The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th, is a holy day of obligation in the United States, which means you need to go Mass. Answering some common questions:
- Dr. Ed Peters, Canon Lawyer, explains that no, you mustn’t try to kill two birds with one stone by counting a Sunday evening Mass as both your Sunday Mass and your Vigil of the Immaculate Conception Mass.
- But he adds, any two masses (on the appropriate dates / times) will do, even if the Mass you assisted at wasn’t celebrated in observance of the event that gives rise to the obligation.
Why does the Church do this to us, insisting that we reorganize our lives, often at great inconvenience, in order to get our rear ends into Church an hour a week, and twice in a week when there’s a holy day? Because it is the most important thing.
In the case of the Immaculate Conception, the importance is partly that it is the feast of the patron saint of the United States. You can read the history of how that came about here. It wasn’t what I had guessed.
There is also, of course, an amount of general spiritual significance that shouldn’t be overlooked.
What does it mean to be without sin?
For those who are new to the feast, the “Immaculate Conception” refers to the fact that Mary, mother of Jesus, was conceived in her mother Anne’s womb free from the stain of original sin. This doesn’t mean she didn’t need a Savior, nor that she saved herself. Since we’re talking about stains, you might imagine Jesus saving each of us people-who-are-not-Mary by, say, trading shirts with us when someone accidentally spills red wine on our good clothes mid-party. In Mary’s case, slight variation, He managed to whisk His mother out of the way of that clumsy butler before the splash hit. She was still saved, by Him, just in a different way.
(And as it happens, thanks to His continued work in preserving her from sin throughout her life, He wasn’t even doing it out of fear He’d get a whapping if He didn’t.)
So, to be without sin is to be like Jesus or to be like Mary. Jesus is a pretty good example, but since He is also God, sometimes we can think that in order to be sinless we have to be able to do some of the things He did that were actually His divine nature acting and not His human nature. So, for example, if you can’t seem to calm storms, it’s not because you’re sinful, it’s because you are human. (You might be sinful, indeed we assume you are, but even if you weren’t, you still wouldn’t possess this ability.)
So one of the neat things about Mary is that she really didn’t do anything all that spectacular, other than avoiding sin and doing good.* We don’t read in the Gospels about how her jam won first prize at the County Fair. She wasn’t a ninja. She didn’t even raise ten kids, let alone ten non-divine, original-sin-bearing kids. And though she likely did a bit of homeschooling, her husband and the local synagogue probably did the heavy lifting. She did what God wanted her to do, and that sufficed.
Thank God for Mondays
This year the Immaculate Conception falls on a Monday, which means that if you are praying the Rosary, you’ll be going over the Joyful Mysteries. The fifth Joyful Mystery is a funny one: The Finding of Jesus in the Temple. It’s funny because in order for someone (Mary and Joseph) to find Jesus, first they had to lose Him. Easier said than done when your kid is without sin.
Now it’s easy to just blame Joseph for the whole disaster, but let’s remember that Mary is a bona fide mother. She was on the trip, and her kid got lost. Now if you were on a trip, and you were a mother, and your kid got lost, what would you do? You would blame yourself. That’s what mothers do. “I should have remembered to make sure Jesus was with Joseph.” “I should have double-checked that Jesus was with us when we left the Temple.” “I should have developed a routine six pilgrimages ago about how to communicate before hand so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.” “I should have known that He’d go back to the Temple, He’s like that.”
Because this blaming thing is so ingrained in us, people will actually tell you that the Losing of the Child Jesus is proof against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. If Mary had been a good mother, they say, her kid would not have gotten lost.
But here’s the thing about sin, the thing we need to know: You can be a perfect mother, raising a perfect child, and your kid can still get lost. Your kid can even end up tortured to death.
Bad things can happen on your watch that aren’t your fault.
The Immaculate Conception is about a lot of things, all of them worth attending Mass to commemorate. But this particular thing, that we can sometimes be innocent when it feels like we are not, that we can sometimes have done the right thing and still have everything turn out unspeakably wrong? What about that?
People could be blaming you right now for stuff that happened because you don’t know everything and can’t control everything. But God will look on you and say, “Hey, I’m the Omniscient and Omnipotent One, not you, so let Me climb on that cross and take the hit, you’re guilty of plenty but not of this.”
I think that makes the Immaculate Conception a feast day we desperately need.
*This suggests that if you want to avoid sin and do good, it might be better to avoid trying to do spectacular things. Unless, of course, God wants you to do them, in which case, you must. Mary’s life as a model for the Christian life: Usually humdrum, sometimes spectacular, sometimes just absolutely, heart-piercingly awful.