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Father Nicholas Nelson: Getting the Immaculate Conception and Annunciation correct

This month we celebrate one of the church’s great solemnities, the Immaculate Conception. It is the patronal feast of our country. For this reason, Dec. 8 is a Holy Day of Obligation. So make sure you get to Mass. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

Now, who was immaculately conceived? This, unfortunately, is a question too many Catholics get wrong despite celebrating this Holy Day year after year. Many Catholics without hesitation say “Jesus!” when it was actually Mary, our Blessed Mother, who was immaculately conceived. Jesus was “Incarnate by the Holy Spirit.” This reality is celebrated by the Solemnity of the Annunciation. 

So for this month’s column, I’d like to go deeper into these solemnities and the realities they both celebrate. 

In the year 1854, Blessed Pope Pius IX proclaimed infallibly, “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful” (Ineffabilis Deus). 

First, this does not mean that this wasn’t true until Blessed Pope Pius IX declared it. The entire deposit of faith was given by Christ to the Apostles to be protected and handed on through the generations. The faith, like an acorn, needed to grow and develop. It was only in 1854 that it was declared and necessary to be believed by all the faithful. But it was always true that Mary was immaculately conceived. 

Second, Mary was conceived in the normal way through conjugal union of her father Joachim and mother Anne. But from the beginning of her existence, her conception, she never had original sin. And not only was she preserved from original sin, she was preserved from the effects of original sin. This means her will was at full strength, her intellect was fully enlightened, and her passions were perfectly ordered towards the good. On the other hand, although baptism cleansed us of original sin, we still have to live with a weakened will, a darkened intellect, and disordered passions. 

Thirdly, this wasn’t her doing. She didn’t deserve it. It was due to redemption won by her future Son, the God-man Jesus Christ, and it was a pure gift. God who is All-Powerful can do all things. God, foreseeing the redemption that Christ would win, applied the merits of that redemption to Mary’s conception. God did this so that Jesus would have a pure, sinless temple to dwell in. 

Mary’s birthday is Sept. 8, which is nine months after the Immaculate Conception. 

Now, let us consider Jesus’ conception. Every Sunday we profess the Nicene-Constantinople Creed from the year 381, “And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” Jesus was not conceived in the normal way. There was no conjugal union between Joseph and Mary. The Son, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, always was. He always existed. In the fullness of time, by the Holy Spirit, the Son took on flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Divine Person became a human being, one divine person with two natures, divine and human. This is what the term “incarnate” means, taking on flesh. Due to the Incarnation, Mary has the title of spouse of the Holy Spirit in addition to the spouse of St. Joseph. 

The solemnity that celebrates Jesus’ conception is the Annunciation, March 25. Did you ever notice that the Annunciation takes place nine months before Christmas, Dec. 25? 

So now you will be able to speak correctly about the conceptions of both Mary and Jesus, about the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Annunciation of the Lord. You can help others go deeper into the mysteries of our faith. 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet and vocations director for the Diocese of Duluth. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]