Holy Mother Church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. In the United States, it is a Holyday of obligation. It is with good reason that this feast should be a holyday, for it is under this title of the Blessed Mother that she is patroness of this country.
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This was a glorious moment in the history of the Franciscan Order, for it was principally they who had promoted this Church teaching over the (then) previous six centuries.
St. Francis initiated this devotion in the Order by decreeing in 1219, at the second General Chapter that a Mass in honor of Mary Immaculate should be said every Saturday in the monasteries of the Order. Alexander of Hales, the "Irrefragable Doctor", wrote a book in favor of the Immaculate Conception. St. Bonaventure, the "Seraphic Doctor", introduced the feast into the Franciscan Order. He also directed that a special hymn, "Tota Pulchra es", be sung to Mary Immaculate. It was Blessed John Duns Scotus, though, who perhaps more than anyone else, within or outside the Order, that showed by the scholastic method what place this privilege of Mary should hold in the whole of Catholic dogma. He taught it with much success during his years at Oxford (when it was yet a Catholic university), thus earning the title, "Marian Doctor." He successfully defended the doctrine in Paris before two hundred of the most learned doctors of the period, earning him yet another title, "Doctor Subtilis" (Subtle Doctor), because of the strength and profundity of the arguments that he used in the defense of Mary's privilege. It was, therefore, decreed but a day later, that this Marian doctrine be taught at the Sorbonne.
It is interesting to note (and unfortunate to have to do so), that there are those Catholics that seem to confuse this dogma with that of Our Lord's conception, His Incarnation (the moment when God the Son's divine nature was joined with His human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary).
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception in simple terms states that at the moment of Mary's conception (existence) in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, she was preserved from original sin. The Bull, "Ineffabilis Deus", of Pope Pius IX goes on to state that this was possible, "... by a singular grace and privilege granted to her by Almighty God, through the merits of Christ Jesus, Saviour of mankind ... ." This latter statement means that Mary was sanctified at the moment of her creation through the redemptive merits of her Divine Son, or by what is otherwise known as her Preredemption.
Why was she given such a privilege? It was based entirely on her dignity as Mother of God, which is the same reason for all of her other titles and privileges.
Separate from Mary's Immaculate Conception, but logically following as a result of it is her sinlessness. She was free from all personal (actual) sin as well as all impulses of concupiscence. Concupiscence may be described as those first inordinate stirrings which may lead to sin. The deciding factor involves the free will of man. In other words, does a person give consent to these stirrings, or does he reject them.
When Mary's state of sinlessness and man's state of sinfulness are compared, we come face to face with some of the worst effects of original sin. One could hardly imagine a world where everyone would be free from sin. Realize also, that there would be no suffering, sickness or death. Our level of intelligence would be much higher and the inclination toward evil would not be nearly as strong. The world, indeed, would be quite different from what we know it to be. I don't think it would be exaggerating to say that it would very much be a utopian-type environment, or to put it another way, heaven upon earth. This is not the case, though, and all of the wishing in this world won't change the fact of man's sinful state.
The effects of man's sin were immediate, for we are all familiar with the events in the Garden of Paradise. Outside of the Garden, our First Parent's children were to quickly experience the dreadful effects of Man's Fall. Selfishness, jealousy and murder were the downfall of Cain. As Holy Scripture tells us, he wasn't allowed to recover (regain) his former state. "Now, therefore, cursed shalt thou be upon the earth, which hath opened her mouth and received the blood of thy brother at thy hand. When thou shalt till it, it shall not yield to thee its fruit: a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be upon the earth. And Cain went out from the face of the Lord, and dwelt as a fugitive on the earth, at the east side of Eden." (Genesis: 4; 11,12,16)
The events of Noah and The Flood are a good example of how much sin displeases God the Father. "And God seeing that the wickedness of men was great on the earth, and that all the thought of their heart was bent upon evil at all times. It repented Him that He had made man on the earth. And being touched inwardly with sorrow of heart, He said: I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth, from man even to beasts, from the creeping thing even to the fowls of the air, for it repenteth me that I have made them." (Genesis: 6; 5-7) It is interesting to note that man had lived on earth but a relatively short time when God made these statements.
The following examples demonstrate that God does not tolerate sin by those whom he has chosen, even in such a case as Moses' where the infraction seemed to have been minor. Moses' lack of faith which resulted in disobedience caused him not to be able to enter into the Promised Land. The rebellion of the Israelites against Moses caused them to wander in the desert for nearly forty years. Impurity drove David to kill and as a punishment God took the life of his first son. Idolatry and disobedience resulted in numerous punishments for the Israelites, the worst of these perhaps being the Babylonian Captivity.
The redemption of man was not only a fulfillment of a promise, but a real necessity if man was to find salvation. God's plan of using a spotless instrument in order to reverse the wretched and sinful direction in which man was headed, was not only appropriate, but a very important indication of the evil (and its effects) of sin.
What the world has witnessed in the past two thousand years is in one respect the same as the previous four, i.e., a constant rejection of the Divine Will and in its place we have put our own, or that of Satan's. The all-important difference is that we now have a visible Guide and Mother, the Roman Catholic Church, that provides the means of grace and teaches us how to overcome the inclinations toward evil (sin) so that we may come to follow the Divine Will. In as much as we make use of this grace and follow Her teachings, we become a spiritual reflection of Our Lord, Its founder.
It is truly an unfortunate tragedy, also, that a country that has dedicated itself to the Blessed Mother under the title of the Immaculate Conception as the United States has done, no longer shows any desire to do what is right and good. From coast to coast the nation witnesses sins of the most grievous type and in such overwhelming numbers that one can only conclude there is nothing but utter contempt for the sinless life of Mary.
If there is contempt for the Mother of God and her Immaculate Heart, then one may surely conclude that this same contempt exists for Our Lord and his Holy Church. Any person or country with such an attitude will one day be the recipient of a punishment that will equal the sins, thereby balancing the scales of Divine Justice.
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