- Genesis 3:9-15, 20
- Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
- Luke 1:26-38
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David: and the virgin’s name was Mary.
Today, in the Western Liturgies (of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches) is celebrated the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tomorrow (the 9th) is the celebration in the Eastern Rites (both for Eastern Orthodox and for Byzantine Catholics). I’d be curious to know when the two feasts separated, or how – but then I’m a Church Geek. The Byzantines insist that Mary’s conception (the 9th) is celebrated on a different day than her birth (September 8th) because Mary is not perfect. But they didn’t make their Western Rite communities celebrate on the 9th. The Catholic Church doesn’t see the calendar as all that important – because they didn’t make their Byzantine communities change their dates either. I suspect that both East and West picked their days for different reasons and, later, decided to make up theological justifications for them. (A given feast is often celebrated on the day a famous church building was consecrated, though without reference to the building which now, often, no longer exists.)
This feast is a stumbling block for many Protestants, for many Orthodox and for some Catholics, who just don’t get it. Mary’s immaculate conception has nothing to do with the Virgin Birth of Jesus; it has everything to do, rather, with the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the East she is called “immaculate,” “pure,” or “spotless” (achrantos in Greek). Some Orthodox state that she was free from actual sin, some say she never sinned, and others just say she died sinless. The title Our All-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary (Greek: Τῆς Παναγίας, ἀχράντου, ὑπερευλογημένης, ἐνδόξου, δεσποίνης ἡμῶν Θεοτόκου καὶ ἀειπαρθένου Μαρίας) is used in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.
Yet some object to this feast because they say that it sets Mary apart from the rest of Mankind. I don’t think so: God, in his grace, gave to Mary all that later Christians would have in Baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit. That’s all. One can debate about Augustinian ideas of “Original Sin” but Byzantine Catholics don’t hold to such ideas. They are no less Catholic. Mary is celebrated as being, really, the first and greatest Christian, submitting to God’s will and experiencing his grace. Her other feasts are, as well, manifestations of the life of a Christian: her birth, her presentation in the Temple, her death and assumption, her coronation – these are all events in the life of every Christian. They are writ large and rendered miraculous in Mary’s life, yes, but they are ones we all share: she in her life, by God’s grace, and we in our day by God’s sacraments.
Mary’s willingness to participate in God’s plan for mankind undoes what Eve did, in her decision to step out of that plan. Mary’s choice is to fully glory in her willing submission to as Eve attempted to glory in her willful struggle against God’s command. The one wrecked us all. The other blessed us all.
A blessed feast and may we all, by Mary’s intercession, come to share in her glory!