Perhaps the most common misconception about the Immaculate Conception is that it refers to the conception of Christ, rather than the conception of His mother, Mary. It should be a simple mistake to avoid: After all, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 (see When Is Immaculate Conception 2013? for an important exception in 2013) and Christmas, the Nativity of Christ, only 17 days later!
The Gospel reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception may have something to do with this misconception. Luke 1:26-38 is the story of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she had been chosen to be the Mother of Our Lord. That sounds more tied to the Christmas story than to the circumstances of Mary's own conception, doesn't it?
The reason the Church has chosen this passage for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, however, is because of Gabriel's greeting to Mary: "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."
To be "full of grace" means to be free from sin. Adam and Eve were full of grace, but after their Fall, all of mankind was born into their sin—what we call Original Sin. After Christ's death and resurrection, we who believe can be freed from Original Sin by Baptism and kept free from sin through sanctifying grace.
But how could Mary be "full of grace"? She was born into a fallen world; Christ's redemption of mankind was not yet complete. That is the question that theologians struggled with for centuries. Scripture says that Mary is "full of grace," so it must be true. Yet how could it be?
The answer, especially as formulated by Blessed John Duns Scotus, was that Mary was kept free from the stain of Original Sin from the very moment of her conception. God granted her this special privilege in His foreknowledge of her willing acceptance of His plan of salvation, and through the merits of the sacrifice that Christ would offer in that plan.
In other words, Mary was redeemed by Christ, just as all of us who are baptized into Christ are; her redemption, however, was accomplished in a special way at her conception. (For more details, and to find out what two other people were born without Original Sin, see Who Was Born Without Original Sin?)
That doesn't mean that Mary could not have sinned. Like Adam and Eve, she could have fallen from grace—yet she did not. That is why, from the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians have regarded Mary as a "second Eve." Through her lifelong obedience, Mary reversed the disobedience of our first mother, and by her willingness to become the Mother of God, she became our mother, too.
Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee!
(A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary as she appeared at Lourdes, France, in 1858, where she announced, "I am the Immaculate Conception." Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Hanceville, Alabama. Photo © Scott P. Richert)
More on the Immaculate Conception and Original Sin:
- What Is the Immaculate Conception?
- The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
- When Is Immaculate Conception 2013?
- Is Immaculate Conception a Holy Day of Obligation?
- Prayers for December: The Month of the Immaculate Conception
- On Our First Parents and the Fall - Lesson Fifth of the Baltimore Catechism (Confirmation Edition)