December 8th marks the celebration of the Immaculate Conception. This holy day of obligation is often a source of confusion for Christians around the world. Many Catholics mistakenly believe that this day recognizes the conception of Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That event is observed in March, nine months before Christmas, during the feast of Annunciation of the Lord.
The Immaculate Conception recognizes Saint Anne's conception of the Virgin Mary. Saint Anne and her husband Joachim desperately wanted a child and prayed feverishly that God would see fit to make them parents. They had all but lost hope when Anne miraculously became pregnant. The devout couple was so grateful for God's blessing that they vowed to consecrate Mary to God in the Temple as soon as she was old enough.
Despite common misconception, the term immaculate does not refer to the way in which Mary was conceived. In Biblical times, the world immaculate meant "without stain." The Bible tells us that, from the moment of her conception, God declared Mary immune from all stain of original sin. Wholly born by God's sanctifying grace, Mary was enriched with the purity and faith to eventually bear Christ. No other living person was ever granted the same honor by God.
A Doctrine Becomes Dogma
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception dates back to the seventh century. During this time, churches in the East began paying homage to Saint Anne and her daughter, Mary. The day was originally named The Feast of the Conception of Saint Anne. At this time in history, most Christians did not recognize the sanctity of the day. As discussion of Mary and her innate holiness traveled west, the feast day became more widely accepted and honored.
By the 11th century, churches across England, France, Germany and Italy were celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary every year on December 8th. On February 28, 1476, Pope Sixtus IV extended the feast to the entire Western Church, and in 1483 threatened to excommunicate any who opposed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. By the middle of the 17th century, all opposition to the doctrine had died out in the Catholic Church. In 1854, Pope Pius IX officially declared the Immaculate Conception a dogma of the Church. This declaration guarantees that all Catholics are bound to believe the teaching by faith.
Reverence for the Virgin Mother Mary extends across the globe. St. Thomas Aquinas referred to her as the holiest of all creatures. She was declared the Patroness of the United States of America in 1846, by the members of the Sixth Provincial Council of the Congress of Baltimore. Her image is depicted on church windows, talismans, paintings and statues around the world. Considered the paramount representation of purity and faith in the Catholic religion, it is fitting that the conception of the mother of Jesus Christ be honored with a feast day.
Celebrating the Immaculate Conception
The sanctity of this day centers on the belief that Mary was, by a special grace and honor of God, preserved free from all stain of original sin. This absence of sin is so unique, and so highly coveted by Christians, that it strikes awe and veneration in all of her followers. As such, the celebration of Mary's conception warrants a day of distinction.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception has been deemed a holy day of obligation by the Catholic Church. On this day, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in activities that hinder the worship owed to God. It is customary to attend Mass and, if possible, avoid participating in any servile work.
For many, the vigil of the Immaculate Conception includes lighting a special candle in Mary's honor. Prepare your altar by covering it with a white handkerchief. Place a Virgin Mary statue on the cloth, followed by a Virgin Mary Saint Candle. Anoint the candle with Saint Anne Oil. Light the candle and recite the following prayer:
O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, didst prepare a worthy dwelling place for thy Son, we beseech thee that, as by the foreseen death of this, thy Son, thou didst preserve her from all stain, so too thou wouldst permit us, purified through her intercession, to come unto thee. Through the same Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who livest and reignest with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
Carry a Virgin Mary prayer card or Virgin Mary medal with you to protect you and remind you of her patience and purity. Wear Virgin Mary perfume for spiritual cleansing and purification. Be sure to find time on December 8th to pay homage to the mother of our Savior.