Today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
The question immediately arises -- What is the "Immaculate Conception"?
Very simply, the doctrine states that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the “New Eve,” who was redeemed and given the life of the fullness of grace from the first moment of her existence, such that she was preserved from Original Sin at her conception. And, as noted in the prior posting on the Assumption of Mary, each of the four Marian doctrines are interrelated.
Why should Mary have been immaculately conceived?
When he appears to Mary, the angel calls her "Full of Grace," as if that were her name. "Full of grace" describes not only who she is, but what she is. It was the fullness of grace that gave Mary the total freedom, unimpaired by the errors of sin, to say “yes” to God, in the fullness of her being, at the Annunciation and throughout her life. In this way, Mary could be a proper and pure “living temple” for the Son of God in her womb. “She is the living house of God, who does not dwell in buildings of stone but in the heart of living man,” says Pope Benedict XVI. Moreover, in Jesus, God literally merged into mankind, becoming small, defenseless, and vulnerable while dwelling within the Virgin Mary’s womb, in the most intimate of relationships. Just as the first Eve was formed out of the first Adam, so Jesus, Son of God and the new Adam, was formed out of the new Eve, flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone. So, Jesus being the Lord, like us in all ways except sin, it was necessary that His flesh be pure and without the stain of sin.
An objection is raised by some Protestants that this somehow equates Mary to God and is a denial of the truth that we can be saved only by and through Jesus Christ. However, such objections do not understand the doctrine, which states that the grace won by Christ on the Cross was applied to Mary in anticipation of this saving event.
But how could Mary be saved by Jesus if He wasn't even born yet when she was conceived and the Crucifixion and Resurrection did not happen until about 45-50 years after that?
Although it would be impossible to gain the benefit of something before it existed in time from a human perspective, we must remember that God is eternal.
For us humans, time is linear, with a before, present, and future. But time is not linear for Jesus Christ, rather, He is eternal, all moments in time exist simultaneously, and each moment endures in perpetuity. Thus, at Mass, the sacrifice of Jesus that we celebrate is not something that happened 2000 years ago, but is happening right now, in the present. He is forever on the Cross, forever rising from the dead. And, just as that saving event extends "forward in time" for us, so too does it extend "backward in time" for Mary. Jesus is eternal, so when Mary was conceived, the Crucifixion and Resurrection were happening for Him.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, like all of the Marian doctrines, really says more about Jesus than it does about Mary herself. That is because, in all things, just as when she said at Cana, "do whatever He says," Mary always points us toward her Son.
But, at the same time, Mary also points towards ourselves. Or, more accurately, she points us to the people that God intended and intends for us to be. She is the "new Eve," the new mother of all of those who are truly living, that is, those who have eternal life. Just as her bodily assumption into heaven anticipates the resurrection of the body of all of the faithful, even if we ourselves will not be bodily assumed into heaven, so too does her immaculate conception anticipate our own "conception" into eternal life, a life full of grace in communion with He who is Love and Truth.
Although the faithful have professed a belief in the Immaculate Conception since the earliest days of the Church, and it has long been a feast day on the Church calendar, still it was not until 1854 that the doctrine was "formally" stated. That the dogma was not declared until that late date does not mean that it is a new teaching, to the contrary, it is because it has been the understanding and belief of the Church throughout the millenia that it could be formally ratified as doctrine.
Apostolic Constitution on the Immaculate Conception
His Holiness Pope Pius IX, December 8, 1854
From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son, a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world. Above all creatures did God so love her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully. . . .
The Catholic Church, directed by the Holy Spirit of God, is the pillar and base of truth and has ever held as divinely revealed and as contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august Virgin -- a doctrine which is so perfectly in harmony with her wonderful sanctity and preeminent dignity as Mother of God. . . .
Accordingly, the Fathers have never ceased to call the Mother of God the lily among thorns, the land entirely intact, the Virgin undefiled, immaculate, ever blessed, and free from all contagion of sin, she from whom was formed the new Adam, the flawless, brightest, and most beautiful paradise of innocence, immortality and delights planted by God himself and protected against all the snares of the poisonous serpent, the incorruptible wood that the worm of sin had never corrupted, the fountain ever clear and sealed with the power of the Holy Spirit, the most holy temple, the treasure of immortality, the one and only daughter of life -- not of death -- the plant not of anger but of grace, through the singular providence of God growing ever green contrary to the common law, coming as it does from a corrupted and tainted root. . . .
To these praises they have added very noble words. Speaking of the conception of the Virgin, they testified that nature yielded to grace and, unable to go on, stood trembling. The Virgin Mother of God would not be conceived by Anna before grace would bear its fruits; it was proper that she be conceived as the first-born, by whom "the first-born of every creature" would be conceived. They testified, too, that the flesh of the Virgin, although derived from Adam, did not contract the stains of Adam, and that on this account, the most Blessed Virgin was the tabernacle created by God himself and formed by the Holy Spirit, truly a work in royal purple, adorned and woven with gold, which that new Beseleel made. They affirmed that the same Virgin is, and is deservedly, the first and especial work of God, escaping the fiery arrows of the evil one; that she is beautiful by nature and entirely free from all stain; that at her Immaculate Conception she came into the world all radiant like the dawn. For it was certainly not fitting that this vessel of election should be wounded by the common injuries, since she, differing so much from the others, had only nature in common with them, not sin. In fact, it was quite fitting that, as the Only-Begotten has a Father in heaven, whom the Seraphim extol as thrice holy, so he should have a Mother on earth who would never be without the splendor of holiness.