Associated with: Christianity, especially Catholicism
Also known as: Miriam, Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin, the Immaculate Conception, many others
Earliest recorded mention: c. 70
Major texts: The Gospel of Luke
The Immaculate Conception is one of the great stumbling blocks of Catholicism for non-Catholics, and also one of the hardest doctrines to explain to outsiders. It's reckless of me as a layperson even to try, but that's never stopped me before.
The Immaculate Conception is too often confused with "virgin birth," the Catholic belief that Mary conceived and bore Jesus without having sexual intercourse with a man. But the two doctrines come together in the story that introduces us to Mary: her visit from the angel Gabriel, as reported in the gospel of Luke.
Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a son to be called Jesus, who will rule over the House of Jacob forever. Mary asks how this could be, since she is a virgin. Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and that the child will be the Son of God. He also tells her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth, long thought barren, would bear a child as well, "for nothing is impossible to God."
Think about what this would have meant to Mary. She was young, probably only in her mid-teens. She was engaged to be married to Joseph, a carpenter, and looking forward to a happy, normal life. What would any ordinary person have done in this situation? You or I would have done what Sarah did when the angel told her she would have a son in her old age. We would have laughed. Or we would have said, "No," because that was not part of our own plans, and would have interfered — maybe even have subjected us to humiliation, pain, terror and grief, as indeed it did to Mary.
Instead, Mary said, "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me." This, right here, is the essential mystery of the Immaculate Conception. Unlike the rest of us, Mary was born without the original sin that drives human beings to choose our will over God's. That is what Immaculate Conception means: conceived without sin, born without the fundamental weakness that keeps us separate from God. Mary did not have to work at her faith. She never held herself separate from God. She never preferred her own choices.
That is not a life the rest of us can really imagine. Our own selves are always too present, too loud, too demanding. I am not entirely sure it's something the rest of us should even aspire to. In real life it would look too much like madness, and isn't presuming to know God's will the sin of pride? Mary had a uniquely mysterious relationship with God even before the conception of Jesus. She serves as a role model and as a bridge between us lesser humans and the Almighty, and it is this we celebrate on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.