The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patronal feast of the United States, is celebrated Dec. 8. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patronal feast of the United States, is celebrated Dec. 8. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

A message from Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception:

We have heard St. Luke’s narrative of the Annunciation so often in the Church’s celebrations of Mary, the Mother of God.  That word is proclaimed once more at Mass on this year’s feast of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, our nation’s patronal feast, and our attention is drawn to the consequence of this feast by the Gospel.

Mary, as the opening prayer for the Mass of the Immaculate Conception says, “sinless from the first moment of her conception," Mary accepts the message of God spoken by Gabriel and the salvation Christ would bring by his Death was conceived in her. What a beautiful relationship between her own destiny at the time of her conception and that of the Church at the time of her conception.

As we read, as we listen to the Gospel, we can only imagine what it must have been like for this young woman – barely a woman, really – to hear the words, "You have found favor with God … you shall conceive a son, Jesus … to be called Son of the Most High."

Amazed, startled, "deeply troubled" as Luke tells us, Mary "wondered" what this was all about. "How can this be?" was her simple reply. Not a doubt. Not a protest. An expression of wonder. Mary "wondered what his greeting meant."

In her own mind and experience, life was ordinary. She lived her life without much difference from her peers. And yet our faith tells us, hers was a "life of love that never knew sin." Far from ordinary, quite different than any other human who ever lived.

"How can this be?" The grace of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the power of the Most High is the answer. And in the experience of "wonder," Mary’s question was followed by her marvelous statement of faith, "I am the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be done to me."

What had happened in her own regard, in her own conception – the feast of the Immaculate Conception proclaims that she was free from original sin when she was conceived – now was to bear witness to what would be as she herself conceived. And as she conceived Christ in her womb, the Church was conceived, we were conceived.

Quite simply, today’s feast is an opportunity for us to reflect upon our own faith. Unlike Mary, we have been touched by sin. And yet, like Mary, we have also experienced the grace and power of God in our lives, drawing us beyond weakness, moving us closer to him.

When we are tempted, our weakness prevails. When we sin, we diminish our own destiny. At those times – at any time when we encounter human frailty, we must hear again the Angel Gabriel’s announcement of salvation. How can we remain strong? How can we overcome? How can this be? The answer for us is always the same: the grace and power of God. And in our faith, like Mary, we hand ourselves over to God, to Christ while remembering that "nothing is impossible with God." That in him and only in him, the impossible is possible. The inconceivable is conceived. "I am the servant of the Lord, let it be done to me."

On the feast of the Immaculate Conception – always believed but first officially proclaimed in the Church by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854 – Mary’s faith and Mary’s “yes” to God touches us deeply once again. The words of the opening prayer of the Mass should, indeed, be the prayer of our lives: "Mary had a faith that your Spirit prepared … trace in our actions the lines of her love and in our hearts, her readiness of faith."