The meaning of the Immaculate Conception

The Virgin Mary held by her parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne, depicted in mosaic in Chora Church in Istanbul (Wikimedia Commons/Till Niermann)

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception probably began in the Eastern Church as a celebration of St. Anne, Mary’s mother, a feast that is still kept in the East. Since at least the seventh century in the west we’ve made St. Anne’s feast into a celebration of Mary’s conception, the first of the two surrounding her birth. And though you likely won’t hear this directive from the pulpit, just do like your mother did and count the months on your fingers. You’ll see that there are nine months between December 8, when we celebrate Mary’s conception, and September 8, when we celebrate her birth on the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. Most preachers stress the immaculate part of the feast, the part that is God’s courtesy to the woman who will bear God in her womb. But the liturgical calendar, with its nine-month spread between holy days, doesn’t ignore the everyday human part of the everyday human miracle, which is Mary’s very human conception. The timing of the feasts anchors them in December to the early weeks of nausea and vomiting, and in September, to the leg cramps and backaches of the final weeks.

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