(Pg. 38-42) December the Eight – The Immaculate Conception [entire chapter from Christ on the Altar]
Let us celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Let us adore Christ the Lord, her Son.
By a providential dispensation of God, the Church celebrates the anniversary of the Immaculate Conception only a few days before the solemnity of Christmas; for it is an excellent preparation for the Christmas Communion to recall to our minds the dignity of the Blessed Virgin and the privileges which were granted to her.
Mary was the daughter of St. Anne and of St. Joachim, who on account of their virtue were found worthy to bring forth such a child. During the first twenty years of their married life Joachim and Anne lived at Sephoris in Galilee, and God, Who is pleased to try His friends, had not granted them any children. St. Anne was barren. At last it pleased their Creator to hear their prayers, to reward their alms and their fastings. It was revealed to them that a child should be born to them, who would be the admiration of all future generations. Joachim and Anne then moved from Galilee to Judea, and dwelt in a house which they owned in Jerusalem.
This house, situated near the pond named Probatica, was north of the walls of that very large square which was called the Temple.
Mary was born at Jerusalem, in that house of her parents. When she was three years of age, Joachim and Anne, in compliance with their promise made to God and with the full consent of their daughter, took her to the Temple, where, consecrating herself irrevocably to the service of God, in soul and body, she spent her time in prayer, the study of the Scriptures, and in doing such work as was suitable to her sex and position. After about ten years spent in the Temple, the Blessed Virgin was given in marriage to St. Joseph, a just man, who like his saintly spouse had made to God a vow of chastity. This blessed couple, the most holy that ever lived in this world, went to live at Nazareth, and here Mary received the message of the archangel Gabriel. The history of this great event is thus related in the Gospel of this day:
“At that time the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, and the name of the virgin was Mary. And the angel being come in, said to Mary: Hail full of grace: the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou amongst women.”
At Nazareth, in the humble dwelling of Joseph, the Word of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, took unto Himself a body like unto our own, in the womb of Mary, as soon as she pronounced the words, “Be it done to me according to thy word.” Nine months after, Mary brought forth the infant God at Bethlehem; and from this day, – a day more memorable than that of the creation of the world, – from the day of the birth of her Son, Mary lived with or accompanied Jesus till the hour He died on the cross, thirty-three years after His nativity at Bethlehem.
Thirteen years after the death of Jesus Christ, Mary herself died, and was carried body and soul into heaven by the hands of angels.
Such is in substance the life of the holy Mother of God. But what of her Immaculate Conception, which this festival commemorates?
The creation of Mary, says St. John Damascene, was a far more important work than the creation of the world; for this world was created for the use and abode of man, but Mary was created to be the mother of Him whom the world cannot contain; and yet the Holy Scripture relates most minutely the works of Almighty God during that lapse of time which we call the six days of creation. When He had ceased to create, it is said, that He saw that His works were very good, and His angels praised Him when He had created the stars, and proclaimed His glory. When it came to the creation of man, God is represented as pausing, as it were, before He brought him into existence. “Let us make man to Our own image and likeness.” And again, when Almighty God had breathed the breath of life into the face of Adam, He placed him in a paradise of pleasure, when He had planted. The first man was indeed the representation of God in this world, and for him and for his descendants the world was created, with all the wonders which it contained. But Mary was to be the dwelling where the Son of God was to reside, and as a consequence that temple, that living temple, was to be sanctified. Mary was to be the most holy of all beings, present, past, or even possible. And now the first step of Almighty God in creating her was to preserve her from the stain of original sin. Although all other descendants of Adam were conceived in iniquity, she was not for a moment under the power of Satan.
That the mother of Jesus Christ was always pure, we know first from the words of the Scripture and of the holy Fathers:
She is the daughter of Sion, all beautiful and sweet; she is the one all fair, in whom there is no spot; she is an incorruptible branch, which the worm of sin never injured. A fountain ever clear; an earth entirely untouched, undefiled, ever blessed, free from all contagion of sin; from which was formed the New Adam.
She was always in light, and never in darkness. She was wrapped in light as with a garment. She was innocent, and most innocent; immaculate, and most immaculate; most distant from every stain of sin, having come into the world all shining like the moon in her Immaculate Conception.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception might be inferred from the words of the archangel to the Blessed Virgin: “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” For if Mary was full of grace she must have received all the blessings which she was capable of receiving; and since she was saluted by the archangel, he must be inferior to Mary: and yet all the angels of heaven were created entirely free from sin. Although the mother of God was always believed to have been conceived immaculate, the doctrine was not declared as an article of faith until December 8, 1854.
The festival of the Immaculate Conception was celebrated a long time before the definition, however. Churches had been reared under that title to the honor of God; devotions public and private had been instituted in honor of Mary Immaculate, and innumerable graces had been obtained by invoking the patronage of Mary conceived without sin. The sentiments of Catholics are the same all over the world concerning the sacred relations which Almighty God would have to exist between Jesus Christ and His mother. They, the members of the Church, could not harbor, even for a moment, the idea that sin ever infected the soul of Mary.
Indeed, whoever will consider the intimate relations which existed between the Son and the Mother must reject the thought of sin when there is question of Mary. It was the blood of Mary which was to animate the body of her Son: would you admit that this precious blood, which was to cleanse the world, was defiled in its source?
After the Incarnation of her Son, Mary was for some time the only being appointed by Almighty God to adore on earth the Son of God, made man for love of us.
And again for many months Our Blessed Lord, contained in the womb of Mary, had only one person on earth with whom He could converse, and that person was Mary. When we consider these things we rejoice to know that millions of men every day join with the angel Gabriel in saying, “Hail Mary, full of grace;” but the joy of the Church was universal and admirable beyond description when, on the 8th of December, 1854, the great Pontiff, Pius IX., surrounded by four hundred bishops of the Church, “declared, pronounced, and defined that the doctrine which holds that the blessed Virgin Mary, at the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, was preserved free from the stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.”
I fancy that when the above lines are read by my devout Catholics they will be encouraged for the rest of their lives to call upon Mary conceived without sin, and that they will reverently raise their eyes towards the statue of the Immaculate Mother whenever they enter their parish church.
Let them not fear to do so, but let them also turn their eyes from the image of our Immaculate Mother to the tabernacle and to the altar. On the altar during the holy sacrifice, at the voice of the priest, there takes place a renewal, as it were, of the Incarnation; for after the consecration He is really present there as He was in the womb of Mary, or in the shop of Joseph at Nazareth, and when you receive Communion the priest gives you the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ: you receive the true body born of the Virgin Mary. If you turn your attention to the chalice it will remind you more strikingly of the blood shed for mankind, whose virtue preserved the soul of Mary from sin in the very first moment of her conception.
That same blood it was which cleansed your soul in holy baptism and in the other sacraments of the Church, and opened for you the gate of heaven. Then when you receive holy Communion it may be said of you in truth, that you share the blessedness of the Virgin, “The Lord is with you;” that “He Who is powerful has done great things to you.” Fear not to raise your eyes and your thoughts from the tabernacle or the Communion table to the image of Mary. Jesus Christ, Whom you receive in Communion, is He who made her, your Mother, Immaculate and all-powerful by her prayers. It is His will that you remember her, that you implore her protection. When you look up to the image of Mary, say: “Holy Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” When you kneel at the foot of the tabernacle, say: “O Thou Who takest away the sins of the world! have mercy on us.” On the day of the Immaculate Conception no invocations can be more appropriate than the following:
Blessed be God!
Blessed be His holy Name!
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man!
Blessed be the Name of Jesus!
Blessed be Jesus in the most holy sacrament of the altar!
Blessed be the great Mother of God, Mary, most holy!
Blessed be her holy and Immaculate Conception!
Blessed be the name of Mary, Virgin and Mother!
Blessed be God in His angels and His saints!