I can still remember sitting in high school youth group when our youth minister asked us what we were celebrating on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. I was just beginning to dive into the faith and the teachings of the Church. I, like most teens in the youth group, thought that the Immaculate Conception was about Jesus. It makes sense, right? He was and is immaculate, that is, without sin, and He had to be conceived at some point, thus Immaculate Conception. Wrong. This solemnity has almost nothing to do with Jesus.
We Roman Catholic folk honor Mary today on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. (Eastern Rites typically don’t hold today as a holy day of obligation like Roman Catholics do.) But we don’t honor Mary in the sense that she immaculately conceived Jesus (though she did, that’s not how today’s solemnity got it’s name).
Think about it like this: if the Immaculate Conception was about Mary conceiving Jesus, she was either pregnant with Jesus for 2.5 weeks or 12.5 months. While Mary is incredibly awesome, neither of those are true for her gestation with Jesus – we hold and believe that baby Jesus had a nine month gestation just like the rest of us human beings.
Instead, we today we honor the conception of Mary. She too, we as Catholics believe, was conceived without sin, that is, free from original sin. She and Jesus are the only ones in the history of our faith to be freed from original sin. In this sense, today is one of – if not the – most misunderstood feast days/solemnities in the Catholic calendar. We honor Anne, the mother of Mary, and Mary’s perfect sinlessness.
Nine months after today, on September 8th, the Church celebrates the birth of Mary. So why bother to celebrate when Mary was conceived? We celebrate today because her conception, unlike all others (except Jesus), was different, it was special, and through her unique conception God is sending us a message. This is how we were created to be from the beginning: free from the stain of sin and perfectly following His will. Mary then becomes an example for us, a beacon of hope that we might imitate her as she perfectly and ceaselessly followed the will of God. It may not have always been easy or painless, but from her very conception, she showed us how – and that is something worth honoring.