Mary, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ her son … was preserved intact from the stain of original sin,” citing the consensus of the Christian people. So it was no novelty when Pius IX declared that that doctrine is “a doctrine revealed by God” which all the faithful are obliged to believe.
The scriptures assigned to the Mass for the Solemnity, December 8, situate Mary within salvation history.
Our first reading — Genesis 3:9-15, 20 — tells the aftermath of the first sin. Most significant for this feast is what is called the “protoevangelium,” the first gospel. The offspring of the woman would strike at the head of the serpent. While this can be read in a generic sense, it makes sense to read it as addressed to the one who tempted Adam and Eve, the devil, and for there to be a specific individual offspring, namely Jesus, who overcomes the devil.
Reflecting on Jesus who overcomes the sin of Adam and restores humanity — the second Adam — leads to the thought of a second Eve, who is the mother of the restored humanity, namely Mary, as Jesus said to John, “Behold your mother.”
In verses 1-4 of Psalm 98, we rejoice at God’s marvelous work of saving us, his people.
The second reading — Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12 — gives us another expression if the idea we see implied in the protoevagelium of Genesis: God planned from all eternity to save us through the work of Jesus Christ. Mary’s salvation is through her son, not independent of him. Her role in the unfolding of God’s plan is a part of that plan.
The gospel presents the scene of the Annunciation. (Because this passage refers to the conception of Jesus, some people get confused and think this feast is about Jesus’ conception by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, but it isn’t. It’s about the conception of Mary without original sin ever touching her soul.) As in the other readings, Mary’s significance comes from her role in the events of her and our salvation. Two phrases point to her immaculate conception. The angel addresses her as “full of grace.” If we take this literally, it means that there is no deficiency in her spirit, no element where grace is lacking. But original sin would have been a lack of grace. Then Mary characterizes herself as “the handmaid of the Lord.” We see this statement as absolutely true. Others of us may be imperfect servants or handmaids of the Lord, but she was the perfect handmaid of the Lord: her will in unbroken accord with his because it was unstained by original sin.
This passage is not an logical syllogism proving the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but it corroborates it, and it is one of the passages, along with the one from Genesis and others, which formed the basis for the theological reflection which led to the development of the doctrine within the Church under the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And is there a lesson for us? Sometimes, we just rejoice in what God has done to save us, and I think that should be our primary focus: praise and thanksgiving. But we also learn that grace can overcome all sin. We can have forgiveness for our past sins; but beyond that, we are under no compulsion to sin. God’s grace is sufficient to enable us to avoid sin. We need to accept and cooperate with that grace.