Tuesday, December 08, 2009

8 December -- The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

From the Blessed Ildefonso Cardinal Schuster's Liber Sacramentorum:



This dogma of the Catholic Faith which is so consoling for us, so glorious for Mary, and so honourable for the entire human race, is only dimly foreshadowed in Holy Scripture, whether in the Old or the New Testament. Yet it forms part of the divine deposit of Catholic tradition, and finds in the liturgies of the various churches the most authoritative witness and exponent of this same belief.

The exemption of the Blessed Virgin Mary from original sin is explicitly affirmed in the Koran, which in this case is only the echo of the belief of the Nestorian Churches: Every human creature has been affected by Satan at its birth with the exception of Mary and her Son. St Ephrem the Syrian in a hymn composed in the year 370, causes the Church of Edessa to declare: " Thou and thy Mother are the only ones
who under every aspect are entirely beautiful, since in thee, O Lord, there is no stain, nor any blemish in thy Mother."

Very many Fathers of the Church, especially the Greeks of the first patristic age, repeat the same thought concerning the absolute purity of the Blessed Virgin, although the greater number, rather than propound the formal question of the Conception as it was put forward later by the Scholastics, suppose it rather to be resolved in the meaning of the dogmatic definition of Pius IX~name1y, that the immaculate purity which they ascribe to the Mother of God is to be understood in its fullest signification, so as to exclude even the blemish of original sin.

A local feast on December 9 in honour of the Conception of Mary most holy is mentioned in a sermon of Bishop John of Eubœa, a contemporary of St John Damascene.

About a century later the festival had gained ground, and had become common among the Greeks, as appears from a discourse of Bishop George of Nicomedia on the "Conceptio sanctæ Annæ." The early Fathers in general take this word in its active sense, so that in their calendars the heading Conceptio sanctæ Mariæ commemorates instead the Incarnation of the Saviour.

The feast of the " Conception of St Anne, Mother of the Mother of God," appears under December 9 in the calendar which bears the name of the Emperor Basil II Porphyrogenitus, and is likewise included among the feasts to be kept as holidays of obligation in a decree of Michael Comnenus in 1166.

In the West the Conceptio sanctæ Annæ is noted on December 9 in the famous marble calendar of the Church of Naples, which dates back to the ninth century. The date and the title at once reveal Byzantine influence, an influence dominating over not only gay Parthenope, but Sicily and all Southern Italy, which for many centuries continued to form part of the Empire ruled over by the later successors of Constantine and Theodosius.

In the twelfth century, we find that in Normandy, in England, and in Ireland, the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin on December 8 had been received with enthusiasm in several abbeys and canonical chapters, in spite of the protests of some opposing bishops. How had this primitive Eastern festival found its way from the shores of the Bosphorus to those distant lands? It is commonly believed that the vehicle of its transmission was the Norman army which in the eleventh century invaded and established itself in Southern Italy. This, however, is not altogether certain, yet it must be admitted that the earliest English and Irish records of the feast of the Conception show distinct evidence of Greek origin.

We must now consider what was the original significance of this feast of the Conception of St Anne, or of the Mother of God. In no ancient liturgical document, it is true, is the title “immaculate” added to the word “Conception,” but from what has been said above, it is clear that it must have been implicitly understood, for otherwise the feast would have had no particular meaning. This is also confirmed by the Byzantine feat of he Conception of St John the Baptist, which festival commemorated the sanctification of the Precursor of Christ in his mother's womb.

The Roman Liturgy remained content for many centuries with the four great Byzantine feasts in honour of Mary, and did not celebrate her Conception. When the first controversies on the theological aspect of the solemnity began in the West, Rome, before pronouncing a decision, permitted the great champions of sacred science to bring forward their various arguments, St Anselm, the Canons of Lyons, St Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus opposing Eadmer, St Bernard, St Thomas, and the most celebrated medieval liturgists.

It was of great importance in the external history of the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception that the recently established Order of the Friars Minor constituted itself its apostle and defender throughout Europe. As early as 1263 the feast was kept as a day of obligation in all Franciscan monasteries, and it was certainly due to their enormous influence and popularity that in the thirty-sixth session of the schismatic Council of Basel on September 17, 1439, the assembled Fathers declared that this doctrine found full confirmation in the sources of Catholic revelation.

Under Sixtus IV – a Franciscan Pope – the Roman Church took a truly decisive step. By a decree of February 27, 1477, this Pontiff ordered the observance of the feast, and the use of the Office: Conceptionis Immaculatæ Virginis Mariæ for the whole city. Two years afterwards he erected and endowed in the Vatican Basilica a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin under the same title of the Immaculate Conception.

The favourable attitude shown by the Council of Trent towards the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is well known; but the extreme prudence of the Holy See allowed three more centuries to elapse before coming to a final decision on the question, which for more than nine hundred years had agitated the most eminent theologians of Europe.

This glory was accorded by divine Providence to the holy Pontiff Pius IX, during whose reign the prolonged studies of the Doctors of the Church regarding the sources of the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary were at last brought to an end. On December 8, 1854, before an imposing assembly of several hundred bishops, the Pope finally promulgated in St Peter's his Bull Ineffabilis Deus, in which this dogma is defined as being in conformity with the Catholic Faith as revealed by God, and therefore to be believed and held fast by all the faithful.

The Eastern Christians, amongst whom the most ancient and most explicit testimonies for the dogma were to be found, began to declare themselves opposed to the, dogma,
because it had been promulgated by the " Bishop of ancient Rome," whom they viewed with unfriendly eyes, and to accuse the papal party of introducing an innovation; yet as far back as the end of the seventeenth century, the Jesuit Besson, after having pointed out by means of more than two hundred passages drawn from their liturgies the perfect agreement of the early Eastern Fathers with the Latin Doctors
concerning the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, obtained from them a definite declaration written and signed by three patriarchs and an archimandrite. That of the head of the Syriac Church was worded as follows: Ego Pauper Ignatiuis Andreas, Patriarcha Antiochenus nationis Syrorum, confirmo hanc sententiam orthodoxam, quam explanavit P. Ioseph e S. I. dominam nostram Virginem purissimam sanctam Mariam, semper liberam extitisse et immunem a peccato originali, ut explicuerunt antiqui Sancti Patres longe plurimi, magistri Orientalis Ecclesiæ.

. . . .

The Collect [for this feast] is in itself a concise but beautifully expressed theological treatise on the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The ancient rhythm which distinguished the Roman collects of the classic Sacramentaries has been entirely laid aside, but the compiler has desired above all that the legem
credendi lex statuat supplicandi,
as Pope Celestine I (423-32) would have so well expressed himself.

It teaches us, in the first place, that the privilege of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was ordained in the counsels of God in order to prepare an absolutely holy tabernacle for the Word of God, which was to be made flesh in her and by her. The price which Jesus paid for this privilege is then set forth; that is to say, the merits of his passion and death, foreknown by the Eternal Wisdom of God, so that Jesus Christ is and always will be the universal Saviour and Redeemer of the whole human race. Mary, the masterpiece of God, is thus the first to participate in a unique and more sublime manner than any other mortal in the grace of redemption.

Lastly, we beseech the divine clemency that by the intercession of so noble and privileged a being, whom God did not permit to be touched by the slightest breath of evil, we also may be granted the grace of a pure spirit, so that we may come to him whom, as the Gospel says, only the clean of heart can deserve to behold.

The text of the collect with the translation from the old Sheed & Ward hand missal:

Deus, qui per immaculatam Virginis Conceptionem dignum Filio tuo habitaculum præparasti: quæsumus; ut, qui ex morte ejusdem Filii tui prævisa, eam ab omni labe præseverasti, nos quoque mundos ejus intercessione ad te pervenire concedas. Per eundem Dominum. Amen.

O God, who by means of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin didst prepare a worthy dwelling for thy Son, and foreseeing his death, didst thereby preserve her from all stain, grant that we too by her intercession may come to thee unstained by sin: through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.


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