On December 8, our brothers and sisters in the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and some parishes in the Episcopal Church commemorate the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The earliest accounts of this celebration (then called the Conception of St. Anne, who is traditionally named as the mother of the Theotokos) date back to the 7th century in Jerusalem. There is also a sermon from around this time composed by a bishop in Greece where the bishop mentions how few people know about this feast. By the 11th Century, the Conception of Mary had spread as far west as England and France and was gaining popularity. In the 12th Century, the Bishop of Normandy raised this feast to the same degree of liturgical solemnity as the Annunciation. Also around this time, Norman students at the University of Paris chose this day as their patronal feast day. So beloved was this day for Normans that during the Middle Ages this feast was sometimes called the “Feast of the Norman Nation”.
Although in some parts of the world this celebration of Mary bears the additional title of “Immaculate”, defining how or even if Mary’s conception should be called “immaculate” was a major question up to the 14th Century. The complex and subtle work of theologians like the Franciscan John Duns Scotus helped the Western Church retain its theology of original sin while honoring the sanctification of Mary whom the Angel Gabriel hailed as being “full of grace” (Luke 1:28). However, the work of Scotus and other theologians since then have by no means produced a consensus across Christendom concerning Mary. Even today, part of the controversy surrounding Mary’s conception is the result of differing theologies of original sin. For the Western church, original sin is transmitted to all humanity from the sin of Adam and Eve. In the East, the consequences of original sin remain in the world, but not the actual sin itself. For the Orthodox, Mary is a human, sharing in the lot with the rest of humanity. In spite of this, no other work of God’s creation is honored as much as the Theotokos is honored in the Orthodox churches.
The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was declared a Roman Catholic dogma in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. Protestants, Anglicans, and Orthodox are unlikely to elevate this particular aspect of Mary’s life on par with other revealed doctrines of the faith. Many Anglo-Catholics may hold the Immaculate Conception of Mary as a pious opinion but by no means obligatory or binding on the entire church. Today, the Episcopal Church does not officially commemorate the Conception of Mary in her liturgical life. Older resources like the Anglican Breviary or the Anglican Missal do, however, provide ample resources for congregations wishing to honor the Virgin Mary. The Church of England’s Common Worship series does commemorate December 8 as Mary’s Conception day. On December 9, our Orthodox sisters and brothers observe the Conception of St. Anna to the Theotokos. Here at the local friary, we will celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception during our Offices and at the Mass.
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org