December 8 is one of my favorite feast days. Unfortunately, immaculate misconceptions about the Immaculate Conception abound.
The biggest one is thinking it refers to the conception of Christ when, in fact, it refers to the conception of Mary. Once we get that clarified, another immaculate misconception often occurs: that of thinking that, because she was immaculate, Mary didn’t need a redeemer. Oh contraire! As the Catechism explains, “The splendor of an entirely unique holiness by which Mary is enriched from the first instant of her conception comes wholly from Christ: she is redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son” (492).
In fact, Mary’s Immaculate Conception is the certainty that what Christ did on the Cross worked. It is the living hope of humanity’s redemption. For redemption to be complete, it not only has to be perfectly given, it also has to be perfectly received. It has been perfectly given in Christ, and perfectly received in Mary, who, through “a singular grace and privilege” was “redeemed from the moment of her conception” (Catechism 491).
Volumes could be written about the connection between this feast and the “great mystery” unfolded in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB). For starters, it’s no mere coincidence that John Paul II began writing his TOB on this marvelous feast day – the handwritten date on page one of his original manuscript says December 8, 1974. And above that he wrote this dedication: Tota Pulchra es Maria – “You are all beautiful, Mary” – a clear adaptation of the bridegroom’s words in the Song of Songs, “You are all beautiful, my love, there is no blemish in you” (Song 4:7).
It’s a long held tradition of the Church to recognize Mary as the “unblemished” bride spoken of in the Song of Songs. As the perfect model of the Church, Mary represents the mystical bride for whom Christ “gave himself up … that he might sanctify her” that she might be “without spot or wrinkle … holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27).
Of course, it may seem odd to speak of Mary in some way representing Christ’s “bride.” Bishop Fulton Sheen explained it this way: “Now we’ve always thought, and rightly so, of Christ the Son on the cross and the mother beneath him. But that’s not the complete picture. That’s not the deep understanding. Who is our Lord on the cross? He’s the new Adam. Where’s the new Eve? At the foot of the cross. … And so the bridegroom looks down at the bride. He looks at his beloved. Christ looks at his Church. There is here the birth of the Church” (Through the Year with Bishop Fulton Sheen, Ignatius Press 2003).
The work of redemption was consummated on the Cross. And so, in a very real way, Mary was immaculately conceived – that is, she perfectly received the gift of redemption – not only in her mother’s womb, but also at the foot of the Cross. In fact, the event that took place in Saint Anne’s womb is inexplicable without the event that took place at the Cross. As John Paul II once observed, “Spouses are … the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross” (Familiaris Consortio 11). Perhaps the spouses that reveal this most clearly are Saints Joachim and Anne.
In the art of the East, the icon of the Immaculate Conception is actually an image of Joachim and Anne embracing. Behind them is their marriage bed, and behind that sacred mystery we see the gates into the holy city of Jerusalem. Through this “all holy” image (the Fathers of the Eastern tradition call Mary “the All-Holy”), we are led to contemplate a spousal love that not only cooperated with God in his power to create human life, but also cooperated with God in his power to redeem it. In this holy embrace of Joachim and Anne, we can truly speak of a love that was not only “pro-creative” but also, at the very same time, “pro-redemptive.”
As we learn in John Paul II’s TOB, authentic spousal love draws its deepest essence from the very mystery of creation and redemption. It’s not only meant to bring new life into the world, it’s meant to save us from sin and prepare us for heaven. Who by his own strength can live this divine kind of love? Only the grace of salvation makes it possible. It’s not something we can muster up. It’s only something we can receive. And this is precisely what we celebrate on this grand feast of the Immaculate Conception – the receptivity of the human heart (Mary’s) to the saving love of God.
Mary, in all the joys and trials of life, teach us how to open our hearts to so great a love!
Question: What are some other immaculate misconceptions about the Immaculate Conception? Share them on Facebook and Twitter.
Image: Eastern icon of the Immaculate Conception featuring St. Joachim and St. Anne.
For such a time as this have we been given Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. By taking us beyond the alternatives of prudish repression and damaging indulgence, the Theology of the Body opens the path to the redemption of sexuality and the real healing of our wounds. Learn more by watching my short film, The Cry of the Heart. Watch the trailer below.