Though December 8 is usually the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, this year, because the date falls on a Sunday of Advent, the feast is transferred to today, December 9. I'm sure you heard this at Mass yesterday, but it serves as a handy opening to this post, so indulge me, will ya? I just wanted to mention one aspect of this wonderful dogma you may not have thought of before.
First, though, the annual reminder: the "immaculate conception" refers to MARY being conceived without original sin. It does not refer to Jesus' virginal conception. I understand that some of our Protestant brethren regularly use "immaculate conception" to refer to the miraculous circumstances of Jesus' coming into the world--I guess they just liked the term and wanted to keep using it since they disbelieved in its original content.
Here's the problem with that, though: macula means "stain," or "dishonor," so an "immaculate conception" would mean "a conception without stain or dishonor." This makes perfect sense if we're referring to the stain of original sin. But if we're referring to the Virgin Birth of Jesus? What stain or dishonor has been avoided by that "immaculate conception"? It implies that the sexual act, which normally is that which produces a child but which was miraculously dispensed with in this case, is the "stained" or "dishonorable" thing. This puts the conjugal act in quite a negative light, doesn't it? Now that marvelous act in which a man and woman come together to cooperate with God in creating a new life suddenly is portrayed as a dirty and wicked performance of a duty necessary for propagating the species, but nothing more. This is hardly a fitting way to describe one of God's great gifts to humanity.
OK, so perhaps there were two aspects of this dogma I wanted to consider today. Here's the other. The Blessed Virgin Mary, by a singular grace of God, was kept free from the stain and the effects of original sin from the first moment of her existence. The Church believes, further, that she was preserved from all personal sin during her life. But hold on: if Mary never had any sin, and Jesus saves us from our sins, does that mean that Jesus is not Mary's savior? Does that mean Mary didn't need a savior? Does that mean "Christ died for all humanity... except Mary"?
No! Mary was indeed saved by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but in a unique way. An analogy would help here. Let's say there's a large pit in your path. There are at least two ways someone could be saved from the pit: 1) after someone's fallen into the pit, they are pulled out of it; or 2) someone is prevented from falling into the pit in the first place. Everybody falls into the pit of sin and needs to be pulled out by the cross of Christ. In Mary's case, though, the cross of Christ (that is, the grace of God merited by Christ's sacrifice) bars her way and prevents her from ever falling into the pit. Mary is saved by prevention, not by rescue.
Now, you might say, "How could Jesus have saved Mary before he was born?" Well, keep in mind that Jesus is identical to the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, so He existed before His Incarnation. "Yeah, fine," you might reply, "but he hadn't died on the cross yet. How could the grace of the cross be applied to Mary before it had happened?" Time is no object to God. God does not exist in time. He does not experience time in a linear sequence as we do. All moments are present to God, so it is no more trouble for Him to apply the merits of Christ's sacrifice to Mary or Abraham or Moses or anyone else who lived before Christ than it is for Him to apply it to those who live after Christ. And He doesn't even need a ship sling-shotting at warp speed around a star or a TARDIS to do it.
Fun fact: some theologians in the Church's history have believed that St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, and the prophet Jeremiah were all sanctified in the womb, having the stain of original sin removed after their conceptions but before their births. With the latter two, certain Scripture passages suggest this: for Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I consecrated you" (Jeremiah 1:5); with St. John the Baptist, Luke 1:41 says that John leaped in Elizabeth's womb and Elizabeth was "filled with the Holy Spirit." And with St. Joseph, it seemed fitting to some theologians that he who was to be the guardian of the Virgin and the protector of the Christ Child should be strengthened for this task (and perhaps also prepared for the life of perpetual virginity he was to lead with his holy wife). Neat, eh?