Feast of the Immaculate Conception: 150 years later, Mary still infallibly pure

Painting of woman in yellow-hued clouds with angels and biblical creatures at her feet and surrounding her

The Immaculate Conception, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, DECEMBER 8: As the weeks of Advent continue, Catholic Christians pause to focus on the Virgin Mary in the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Catholic dogma holds that the Virgin Mary was born via a sinless conception, and that she is without Original Sin. Around the world, this feast day is greeted with fireworks, processions and celebratory liturgies.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the proclamation by Pope Pius IX, as Roman Catholic dogma, 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.” The statement is considered infallible.


A feast for the conception of Mary was being observed in the Eastern Christian Church as early as the fifth century, though the original title of the feast referred to Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary. Popularity of the feast increased in the seventh century, and the conception of Mary was being described as “immaculate” from the 11th century. (Wikipedia has details.) Today, Orthodox Christians do not believe that Mary was free from original sin prior to birth, but rather that she is filled with grace. Following the Great Schism of 1054, some sects of Western Christianity embraced Mary’s sinless conception.

Did you know? Catholics hold that Mary is the Patroness of the United States.

A Holy Day of Obligation, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception requires that all Catholics attend Mass for the occasion. (Learn more from Fish Eaters.) Mary is seen as a guide on the path to salvation; a beacon of hope in times of conflict and doubt.


A designated candle for Mary sits at the center of the table as the scent of freshly baked gingerbread Moravian Spritz wafts through the air: the Marian feast brings to mind the aromas of cinnamon and myrrh, as many believed that Mary emitted these sweet smells. Families or parishes honoring the feast may decorate in blue or with symbols of her purity, such as lilies or roses. For additional resources, prayers, recipes and children’s activity suggestions, visit Women for Faith and Family or Catholic Culture.


The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. will feature through April 2015 an exhibit of portraits of the Virgin Mary, greatly varied and spanning through six centuries. (National Geographic has the story.) Entitled “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” the exhibit showcases 70 works of art—some lent from such esteemed establishments as the Louvre and the Vatican Museums.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception: Catholics hail Mary as ‘full of grace’

Statue of Virgin Mary with "I am the Immaculate Conception" in letters above

A shrine at the Ewa Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hawai’i. Photo by Joel Abroad, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 8: In the midst of the Advent season, Catholics honor a figure central to the Nativity of Jesus. Today, Mary is celebrated in the annual Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a festival that refers to the conception of Mary herself and, over the past two centuries, has become a major dividing line between Catholics and Protestants.

The roots of this festival go back more than 1,500 years and may have originated in the area that today is war-torn Syria. Then, as the Vatican was strongly asserting its authority in the 19th century, Pope Pius IX decreed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In Catholic theology, this means that from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb, Mary was free of original sin.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Christian Church—the Orthodox church—continues its far older tradition, calling December 9 (yes, one day later) a celebration of The Conception by St. Anna of the Most Holy Theotokos.

Recipes and activities: Children and families can honor the Immaculate Conception by baking traditional Moravian spice cookies, constructing an Advent candle for Mary or singing appropriate carols, such as “Behold, a Branch is Growing.” Check out CatholicCulture for more ideas.


Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The Bible does not mention Mary’s birth, although Christian tradition has given Mary a special, sacred status for 2,000 years. The Catholic dogma about Mary’s birth was officially defined by Pius IX in 1854 in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus.

Many complex works of theology have explored the nature of Mary’s role in the Christian salvation story. Some early Church thinkers even rejected the notion of what today would be called immaculate conception—notably St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas rejected the idea.

The subject is debated throughout Christianity to this day. While the Protestant Advent season features Mary prominently in preaching, in pageants and in decorations—Protestant teaching almost universally rejects the idea that Christians must believe in an immaculate conception prior to Mary’s birth. Nevertheless, a growing number of evangelical writers are encouraging Protestants to rethink their appreciation of Mary. One example of this is the landmark book by evangelical scholar Scot McKnight, published by Paraclete Press and called, The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus.

McKnight begins his book like this:

“Why are you—a Protestant—writing a book about Mary?” I’ve been asked this question many times. In fact, one person asked me the following question: “Wasn’t Mary a Roman Catholic?” No kidding. Why write a book for Protestants about Mary? Here’s why: Because the story about the real Mary has never been told. The Mary of the Bible has been hijacked by theological controversies whereby she has become  a Rorschach inkblot in which theologians find whatever they wish to find. In the midst of this controversy, the real Mary has been left behind. It is time to let her story be told again. …

“While Mary’s story is that of an ordinary woman, it also is the story of a woman with an extraordinary vocation—being the mother of the Messiah—who learned to follow this Messiah Jesus through the ordinary struggles that humans face. In this sense, Mary represents each of us—both you and me—in our call to follow Jesus.”

No, Scott McKnight and other evangelical advocates of raising awareness of Mary throughout the Protestant world are not saying that Protestants should start celebrating this Immaculate Conception holiday. But there is quite a lot of creative energy in Protestant circles focused on Mary, since McKnight and others have been chiming in so vigorously.


Devotees in Gozo (an island of the Maltese archipelago) will celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Fraternity of the Conception this year at St. Francis Church, Victoria. The Confraternity was founded at St. Francis Church in 1663 to organize the feast, as it holds particular importance for locals: oral tradition tells that a statue of the Mary was found more than 300 years ago off the shores of Merizo by a fisherman, floating in the sea—which was deemed an impossible feat, since the statue was made of ironwood.

Each year in Guam, thousands of Catholics gather at the Dulce Nombre De Maria Cathedral-Basilica, to walk in the procession of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. (Read more at Guampdn.com.) This year’s events will be streamed live December 9.

The Advent and Christmas schedule for St. Francis was recently released, and the schedule will liturgically follow that of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis will spend the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in Rome, visiting the Spanish Steps and in special Marian devotions. (Catholic News Service reports the rest of the schedule.)