Tuesday, December 07, 2021

The Illuminating Orations of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Immaculate Conception (ca. 1767)
Lost in Translation #65

On December 8 is the Church’s only universal Marian feast in December, that of the Immaculate Conception. The feast has its origins in the eighth century, when it was celebrated in the East under the title “The Conception of Saint Anne.” Soon after it spread to the West, usually under the title of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Saint Norbert (1075-1134) and his Premonstratensian Order were among the first Western-rite Christians to celebrate the feast and had their own proper Office for it. They were followed by the Franciscans, also supporters of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, who celebrated the feast with their own Mass and Office adapted from that of the Papal Chapel.

The feast was on the universal calendar of the first liturgical books of the Tridentine reform, but without a proper Office or Mass; the texts were those of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Gregory DiPippo points out in his article on the subject, with the word “Nativity” changed to “Conception.” In 1708, Pope Clement XI made the feast a holy day of obligation, but the Mass and Office remained unchanged. In 1847, Pope Blessed Pius IX approved a proper Office for the feast and extended it to the entire Church. Seven years later, Pius solemnly defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and nine years after that, he issued a new Office and Mass for the feast. (S.R.C. 3119) Some of the 1863 propers were borrowed from the Franciscan feast of the Immaculate Conception (e.g., the Collect) while others (like the Secret and Postcommunion) were new compositions.
In his apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus, in which he defines the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the Supreme Pontiff speaks of the law of prayer establishing the law of belief (lex credendi ipsa supplicandi lege statueretur). The Orations chosen for the feast are a good illustration of this principle, as each prayer brings to light a different facet of this glorious mystery concerning the Mother of God. The Collect is:
Deus, qui per Immaculátam Vírginis Conceptiónem dignum Filio tuo habitáculum praeparásti: quáesumus; ut, qui ex morte ejúsdem Filii tui praevísa, eam ab omni labe praeservásti, nos quoque mundos ejus intercessióne ad te perveníre concédas. Per eúndem Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who through the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin didst make a worthy dwelling place for Thy Son, grant, we beseech Thee: that Thou who, having foreseen the death of Thy same Son, didst preserve her from all stain, may Thou grant that we also, by her intercession, may reach Thee cleansed. Through the same our Lord.
The key concept in this prayer, which is owed to the Franciscan friar Blessed Jon Duns Scotus, is “foreseen.” Scotus was able to solve a riddle that stumped even the great St Thomas Aquinas: if Mary was conceived without original sin, how could she call Jesus Christ her Redeemer or Savior? Scotus’ insight was that just as someone who rescues you from a ditch after you have fallen into it is your savior, so too is someone who keeps you from falling into it in the first place.
According to Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus, almighty God foresaw several things. For all eternity and before the Heavens and the earth were created, God foresaw that Adam would fall and that the best remedy for the tragedy of sin would be to have His own Son become incarnate and atone for our sins through His suffering and death. God also foresaw that the best mother for His Son would be Mary of Nazareth, and God knew for all eternity that He would preserve her from all sin and endow her with a holiness nothing greater than which can be imagined. Most of all, because God foresaw the death of His Son, He pre-applied the graces won on the Cross to His Son’s Mother at the moment of Her conception to prevent the stain of original sin from contaminating her soul. This preapplication means that Jesus Christ is the Savior of His Mother just as much as He is ours, even though Mary is without sin. He saved her from falling into the ditch in order to have, among other things, a “worthy dwelling place.”[1]
The Secret further describes this process of preapplication:
Salutárem hóstiam, quam in solemnitáte Immaculátae Conceptiónis beátae Vírginis Maríae tibi, Dómine, offérimus, súscipe et praesta: ut, sicut illam tua grátia praeveniénte ab omni labe immúnem profitémur: ita ejus intercessióne a culpis ómnibus liberémur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Accept, O Lord, the saving victim which we offer Thee on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and grant that as we confess her to have been made immune by Thy prevenient grace to every stain, so through her intercession may we be delivered from all our faults. Through our Lord.
The key phrase in the Secret is “prevenient grace.” Usually this term, which literally means “grace that comes before,” refers to the grace that enables a soul to undergo conversion and thus receive sanctifying grace. Here, it means that and more: the graces of the Crucifixion, still decades away from happening, preceded Mary every moment of her life.
The idea of applying the grace of Christ prior to the Passion of Christ should not come as a surprise, for all grace comes from the Cross. “Every supernatural good given to us,” writes Blessed Columba Marmion,
all the lights God lavishes on us, all the helps with which he surrounds our spiritual life, are bestowed on us in virtue of the life, passion, and death of Christ; all the graces of pardon, justification, perseverance God gives and ever will give to souls in all ages have their own source in the Cross. (Christ the Life of the Soul (Angelico Press, 2012), 68, emphasis added.)
All of which is to say that if Abraham, Moses, and Job had sanctifying grace (and they did), then that grace came to them from an event that had not yet happened. The Blessed Virgin Mary was not alone in receiving prevenient grace. What distinguishes her from all other holy figures before the Paschal Mystery (and all since) is that this prevenient grace was applied at the moment of her conception. Such is the lesson of the Postcommunion:
Sacraménta quae súmpsimus, Dómine Deus noster, illíus in nobis culpae vúlnera réparent, a qua Immaculátam beátae Maríae Conceptiónem singuláriter praeservásti. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
May the sacraments which we have received, O Lord our God, repair in us the wounds of that fault from which Thou didst singularly preserve the Immaculate Conception of Blessed Mary. Through our Lord.
The key word here is “singularly.” According to Catholic tradition, several Saints have been preserved from committing a mortal sin, and some have even been preserved from committing a venial sin, for they were sanctified by the Holy Spirit in the womb: Jeremiah the prophet is believed to be one such Saint, and John the Baptist another (and, depending on which theologian you consult, some claim that Saint Joseph also received an in utero sanctification that kept him from committing any personal sins). But as blessed as these men were, they still contracted the stain of original sin and were then washed clean of it. Mary alone among lowly mortals was preserved from original sin as well as all actual sin. She is unique, and on this feast day we thank God for that.
[1] The foresight of God's eternal plan for Mary is reinforced in the Lesson of the feast's Mass and Lauds: "The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His ways, before He made anything, from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old, before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived." (Prov. 8.22-24)

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