In the Introit for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the prophet Isaiah speaks of being clothed in a “mantle of justice” which he understands is the “robe of salvation.” Clothing has always played a hugely symbolic role within the Old Testament. While we think of clothing today mostly in terms of being aesthetically pleasing, the Scriptures treat it different. Clothing serves two purposes in the Scriptures: to protect from the elements and as a sign of dignity. While the protection aspects are obvious here, the prophet also speaks of being clothed as a bride wearing jewelry, the day when she looks her most radiant.
If we read the prayers of today’s liturgy in the Extraordinary Form, Mary’s Immaculate Conception is treated both ways. The Collect asks that God, who “preserved her from all taint, grant, we beseech You, through her intercession, that we too may come to You unstained by sin.” Why is Mary’s status connected to us? How can a woman who did not sin possibly relate to us who are sinners? While the answer to that is an interesting one, I think the liturgy wants us to instead focus on God. He made Mary immaculate for several reasons, and we should take heart in those reasons.
The first reason He made her immaculate was, as the Collect states, to “prepare a worthy dwelling for Your Son.” The last time God was merely in the presence of man in the Scriptures was during the Exodus, where he was so offended by their sins, he nearly wiped them out. (Exodus 32:10) When the temple was constructed for God, even a building of the finest gold was not pure enough, God had to send down fire from heaven to cleanse and purify the temple so it became a fitting dwelling place. (2 Chronicles 7:1-3)
With the Theotokos, the fire of God’s grace, in a singular act (since only one person would bear the Redeemer within the womb) purified the dwelling place of the Messiah, Mary his mother. By way of analogy, the Epistle (Proverbs 8:22-35) tells us that Mary’s mission was brought forth before the world was even created. Think about that. Even before the world was created, back when there was nothingness; God had decided Mary would be his vessel. Yet just as he purified the womb of the temple, so he purifies (makes perfect) the womb of the Virgin from the moment of her conception.
Protestants (and sadly some Christians who profess devotion to Mary) view the Immaculate Conception as distracting from the glory of Christ. Yet this is nonsense. The Immaculate Conception is so not out of any merit of what Mary does, nor out of the merit of her holy parents Anna and Joachim, but rather out of God. God makes it happen, not man. More importantly, in causing the Immaculate Conception, God shows that sin is not the master the world believes it to be.
How many people in this world believe that their sins are all-powerful? How many times have we heard that people cannot change from their ways, and that the Gospel is impossible to live by? I submit that outside of the primary role (of bearing the Redeemer of man), the Immaculate Conception is important because it shows a world that as powerful as they think sin is, the bonds of sin can be loosed with just a thought from the creator of the universe.
While God can free us from sin, it is a truism that we often go back to those sins. Thanks to the illumination of grace, Mary always chose the Father’s will. Even when we are given such light, our selfish natures frequently choose the opposite. That is why in several different places today’s liturgy asks for her prayers. On this the Christian East and West speak with one voice, pleading with Mary to not only pray for us, but guide us towards her Son. The Epistle tells us “happy the man who obeys me”, because those obey the example of Our Lady find life and favor from God. While God might not have made us immaculately conceived, he still protects us from sin.
In addition to protection, God preserved Mary from sin to show us what we are meant to be. The world presents man in a very nasty condition. Even the best of worldly men are selfish, in that while they might die for others, they die only for those they think are good. Christ died not just for the wicked, but for all of us. (Romans 5:6-8) Why? So we could be restored to what was originally ours, though Adam threw it away. (Romans 5:12-14)
In the Blessed Virgin we see what we were called to be. We see one arrayed in the finest clothing possible, that of divine grace. Divine grace not only puts her above ordinary humans, the outpouring of divine grace upon the soul of Mary makes her God’s highest creation, even above the angels! When we beseech the saints in the Confiteor, we beseech Mary, then the Archangel Michael for this very reason.
Living in the world, especially today’s society can be tough. Sin and discord have become so prevalent; we spend our lives negotiating the terms of our co-existence with sin. Not only do we resign ourselves to this miserable state of affairs, we begin to think this is all we have to look forward to. The Church, in her wisdom, places the Feast of the Immaculate Conception during Advent as a reminder that this state of affairs is not God’s design, and if we want to see God’s design, we need only look upon the life of a peasant from a backwater town on the farthest edges of the known world. Through the Blessed Virgin, we see that there is more to life than this, and that if we dedicate our lives to the Redeemer whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, what our destination truly is, that, through her intercession (and accompaniment!), “we too may come to You unstained by sin.” (Collect)