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 HISTORY OF THE FEAST:
EAST AND WEST

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.

MARY’S CANDLE AND MORAVIAN SPRITZ

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.

IN THE NEWS:
EXHIBIT EXPLORES MADONNA

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.

Eastern and Western Christians observe Birth of Mary, Nativity of Theotokos

“It’s Blessed Virgin’s Birthday,
The swallows do depart;
Far to the South they fly away,
And sadness fills my heart.
But after snow and ice and rain
They will in March return again.”
An Austrian children’s rhyme, for September 8

Painting of women in fancy room, gathered around woman with young baby, one woman pouring water into a bowl

Birth of Mary, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c. 1486-1490 CE. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: Most of the world’s 2 billion Christians rejoice today in recalling the birth of Mary. In traditional Catholic and Orthodox teaching, Mary is regarded as a figure foretold in passages as ancient as Genesis. And this holiday is known as the Birth of the Virgin Mary among Western Christians, as well as the Nativity of the Theotokos among Eastern Christians.

Though the Bible contains no record of Mary’s birth, the Protoevangelium of James—an apocryphal writing from the second century—describes Mary’s birth, as well as the story of her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. (Learn more from Catholic Culture and Fish Eaters.) Accounts detail that St. Anne and St. Joachim, though faithful and pious, were without children. Anne and Joachim prayed for a child; though older, they conceived a child, whom they would call Mary. Tradition tells that Mary was born in Jerusalem.

Did you know? The birth of Mary also is included in the Quran. She is a major figure in Islam. (Wikipedia has more about Mary in Islam.)

The feast for Mary’s Nativity originated in Jerusalem, in the fifth century, and records point next to Syria and other parts of ancient Palestine, both of which were observing a feast for Mary’s birth by the sixth century. By the end of the seventh century, the feast was accepted by the Roman Church, and it slowly spread through Europe. By the 12th century, Mary’s birth was observed in all Christian countries. (Get the Eastern Orthodox perspective from Orthodox Church in America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)

The Christian Church marks most saints’ feasts on the date of their death, or return to God. To this rule, there are three exceptions: Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, as they are recognized in the Church on both their death date and their birth date.

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST,
‘DOWN-DRIVING’ & THANKSGIVING

In the wine-growing regions of France, Mary’s birthday is affectionately called “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest,” when the best grapes are brought to the local church for blessings and bunches of grapes are tied onto the hands of Mary statues. In the Alps, September 8 begins “down-driving,” when cattle and sheep are led from their summer pastures, down the mountain slopes, to their winter residence in the valleys and stables. In several regions of central and eastern Europe, the Feast of Mary is associated with harvest, fall planting and thanksgiving.

Christian: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dormition of the Theotokos

Painting of woman in sky, crowd of people beneath her

The Assumption of the Virgin, a painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, AUGUST 15: The Eastern Orthodox Dormition Fast has ended, and Christians bow their heads, today, for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Dormition of the Theotokos. Two names for the same event, both the Assumption and the Dormition proclaim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into heaven in body and soul. Whether or not Mary died before being assumed does vary by tradition—for Catholic Christians, the question remains open, while for Orthodox Christians, firm belief holds that she did, in fact, die a mortal death.

No evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, yet the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. With no scriptural evidence, the Church points, instead, to passages in Revelations, Genesis and Corinthians, to mention of a woman “caught between good and evil” and to those fallen asleep after Christ’s resurrection. Theologians and Christians have pointed out that a woman so close to Jesus during his earthly life would have naturally been assumed into Heaven, to be with him there.

THE ASSUMPTION: THROUGH THE CENTURIES

Apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since the 4th century, and teachings of the Assumption have been widespread since the 5th century. (Wikipedia has details.) Theological debate continued in the centuries following, and though most Catholic Christians had held belief in the Assumption for quite some time, it wasn’t until 63 years ago—on November 1, 1950—that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith.

EAST AND WEST: THE DORMITION VS. THE ASSUMPTION

In the East: Eastern Christians believe that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, and that her soul was received by Christ upon death. Three days following, Mary’s body was resurrected, and she was taken up into heaven, bodily. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Orthodox Church in America.)

In the West: Catholics are divided in thought as to whether or not Mary died, bodily, as this theory has not been dogmatically defined either way. (Global Catholic Network has more.)

To many Christians, Eastern and Western, the Assumption is also the Virgin Mary’s heavenly birthday. Mary’s acceptance into the glory of Heaven is viewed as the symbol of Christ’s promise that all devoted Christians will be received into Heaven, too. The feast of the Assumption is a public holiday in many countries, from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany to Italy, Romania and Spain. The day doubles as Mother’s Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.

No details suggest the day or year of Mary’s Assumption, though it is believed that when Mary died, the Apostles flocked to her bedside. At the moment of her death, Jesus Christ descended, and carried her soul to Heaven.

Annunciation: Christians recall Gabriel’s visit to Mary

Painting of woman sitting in the dark by a doorway with a white angel looking at her through the doorway

A depiction of the Annunciation. Photo by Waiting for the Word, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, MARCH 25: Jesus’s Passion and Easter (Pascha) may be on the horizon for the world’s 2.1 billion Christians, but today the Church turns to an event much earlier in the story of Jesus: the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Delivered by the angel Gabriel, the Annunciation informed Mary that she would soon conceive and bear a son; this son, to be named “Jesus,” would be the savior of mankind, according to Christian tradition. The Gospel of Luke describes how Mary, though frightened at first, listened to Gabriel’s words and then replied: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” In the Church’s calendar, the Annunciation falls precisely nine months before Christmas.

Gospels give no concrete evidence of the location of Mary’s Annunciation, though most agree that it took place somewhere in Nazareth. (Wikipedia has details.) While Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist, the Annunciation was given to Mary: It’s written that John “leaped” inside Elizabeth upon hearing Mary’s news. As part of the Annunciation, Gabriel assured Mary that she had found favor with God, and the Catholic church emphasizes God’s decision to not only place the Son of God in her womb, but to “enrich her soul with a fullness of grace,” as well. (The Global Catholic Network has more.) The Annunciation is held in such high esteem, in fact, that it is observed as a feast in the Eastern Church even if it falls on Great and Holy Friday. The Annunciation is also described in the Quran, and Muslims tradition relates the Annunciation as having taken place during the month of Ramadan.

Christmas Octave honors Mary and ancient Feast of Circumcision

AN ANCIENT FEAST: These paintings show the long tradition behind this festival. At top is an 11th-century Eastern image of the Circumcision of Jesus; below it is a 16th-century European painting of the same scene.

AN ANCIENT FEAST: These paintings show the long tradition behind this festival. At top is an 11th-century Eastern image of the Circumcision of Jesus; below it is a 16th-century European painting of the same scene.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1: Christians around the world mark the Gregorian New Year’s Day with festivals celebrating the early life of Jesus: the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God; the Feast of the Circumcision; and the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.

What’s “an Octave”? In traditional Christian language, this is the Octave of Christmas, a special remembrance to mark the passing of eight days from a major feast. Eastern Christians use the term “Afterfeast.” Over the centuries, the Vatican has downsized and simplified the calendar of Octaves in an attempt to focus the faithful on the most significant celebrations in the Christian year. Once there were more than a dozen Octaves celebrated each year. Today, the main Catholic Octaves follow Christmas and Easter.

The Circumcision: In accordance with their Jewish tradition, Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised eight days after his birth. It was on this day that he received his name Jesus. This is also a time when Mary’s role is recognized as “mother of God.” Orthodox Christians bestow the title Theotokos, or God-bearer.

The branches of Christianity now mark this day in various ways from almost no observance in American Protestant churches to elaborate liturgies in more traditional denominations. These customs have evolved over many centuries. A feast honoring Mary as the Mother of God initially began in the East, and Romans were observing a celebration of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the 7th century. But, 600 years later, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ had replaced the Marian feast. In 1974, Pope Paul VI swapped the Jan. 1 Feast of the Circumcision for the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today, Catholics mark the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on Jan. 1; Anglicans and Lutherans keep the Circumcision of Christ; members of the Church of England refer to this as “The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus Christ.” Eastern Orthodox Christians combine rites with hymns of St. Basil the Great.

IN THE NEWS:
2014 ‘MARY’ MOVIE and MORE

The first poster has officially been released for the 2014 movie, Mary, Mother of Christ, due in theaters in December. Starring a 16-year-old Israeli actress as Mary, the film boasts megachurch pastor Joel Osteen as an executive director and Australian filmmaker Alister Grierson as director. (The Christian Post has an article.) Two more biblical blockbusters are lined up for 2014 release, including “Noah”—starring Russel Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson—and a Moses film, entitled, “Exodus.”

A recent CNN article delved into the reality of Mary’s motherhood—much of which goes unmentioned in the Gospels. While many will fondly embrace Mary’s relationship with Jesus as without conflict, that may not be so: The Gospels describe a few notable miscommunications and tensions, not so different from relations in most families. In the end, though, Jesus asked His disciples to care for His mother after His death—a considerable act of compassion.

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.

CATHOLIC-PROTESTANT CONVERSATION
OVER MARY AND THE DOGMA

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.

IN THE NEWS: 350 YEARS IN GOZO,
A GUAM LIVE STREAM
& POPE FRANCIS’S SCHEDULE

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.)

Nativity of the Virgin, Birthday of the Theotokos: Christians honor Mary

Depiction on wood of woman in bed holding baby, women gathered around to assist the new mother, pouring water and folding items

The Birth of Mary, artwork circa 1470. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: From East to West, most of the world’s Christians wish “happy birthday” to the person whom Catholic and Othodox Christians believe links the divine to humanity: today is the Nativity of the Theotokos, or the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

One of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a liturgical feast in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, the Nativity of Mary has been celebrated from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Unlike most saints’ days in the Western Christian Church, only three figures are commemorated on the day of their birth, thereby indicating their pivotal role in salvation: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

THE STORY OF MARY’S LIFE: FROM UNKNOWN TO RENOWNED

As this traditional Christian story goes: Mary’s life began piously in Galilee, Nazareth, as a baby born to elderly and previously barren parents. Though they remained faithful to God, Joachim and Anna were without children for many years—a characteristic regarded, at the time, as a punishment for sin. One fateful day, when Joachim had traveled to the temple to make an offering, he was chastised by the High Priest for being childless; his offering was turned away. The distraught husband and wife prayed to God, and the Archangel Gabriel appeared to them, promising a child whose name would be known throughout the world. In nine months, Anna bore a child.

No record of Mary’s birth or childhood exists in the Gospels, but is found in later Christian works. Because these details are not in the New Testament, most Protestants do not observe the holiday. In fact, Eastern and Western Christians also diverge in their understanding of Mary’s birth. For Catholics, Mary’s birth is connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma formally established by the Vatican in 1854. Eastern Christians believe that while Mary wasn’t without original sin, she was spared actual sin by God’s grace.

Note: For those following the Julian Calendar, this feast day falls on September 21 of the Gregorian Calendar.

Closeup of clump of green and purple grapes hanging from vine

In France, winegrowers bring their best grapes to church for a blessing on the Nativity of Mary. Photo courtesy of Flickr

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST
& OTHER IDEAS FOR CELEBRATION

In several regions of the world, Mary’s Nativity is marked with seasonal customs and the start of the Indian summer, or “after-summer.” The winegrowers of France regard today as the Our Lady of Grape Harvest, bringing their best crop to the local church to be blessed; seeds for winter crop are blessed in many churches across Europe; in the Alps, cattle and sheep are herded in grand procession from their summer pastures down to the valleys and stables, where they will reside for the cold season. (Wikipedia has more.) In some areas of Austria, milk from these cattle and sheep is given to the poor, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Some Catholic groups, including Women for Faith and Family, suggest ways that families can celebrate today:

  • Bake Mary a birthday cake, with white and blue icing to symbolize her purity and fidelity. Place a small figure of the Virgin Mary in the center of the cake.
  • Eat foods containing blueberries or anything else blue, as blue is the common Marian color.
  • Decorate a Marian altar at home.
  • Learn and sing hymns to Mary, such as the Immaculate Mary and ‘Hail Holy Queen.’

PLANS FOR A MOVIE? Hollywood interest in biblical stories is rising, experts report. Christian Science Monitor has the story. A new movie about Mary’s early life reportedly is in production for 2014 release, called Mary, Mother of Christ. Israeli-born Odeya Rush is slated to star as Mary. Other stars booked for the production include Peter O’Toole and Ben Kingsley.