On December 8, the universal Church celebrates with great joy and solemnity the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Having inquired of all the bishops and consulted the sensus fidei (the supernatural sense of the faith) of the Catholic faithful throughout the world as well as having investigated the Church’s rich doctrinal, liturgical, devotional, and scriptural tradition, Pope Pius IX exercised the extraordinary power of the Magisterium and infallibly declared ex cathedra the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. This dogma, which is required to be believed, accepted, and adhered to by all the Catholic faithful, states that from the first moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary enjoyed a singular privilege and grace from God and was preserved entirely from the stain of original sin. In a way that is unique to her alone, Our Blessed Mother benefited from the redemption of Jesus Christ by means of a prevenient grace. In other words, among every human being who has ever descended from Adam and Eve, Mary is the only one who did not inherit Original Sin or its effects such as concupiscence, a tendency towards sin. She was not born into slavery to sin, but was entirely free from the first moment of her existence. This does not mean that God removed Mary’s free will so that she would be incapable of sin or that He somehow coerced or compelled her into doing His will, but that Mary’s free will was always truly free in the most authentic sense. She has always been entirely free to love and serve almighty God with every fiber of her being. Whereas we sinful creatures depend upon God’s grace in Baptism and must struggle to remain in a state of grace throughout our lives in order to be sanctified from sin and liberated from the effects of sin, Mary was fully sanctified from the first moment of her existence. This singular grace was not granted to Mary because of her own merits, but as the gratuitous gift of God. God chose her to be the Mother of His Son and He prepared her from the beginning to receive such an honor.
Not only was Mary immaculately conceived without the stain of Original Sin, but she also lived her entire life dedicated to God without ever committing even the smallest sin against Him, which is a concept that is difficult for us wretched sinners to grasp. As Pope Pius IX says in his declaration of this dogma, any honor that we give to Mary passes through her and is ultimately directed to her Son Jesus Christ. We do not give honor and praise to Mary without automatically honoring and praising the one who redeemed her. Our Lady’s Magnificat (“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”) shows us that, out of humility, she directs to God all praise given to her. The Church gives such great honor to Mary because she is the perfect personification of the Church in her humility, holiness, charity, faith, and every other virtue. If we wish to know what it means to be a perfect disciple or if we are looking for a perfect model of discipleship of Jesus Christ, then we ought to look to Mary. She shows us the true meaning of obedience and what it means to say “Yes” to Jesus Christ at every moment of our lives.
Mary is also a Mother to us all and shows tender compassion towards her children in our human weaknesses. As she helps us to become more and more like her Son Jesus, she prays for us, lifts us up when we fall into sin, and cares for us in our woundedness just as a loving mother is solicitous for her children who fall and injure themselves. She does not abandon her children even when they fall into sin, but continues to love them and intercede for them.
Since we experience the effects of concupiscence in our daily lives and must constantly struggle with this tendency towards sin, it is difficult for us to imagine a person who is entirely without even the smallest sin. We cannot fathom someone who never entertained or given in to any temptations whatsoever. Even though we might believe in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, that does not necessarily make it easier to understand. However, we might find it fruitful to meditate upon the implications of Mary’s sinlessness so that we might examine ourselves and recognize the areas of our lives where we might strive more to imitate Mary’s example. For instance, there never was even a single instant of selfishness or self-centeredness in Mary’s entire life. Every single thought, word, and action of hers was directed wholly towards loving and serving God and neighbor. She never even committed a sin of omission, but always fulfilled her duties and responsibilities and to God and neighbor. She perfectly observed all the Jewish laws, commands, and ordinances and fulfilled the liturgical and ritual precepts. She never spoke an unkind word, never gossiped, lied, bore false witness, swore, or mocked anyone. She never lost her temper, was never envious of others, and was satisfied with the little amount of possessions and property she had. She did not complain when she and Joseph could only find a lowly stable in which to bring her Son into the world. She was more concerned with satisfying the needs of the poor, the aged, the widow, the powerless, the hungry, the foreigner, and the downtrodden than she was with satisfying her own selfish desires. She was merciful with those who wronged her and was perfectly patient when she had to suffer through difficult or unjust circumstances. She never reduced other people to objects to be used for her own power or pleasure but respected the dignity of every human person. She loved every single person as if she were loving herself.
There is so much more that could be said about Mary’s sinlessness and her perfect discipleship. Most of us have heard the expression, “What would Jesus do?”, which certainly has great merit to it. But another question we might ask ourselves as disciples of Jesus is, “What would Mary do?” If we wish to follow Jesus as his disciple and to make more disciples of Jesus through the work of evangelization, then it would make sense to seek to imitate the perfect disciple, Mary. She brilliantly shines forth the justice, mercy, and love of the Church in all her splendor, beauty, holiness, and tenderness. Our reflection upon Mary’s perfection in contrast with our own sinfulness should not lead us to discouragement and despair but should inspire us to hope. Mary stands as the ultimate beneficiary of God’s grace and how His grace can become active in our lives, if we would only humble ourselves and admit our sins, deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus, knowing confidently that Mary is with us every step of the way. We would eventually, God-willing, enter our heavenly homeland because we trusted wholeheartedly in the mercy and promises of God and allowed Him to get us there by His grace.
– Fr. Matthew Mary, MFVA