Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The Immaculate Conception is not about sex. The Immaculate Conception is not a celebration of the way that Jesus was conceived – it is often confused with the story of the Virginal Conception of Jesus by Mary
and Joseph. This regularly happens in conversations, in the media, and even by well-educated Roman Catholics who are the ones who are required to hold to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
In fact, in 1677, the Pope condemned people who taught that Mary was conceived with her mother remaining a virgin!
The Immaculate Conception is the claim that Mary never had Original Sin – from the moment of her conception by Anne. So it hinges on an understanding of Original Sin – a Western understanding not shared by Eastern Orthodoxy, for example. Orthodoxy does not hold to Augustine’s idea that we all share the guilt of Adam’s sin. In Orthodoxy, we are all conceived with the image of God – in some sense, then, Orthodoxy does not affirm the particular immaculate conception of Mary because, in a manner, we are all so conceived. Orthodoxy, then, tends to see sin as an illness (a therapeutic model with the church as a hospital for sinners). The West tends to see sin as moral failure (with a juridical model of sin – and often an angry God needing satisfaction and assuaging).
Contemporary Protestants often fear (when they correctly understand the Western teaching) that the Immaculate Conception bypasses Christ’s redemption. It specifically does not – Mary’s sinlessness is due to Christ’s salvation.
Contemporary Protestants are often revisionists, without a historical appreciation of their own founders. In 1544, Martin Luther said, ‘God has formed the soul and body of the Virgin Mary full of the Holy Spirit, so that she is without all sins, for she has conceived and borne the Lord Jesus.’ And: “All seed except Mary was vitiated [by original sin].”
In fact, most contemporary Protestants would mistake the teachings of the Reformers about Mary as being that of Roman Catholics. Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and Wesley all accepted the perpetual virginity of Mary. The Book of Common Prayer and (binding) contemporary Anglican revisions call Mary “The Blessed Virgin Mary” – referring to her as a virgin throughout her life. [Not to mention defining Anne, of whom there is no mention in the Bible, to be the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary].
Anglicans celebrate two conceptions: that of Christ (March 25) and that of Mary (December 8 ). Here is the Church of England collect for the feast of The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Almighty and everlasting God,
who stooped to raise fallen humanity
through the child-bearing of blessed Mary:
grant that we, who have seen your glory
revealed in our human nature
and your love made perfect in our weakness,
may daily be renewed in your image
and conformed to the pattern of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.