O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!
(What follows below is taken from The Illustrated Life of the Blessed Virgin by Rev. B. Rohner, O.S.B., 1897)
The Immaculate Conception
Now, Christian reader, gather up all the powers of your understanding and will, in order to contemplate the origin and the completion of this mystery. This miracle-mystery, so peculiar in itself, so unparalleled in the decrees of Providence, wrought in Mary’s person by the Almighty God, consists in this great truth: That she, in the first moment of her conception, by special grace and permission of Almighty God, by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of mankind, was preserved from every stain of original sin. This is not a mere pious opinion of over-zealous votaries of the Blessed Virgin; but it is, as you know and believe, the pronounced and expressed doctrine of faith held by the infallible Catholic Church, which Church we cannot refuse our unreserved submission.
Let us, now, in the first place, Christian reader, endeavor to learn something about the nature of original sin, as defined and set forth in the Council of Trent. Adam, the chief father of the whole human race, by his transgression of the divine command, injured not only himself, but also his whole posterity. He also lost, by his sin of disobedience, the sanctity and justice bestowed upon him by God, and lost them for us all. Tainted by his sin of disobedience, he fastened upon all future sons of his family, not only death and bodily sufferings, but also sin, which is the death of the soul.
Thus, all of Adam’s children carry on their brow the brand of sin and shame. Great and disastrous is the evil that this sin produces within us. It robs us of our higher and supernatural life, it enfeebles and wounds our very nature. Frequently the very symptoms of the original grandeur and beauty of this nature become barely perceptible, while the likeness of God, which once shone forth so brilliantly from it before the eyes of angels, has been completely hidden from view. Now, from this original sin, and from all its deadly consequences, was the Blessed Virgin shielded and preserved from the moment of her Immaculate Conception. As our late Holy Father, Pope Pius IX declared in his definition of this mystery:
“It was becoming that the ever- blessed Virgin should be clothed in a garment of perfect sanctity, that she should be exempt from every stain of original sin, that she should win the most complete victory over the old serpent. For she was to be a Mother in every respect worthy of her divine Son. She was to be chosen by God to be the Mother of His only begotten Son, whom He loved as He loved Himself, and who according to His nature was to be, at one and the same time, the Son of God the Father and the Son of the Blessed Virgin. She was to be the Mother chosen by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. She it was from whom the Holy Ghost, by divine acts of His will and operation, was to cause Him to be born, from whom He Himself proceeds. It was becoming that He who has in heaven a Father, whom the seraphim praise as the thrice-holy God, should have on earth a mother who was not for a moment deprived of grace, innocence, or glory.”
Moreover, the teaching of the Church regarding this mystery of the Immaculate Conception is not to be understood in the sense that Mary did not need the graces of the Atonement through Jesus Christ. It is clearly and expressly affirmed that she was exempted from sin and sanctified through the merits of Christ and by virtue of grace, of grace preventing original sin, as we through the same are cleansed after our birth in holy Baptism. But it would also be a heresy to maintain or believe that the sanctification accruing to the Blessed Virgin by virtue of her Immaculate Conception is the same as is operated in us by the waters of Baptism. True, by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the guilt of original sin is remitted, and everything pertaining strictly to the true and exact nature of sin is blotted out. Yet the reliquiae of sin, the germ of sin, the concupiscence of our lower nature, remain.
This lingering concupiscence is the reason why we are so early surprised by its emotions, why we cannot through the long course of our lives save ourselves from any sin without the aid of a special grace. But Mary was preserved even from this concupiscence arising from original sin, so that she was sanctified not only in her soul, but also in her body. During her whole life upon earth she, by special aid of grace, kept herself, body and soul, intact from even the smallest sin against God. Therefore the grace of sanctification with which Mary was favored in her Immaculate Conception reached an immeasurably higher degree than our sanctification in Baptism.
Chosen to be the Mother of the Son of God, she was, even in the moment of her conception, so filled with the treasures of divine grace, that the Archangel Gabriel could with truth address her a title belonging only to herself, namely, that of “full of grace.” For the same reason, too, did she excel by far all created beings, even the seraphim and cherubim. This grace was planted in her inmost being, where it struck deep roots, and in her life put forth beauteous foliage and flowers and brought forth abundant fruit. This grace was like a fire which warmed into ardent piety her whole soul, her every thought, her will, her intellect. It was a light which cast its bright rays of heroism, beauty, and gentleness over her whole being. This fire and this light were now to burst forth upon the world, to enlighten and warm it.
Such is the mystery of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. Christian reader, if you meditate earnestly on this mystery, study it assiduously, you will comprehend and realize that the moment of such a conception must have been a moment of intense joy and unspeakable satisfaction both for heaven and for earth, as well as a moment of indescribable terror to the powers of hell.
Joy in Heaven
By the first sin the tender relations existing between God and man were snapped asunder. Father and child were separated from each other in anger and sorrow. ‘The glorious likeness of God imprinted on the soul of man was turned into a caricature, and became an object of horror and disgust in the eyes of the Creator. Mankind then strayed away from the paths of righteousness and violated God’s laws. At a very early period, even before the deluge, there came, so to speak, a complete break between God and man.
“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 beast; . . . for it repenteth me that I have made them.” (Gen. vi. 5). Century after century sin succeeded sin, shame was heaped upon shame. With the honorable exception of a few chosen people, all men worshipped false gods.
Heaven’s gates were closed against all — that heaven which had been destined to receive into all its glory and happiness every child of earth. Of millions and millions of men who were born, who lived, and who died, not one attained to the possession of the one true God. Things were in this deplorable condition, when, as reckoned by learned and holy writers, in the memorable year of 732 after the foundation of pagan Rome, on the eighth of December, was a child conceived in the Land of Promise, in whose being reposed the fullness of the complacency and grace of God.
Here was a source of joy for the ever-adorable Trinity. But it was more. This sinless creature is destined to be the daughter of God the Father, the Mother of God the Son, and the spouse of the Holy Ghost. With the same complacent happiness that a father looks upon his daughter, a son upon his mother, a bridegroom upon his bride, did the Blessed Trinity look down on Mary, sinless and immaculate. She was the dawn of a bright, fresh, happy day, after a long and dreary night. She was the inauguration of that reign of peace, of grace, and of justice, during which men would adore the one true God in spirit and truth; during which God, in His goodness, mercy, and wisdom, would be known, served, and loved, and during which it would be His delight to dwell among the children of men. (Prov. viii. 31.)
The Immaculate Conception of Mary was a subject of extraordinary joy among the angels of heaven. It is a well-founded opinion, and one not without Scripture proof, that the most-high God placed before the angels the image of His future Mother, in order to try their humility. Here was shown to them the image of a sinless human being, of her who was to be their future queen. At this sight, the faithful angels were filled with holy joy, and seized with the utmost admiration. They were astonished at the boundless goodness of their almighty Creator, they glowed with sacred love for the virgin Mother of their God, and cheerfully recognized her as their lady and mistress.
One of the most exalted spirits, however, a cherub who shone like the morning star, was offended at this wonderful elevation of human nature above the very angels themselves, and even communicated his proud, rebellious thoughts to other spirits, to whom he said In tones of anger: ” I will ascend into [the highest ] heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north. I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.” (Is. xiv. 13, 14.)
On account of their humble submission, the faithful angels became more beautiful, more spiritual, more like unto God. Lucifer and his unhappy followers, on the contrary, were transformed into demons, and hurled down from the heights of heaven to the depths of everlasting degradation and suffering. The inspired Seer of Patmos, the beloved disciple St. John the Evangelist, describes this event in the following words of the Apocalypse: ” A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And there was seen another sign in heaven; and behold a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns; and on his head seven diadems.
And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered, that when she should be delivered, he might devour her Son. And there was a great battle in heaven; Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels. And they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying: Now is come salvation and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ. ‘Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you that dwell therein. And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed” (Apoc. Chap.12).
Thus was the woman with twelve stars about her head and the moon under her feet, as she has from the earliest days of Christianity been represented in the Immaculate Conception, a source of joy for the good and of terror for the evil, even in her remote predestination. How much more heartfelt then was the shout of joy throughout the vaults of heaven and in the very souls of its happy inhabitants when this queen appeared in reality of existence! We can imaginethe angels calling to each other: ” Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?” (Cant. vi. g.) For the rejected and condemned spirits, this same in- nocent child was terrible as an army set in array.
Their widespread dominion, which, with falsehood and deceit, they had set up among men, was now about to crumble to ruins; for she had at last appeared who was to crush the serpent’s head.
Joy on earth
But men on earth had still greater cause to rejoice at the conception of the Redeemer’s Mother. For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten, His well beloved Son into the world (John iii. 16), and for Him prepared a worthy mother in the person of Mary, and for men a powerful intercessor and a sublime image and model. But alas! the world lay buried in darkness and ignorance. Men busied themselves about things of earth, and gave themselves up to pleasures, without taking time to think and remember that their almighty Father in heaven was watching over them, studying their welfare, and in His solicitude for the salvation of their immortal souls was perfecting the most astounding miracles. But two lowly hearts there were that were overflowing with holy joy — the hearts of Joachim and Anne, privileged parents of this grace-crowned child. Who can express the joy that thrilled through the maternal heart of St Anne on ascertaining this wonderful conception? Who can tell her thoughts, or describe her humble sentiments of gratitude to God? But, although this heavenly Jewel was concealed from the eyes of men and remained is yet unsuspected and unknown by the world, it was soon to appear in all its brilliancy to shed the light of joy and comfort over that world. This joy shall endure for all time. As often as the revolving year brings to us each succeeding eighth day of December, every Christian heart is lifted up in exaltation of joy and love at the remembrance of the Immaculate Conception of our Queen and Mother.