The Immaculate Conception as a School of Devotion

By Patrick Ryan Cooper


During the Church's penitential season of Advent, an appropriate image that emphasizes this time of preparation and waiting is that of an expectant mother. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, the increased signs of apocalyptic tumultuousness are likened to the birth pangs of a women beginning in labor—where the difference between birth and death become terrifyingly intimate.(Mt 24, 8) And appropriately so, as the sign of birth pangs, in both pre-labor and the beginnings of active labor indeed confirms the coming of that which is both imminently anticipated, while nevertheless preserving a sense of irruption and adventious uncertainty in the coming of new life. For my wife and I, the connection between birth pangs, upheaval and the eschatological promise of new life attested to in this text is a powerful reminder of the night when my wife's hour had come as she entered into active labor to receive the birth of our first child. This hour similarly coincided with this very same Gospel text from St. Matthew as the daily reading. Fortunately, however, its dim warnings of anguish and woe for pregnant women and nursing mothers (Mt 24, 19) would eventually give way to a more ecstatic release, for while the anguish, tumult and confusion was great, these things were so quickly forgotten (Jn 16, 21) as the mother's sufferings were unburdened by her gratitude in peacefully turning towards the son; and the son, still weary and limpid, turned towards and beheld his mother in loving astonishment for having remained with him until the end.


His astonishment recalls that we are peculiarly gifted with a unique, receptive capacity for life, one which is widened and made spacious, giving a sense of depth and joyous wonder that comes upon the heels of suffering—a receptivity, which singularly recalls this initial exchange of gazes—when beholding our mother.

To gaze so, with astonished perplexity, I would argue, is singularly adequate when contemplating the person of Mary, who the Church recognizes in this season of Advent to be found immaculate, "without spot or blemish before him, at peace". (2Pt 3, 13-14) For the paradox of her sufferings is nearly as ungraspable as the mystery that she herself is. And in view of the Cross, in which her faithfulness continuously endures and our redemption radiates, this salvific fulfillment stretches us back to the very beginnings of what the Church celebrates on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Namely, that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin—having been the public faith of the Church since the promulgation of the papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus by Pius IX in 1854.

Fundamentally, the Immaculate Conception can be said to signal the excessive wonder of creation itself and the integral integrity by which it radiates. In Mary, the Church professes the restoration and sanctification of our human nature, undimmed by sin and towards an original creaturely goodness and suffused with grace by way of her receptive fiat—"Be it done to me according to your Word." With and in Mary, Mother of "The One whom the heavens cannot contain, yet you held in your womb"[1]—we learn of the original width and depth of our human dignity, untainted by sin and division, and our relational autonomy seen specifically in terms of an active receptivity: that becoming more uniquely particular rightly hinges upon our creaturely receptivity in terms of capax dei, which simultaneously unfolds how we are to ask the question of being as a welcoming of life. In the two Annunciation narratives in the Lucan Gospel for example, it was Zachariah, who elevated himself as the primary reference by asking the Angel the epistemological question, "How can I know this for sure?" (Lk 1, 18-20) and was thus silenced. While in Mary, as a school of devotion, in whom we cross the porous borders of philosophy and theology, we increasingly learn how to ask and dialogue over the question of being and its relationality—"How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" (Lk 1, 34)—in a wholly authentic, creaturely manner, and thereby actively to respond to the fecundity of grace and its abundant givenness. Just as "spirituality is rooted in ontology" the late Stratford Caldecott writes, so too the "secret design of all creaturely being, revealed in Jesus through Mary, is love."[2] While analogically and in view of the Immaculate Conception, the creaturliness of being is most clearly seen in Mary's receptive fecundity, whereby:

Mary appeared pure in her origin not only by the influence of the divine principle, but also by that of the human. She appeared pure, down to the foundations of her being, and even down to the matter from which she was formed; in other words, down to the root, yes to the very seed, from which she sprang.[3]

However, I suspect that the reticence that various people continue to hold towards Mary—especially her being "immaculate"—is largely grounded upon a rather specious Mariology that would regard the 'purity' of her mediating relationship as somehow lifting her up as distant and impossibly unapproachable—as an artificial, reified "between" Christ and humanity so as to keep them at a distance. Herein, the "supreme principle of Mariology" and in a similar fashion, that of "Christianity and Christology" is that the "mother of God defines the Incarnation, for the part of men."[4] Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother".[5] A doceticism, which distinctly opens onto a fundamental loss of solidarity within the economic order, leaving unanswered the call, ""Who are My mother and My brothers?" (Mk. 3, 33) Rather, since the God-man is fully human through His mother, Mary is likewise a mother with regard to all humanity in their deified lives. For Mary teaches us how to receive and respond to being's excessive giftedness, precisely by way of not further magnifying herself, yet is magnified by the one in whose hospitality she gives Him himself as man. "[W]ithout the Blessed Virgin, the God-man would not encircle men in themselves; they would not be made, in Him, full sharers in the divine nature, in grace, in divinization."[6]

[1] Antiphon from the Christmas Octave, Solemnity of the Mother of God

[2] Cf. 'Stratford Caldecott, Mariology" in (eds.) Nicholas J. Healy Jr. and D.C. Schindler Being Holy in the World: Theology and Culture in the Thought of David L. Schindler (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011) 292.

[3] Cf. Matthias Scheeben, Mariology, vol. II, (trans) T.L.M.J. Geukers (London: Herder Book Co., 1947) 81.

[4]  Cf. Emile Mersch, Theology of the Mystical Body (trans.) Cyril Vollert (London: Herder Book Co. 1951) 172.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.