I googled why we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th December.
It’s 9 months before 8th September, the feast day of the Nativity of Our Lady, the internet told me. Makes sense right?
So then I googled why we celebrate her Nativity on the 8th September and yep, you guessed it, the most common answer was that it’s because it’s 9 months after the 8th December.
Thanks Internet. Great job.
There’s a surprising lack of information about this date, considering how important it is for Catholics. I couldn’t even find a crazy theory about how the Immaculate Conception actually comes from a pagan festival of Mantic Pyjamalitis, the day the Mayans worshipped the snake goddess and danced in their pyjamas to placate her. (Still disappointed about that.) It was clear then that I had to figure this out.
The Eastern Origins of the Immaculate Conception
The feast of Our Lady’s conception originated in Syria, sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries. There, it was known as the feast of the Conception of Saint Anne. The emphasis of the feast was on the miraculous birth of the Theotokos. According to the protoevangelium of St James, a 2nd Century apocryphal work, St Joachim and St Anne were barren and had been earnestly praying for a child for years. Finally, the Lord answered their prayers and together, they conceived little baby Mary.
The Orthodox still celebrate the feast of the Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos by Saint Anne on the 9th December, singing,
Today the bonds of barrenness are broken, God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anna. He has promised them beyond all their hopes, to bear the Maiden of God by whom the Uncircumscribed One was born as mortal man, who commanded an angel to cry to Her: ‘Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with You!’
Most likely, this feast of the Conception was set nine months before the already existing feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. The birth came before the conception. (Historically, not biologically of course.) Unlike the date of her conception, both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox celebrate her birth on 8th September. So it makes sense that this would be the older date. But no one knows why this day is significant or if it has any basis in history. (The Oriental Orthodox, for example, celebrate her birth in May.)
The Church of Saint Anne and the Immaculate Conception
The best theory we have is that the date is connected somehow with the Basilica of Saint Anne. This church was known as the Basilica Sanctae Mariae ubi nata est and it marks the spot where Mary was believed to have been born — and where her parents, St Joachim and St Anne lived. The basilica was built in the 5th Century, around the time Marian devotion was really developing; later, it was destroyed by invading Muslims and rebuilt in the 12th Century as the Church of St Anne.
Perhaps 8th September was the day the church was originally consecrated?
There is a beautiful and haunting symbolism here, if the Church of Saint Anne truly does stand where Our Lady was conceived and born.
The basilica is at the Sheep’s Gate, which leads into Jerusalem. How fitting, then, that Mary, the Gate of Heaven, who gave birth to Christ, the Shepherd and Priest, should be conceived near Sheep’s Gate.
Nearby, there is also the Pool of Bethesda, where the Lord healed the paralytic man. This pool was a pool of miraculous healing and it was believed that, when the waters stirred, the first person who stepped in to it would be healed of all their diseases.
It is fitting too if this is where the soul of Mary was infused with at the moment of her conception. There, the waters truly did stir as the Holy Spirit descended. And the soul of the infant Mary was and filled the soul of the infant Mary whose divine Son would bring healing to the whole world.
The Controversy of the Immaculate Conception
By the 8th Century, we know that the feast of Our Lady’s Conception was being celebrated in Syria and the Holy Land. St Andrew of Crete wrote a canon for the feast of the Conception in the 8th Century, praising the Virgin’s purity. By the 9th Century, one Metropolitan of Nicomedia notes that the feast was “generally observed” throughout the Christian East.
Around the same time, the feast was brought to the Latin Church by Eastern monks who fled the iconoclast persecutions.
In the West, there would be plenty of arguments over celebrating this feast day. People loved it but many theologians were less keen. St Bernard scolded his fellow Christians that,
I am frightened now, seeing that certain of you have desired to change the condition of important matters, introducing a new festival unknown to the Church, unapproved by reason, unjustified by ancient tradition… I say that the Virgin Mary could not be sanctified before Her conception, inasmuch as She did not exist. If, all the more, She could not be sanctified in the moment of Her conception by reason of the sin which is inseparable from conception, then it remains to believe that She was sanctified after She was conceived in the womb of Her mother. This sanctification, if it annihilates sin, makes holy Her birth, but not Her conception.
For St Bernard, as for many of the Fathers and theologians, the very idea of celebrating a conception was repugnant. That meant celebrating the act of sex and therefore, celebrating lust and concupiscence. They doubted that it was possible for anyone, ever, to have sex without sinning. St Bernard calls this “the sin which is inseparable from conception”. To celebrate the Conception of Our Lady, then, would just be celebrating two concupiscent mortals getting it on — and none of us wants that.
The Triumph of the Immaculate Conception
The people’s devotion to the Immaculate Virgin triumphed. Perhaps the commoners grasped what the more rarefied theologians struggled to understand. Sex, purified by the love of the Holy Spirit, can truly be holy and chaste. Far from being inherently sinful, it is the way that a husband and wife, united by God, express their love for each other and the means by which the Creator creates new life.
By believing in and celebrating the Immaculate Conception, Christians of the Middle Ages proved that it wasn’t sex that wasn’t the problem. Sin is the problem.
In the same way, when we look to Immaculate Mary, we see that sin isn’t a natural part of being human. It’s the unnatural and unwanted virus of the human race. Our true nature is immaculate and pure; a nature that has been robbed from us by the devil and the inheritance of original sin.
But our loving Father wants so much more for us. He wants us to be completely and utterly His. He wants us to live and to love in the freedom of perfect sanctity. Christ, the spotless Lamb, died for us that He might sanctify us and present us to Himself” in splendour, without spot or wrinkle… holy and without blemish.” (cf. Eph 5:25-32)
Perhaps we’ll never know why we celebrate the Immaculate Conception on 8th December.
The origins of this ancient festival are lost to us. Like so much of the life of the Blessed Virgin herself, the beginnings of the feast day are hidden from the rude and prying eyes of history.
What is clear is that it was the commoners who, infused with the mysticism of the Eastern Church, insisted on celebrating this feast — despite what the theologians said. The sweet and loving Virgin has always sided with the common people.
And it seems that the common people have always sided with her.