The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary — December 8

Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception

At length, on the distant horizon, rises, with a soft and radiant light, the aurora of the Sun which has been so long desired. The happy Mother of the Messias was to be born before the Messias Himself; and this is the day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The earth already possesses a first pledge of the divine mercy; the Son of Man is near at hand. Two true Israelites, Joachim and Anne, noble branches of the family of David, find their union, after a long barrenness, made fruitful by the divine omnipotence. Glory be to God, Who has been mindful of His promises, and Who deigns to announce, from the high heavens, the end of the deluge of iniquity, by sending upon the earth the sweet white dove that bears the tidings of peace!

The Feast of the Blessed Virgin's Immaculate Conception is the most solemn of all those which the Church celebrates during the holy Season of Advent; and if the first part of the cycle had to offer us the commemoration of some one of the mysteries of Mary, there was none whose object could better harmonize with the spirit of the Church in this mystic season of expectation. Let us, then, celebrate this solemnity with joy; for the Immaculate Conception of Mary tells us that the Birth of Jesus is not far off.

The intention of the Church in this Feast is not only to celebrate the anniversary of the happy moment in which began, in the womb of the pious Anne, the life of the ever-glorious Virgin Mary; but also to honor the sublime privilege, by which Mary was preserved from the original stain, which, by a sovereign and universal decree, is contracted by all the children of Adam the very moment they are conceived in their mother's womb. The faith of the Catholic Church on the subject of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is this: that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, but rather was filled with an immeasurable grace which rendered Her, from that moment, the mirror of the sanctity of God Himself, as far as this is possible to a creature. The Church with Her infallible authority, declared, by the lips of Pope Pius IX, that this article of Her Faith had been revealed by God Himself. The Definition was received with enthusiasm by the whole of Christendom, and the 8th of December of the year 1854 was thus made one of the most memorable days of the Church's history.

It was due to His own infinite sanctity that God should suspend, in this instance, the law which His divine justice had passed upon all the children of Adam. The relations which Mary was to bear to the Divinity could not be reconciled with Her undergoing the humiliations of this punishment. She was not only Daughter of the Eternal Father; She was destined also to become the very Mother of the Son and the veritable Bride of the Holy Ghost. Nothing defiled could be permitted to enter, even for an instant of time, into the creature that was thus predestined to contract such close relations with the adorable Trinity; not a speck could be permitted to tarnish in Mary that perfect purity which the infinitely holy God requires even in those who are one day to be admitted to enjoy the sight of His Divine Majesty in Heaven; in a word, as the great Doctor St. Anselm says, "It was just that this Holy Virgin should be adorned with the greatest purity which can be conceived after that of God Himself, since God the Father was to give to Her, as Her Child, that Only-Begotten Son, Whom He loved as Himself, as being begotten to Him from His own bosom; and this in such a manner, that the selfsame Son of God was, by nature, the Son of both God the Father and this Blessed Virgin. This same Son chose Her to be substantially His Mother; and the Holy Ghost willed that in Her womb He would operate the conception and birth of Him from Whom He Himself proceeded."

The Church, even before the solemn proclamation of the grand dogma, kept the Feast of this 8th day of December; which was, in reality, a profession of Her faith. It is true the Feast was called simply the Conception of Mary. But the fact of such a feast being instituted and kept was an unmistakable expression of the faith of Christendom in that truth. St. Bernard and the Angelical Doctor, St. Thomas, both teach that the Church cannot celebrate the feast of what is not holy; the Conception of Mary, therefore, was holy and immaculate, since the Church has, for ages past, honored it with a special feast. The Nativity of the same Holy Virgin is kept as a solemnity in the Church, because Mary was born full of grace; therefore, had the first moment of Mary's existence been one of sin, as is that of all the other children of Adam, it never could have been made the subject of the reverence of the Church. Now there are few feasts so generally and so firmly established in the Church as this which we are keeping today.

The Greek Church, which, more easily than the Latin, could learn what were the pious traditions of the East, kept this Feast even in the 6th century, as is evident from the ceremonial or, as it is called, the Type, of St. Sabbas. In the West, we find it established in the Gothic Church of Spain as far back as the 8th century. A celebrated calendar which was engraved on marble, in the 9th century, for the use of the Church of Naples, attests that it had already been introduced there. Paul the Deacon, secretary to the Emperor St. Karl the Great, and afterwards monk at Monte Cassino, composed a celebrated hymn on the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. In 1066 the Feast was first established in England, in consequence of the pious Abbot Helsyn's being miraculously preserved from shipwreck; and shortly after that, was made general through the whole island by the zeal of the great St. Anselm, monk of the Order of St. Benedict, and Archbishop of Canterbury. From England it passed into Normandy, and took root in France. We find it sanctioned in Germany, in a Council held in 1049, at which Pope St. Leo IX was present; in 1090 at the Abbey of Irach in Navarre; in Belgium, at Li├Ęge, in 1142. Thus did the Churches of the West testify their faith in this mystery, by accepting its Feast, which is the expression of faith.

Lastly, it was adopted by Rome herself, and her doing so rendered the united testimony of her children, the other Churches, more imposing than ever. It was Pope Sixtus IV who, in the year 1476, published the Decree of the Feast of Our Lady's Conception for the city of St. Peter. In the next century, in 1586, Pope St. Pius V published the universal edition of the Roman Breviary, and in its calendar was inserted this Feast as one of those Christian solemnities which the faithful are every year bound to observe.

How Thy gentle light gladdens our wearied eyes, sweet Mother! Generation had followed generation on this earth of ours. Men looked up to Heaven through their tears, hoping to see appear on the horizon the star which they had been told should disperse the gloomy horrors of the world's darkness; but death came, and they sank into the tomb, without seeing even the dawn of the light, for which alone they cared to live. It is for us that God had reserved the blessing of seeing Thy lovely rising, O Thou fair Morning Star, which sheddest Thy blessed rays on the sea, and bringest calm after the long stormy night! O prepare our eyes that they may behold the Divine Sun which will soon follow in Thy path, and give to the world His reign of light and day. Prepare our hearts, for it is to our hearts that this Jesus of Thine wishes to show Himself. To see Him, our hearts must be pure: purify them, O Thou Immaculate Mother! The Divine Wisdom has willed that of the Feasts which the Church dedicates to Thee, this of Thy Immaculate Conception should be celebrated during Advent; that thus the children of the Church, reflecting on the jealous care wherewith God preserved Thee from every stain of sin because Thou wast to be the Mother of His Divine Son, might prepare to receive this same Jesus by the most perfect renunciation of every sin and of every attachment to sin. This great change must be made; and Thy prayers, O Mary, will help us to make it. Pray — we ask it of Thee by the grace God gave Thee in Thy Immaculate Conception — that our covetousness may be destroyed, our concupiscence extinguished, and our pride turned into humility. Despise not our prayers, dear Mother of that Jesus Who chose Thee for His dwelling-place, that He might afterwards find one in each of us.

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