The Feast of the Immaculate Conception: How I Met Mary
Today, millions of Catholics went to Mass, prayed the Rosary, and meditated on the Blessed Virgin Mary perhaps even more so than usual as December 8 is designated as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
For those readers who aren’t Catholic or might not be aware, the Immaculate Conception doesn’t refer to Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb. It refers to Mary’s own conception. We Catholics believe that Mary, the “ark of the New Covenant” who bore Jesus, was herself conceived without sin and born without the stain of original sin.
I’m not going to go further into the theology around the Immaculate Conception, as that’s another blog post entirely and Catholic Answers does a sufficient job of explaining it.
But I wanted to share, on this holy day dedicated to Mary, just how I came to know and love our Blessed Mother.
The Confused Convert
I am a convert to Catholicism. Growing up attending a Presbyterian church, I never heard anything more about Mary than a (very) brief mention of her at Christmastime.
So when I began studying Catholicism and attending Mass, learning about Mary was an area I kept at arm’s length for a while. It was one of the most foreign concepts of the Catholic faith that I ran into during the months of study and prayer that led me to the Church.
I think I may have been a little afraid of giving her too much—read: any—attention. Besides, as a Protestant, I had heard the old (and wrong) adage that “Catholics worship Mary” and I was a little hesitant to jump into that can of worms.
But I quickly learned that this is not the case: Catholics don’t “worship” Mary! Mary, as the Mother of Jesus (and thus, the mother of God—“theotokos”) deserves special honor. It was her “yes,” her “fiat” that set in motion Christ’s coming into the world.
Every part of Mary’s life directed the attention to her Son. At the Annunciation, when she gave her “yes” to God, her soul “magnified the Lord.” At the Wedding Feast at Cana, she told the servants to “do whatever He [Jesus] tells you,” effectively beginning the Lord’s road to Calvary. At the cross, she stood at her son’s feet, wept, and became Our Mother. She isn’t worshipped, and she never asked to be.
The Rosary, too, is proof of this: each decade is a meditation on the life of Christ. We don’t “pray to” Mary; we ask her for her intercession before her Son. Statues aren’t images of “worship,” but images that direct our focus for interior prayer and meditation. Just as we ask our family members and friends on Earth for their prayers, we ask our family members and friends in Heaven—the Saints—for their prayers and intercession as well.
All of this better informed me as to what Catholics really believe about Mary, and I overcame my “fear” of a Marian devotion pretty quickly. I realized that she was the holiest woman in all of history—and I had so much to learn from her.
Show Thyself a Mother
Even though, by that point, I had overcome this discomfort with talking to Mary, I had no idea where to begin. I still didn’t “get” who Mary was. Why should I talk to her? Why should I ask her for her intercession? How do I come to know Mary as the Blessed Mother?
Upon the advice of a few holy friends and priests, I simply asked her.
I asked her to show herself to me as a Mother—to help me understand who God wanted her to be in my life.
I noticed, more and more often, that when I faced a trial—a hurt, a frustration, a struggle—I would think of Mary. I would say a Hail Mary (which helped in memorizing it!) and think for a moment of what great faith she had when she said, “be it done to me according to thy word.”
There was no Earth-shattering, Heavenly-ray-of-light-shining-down moment in which she appeared to me and it all made sense; she simply worked her way into my life.
I recall the first time I ever tried to pray the Rosary—it was confusing, and a little frustrating because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t memorized the Hail Mary yet, so I found it near impossible to keep track of what bead I was on while flipping back and forth in a prayer book I had to read the correct prayers. But I wanted to try to understand Mary and meditating on her and Jesus’ lives seemed to be the best way.
Watching The Passion of the Christ made her even more real to me. Obviously, the movie is a dramatic interpretation of the life of Christ and the events leading up to his death and resurrection. But it was incredibly well-made and illustrative of Mary’s great faith and love and of her role in the life of Christ.
What strikes me most about Mary—and perhaps what I am most challenged by—is how she suffered so much watching her beloved Son be betrayed, humiliated, suffer, and die by execution… and yet she didn’t become bitter towards mankind. She became quite the opposite, in fact, when Jesus gave her to us as our Mother from the cross when he said to John, “behold thy Mother.”
How often, when I am hurt or wronged in some way, I want to lash out quickly to defend myself, make a point, or even achieve some sort of retribution. But Mary’s humble example calls me to something better and holier.
Mary is Like the Moon: She Reflects the Son
In virtually any state in life, Mary has something to teach us. As a new, potential convert, I looked to her as a model for a life of holiness. As I discerned a vocation, I looked to her for courage to say “yes” to wherever God was calling me. As a wife, I look to her as an example of chastity, self-giving love, and unyielding faith.
A friend once related to me that one can understand Marian theology by looking at a full moon—for what does a full moon do? It reflects the sun. Likewise, in our lives, Mary reflects her Son. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote, “The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son; without Him, she is nothing. With Him, she is the Mother of Men.”
May we come to know and love Jesus Christ even more, through the intercession of our Blessed Mother, Mary.
Mary, the Immaculate Conception, pray for us.