Today is the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is often misunderstood: many think it refers to the conception of Jesus and the Virgin birth. But it is Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother we celebrate.
Mary’s conception was immaculate because God ordained that she be conceived without original sin. The Church teaches that, because of the fall of Adam and Eve, all of us are born with original sin—meaning we will sin and struggle not to sin. But because Mary was to be the Mother of our Lord, she needed to be sinless.
Thus Mary was conceived through sexual intercourse—important because a misunderstanding of the above gives the impression that the sexual act itself is sinful, “dirty”, instead of what God created it to be, a unitive and procreative act for a husband and wife. An act of love—yes, with a unique divine intervention—that produced the most virtuous human ever to be born!
What follows is a reflection on Mary, excerpted from a book for which I wrote a brief chapter introduction, Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration, by Francis Etheridge (En Route Books, St. Louis, MO, 2020).
. . . Although I am a lifelong Catholic who has always prayed to Mary, I often felt something lacking; I prayed more directly and felt more intense love for Jesus. This has changed recently, through the grace of a deeper connection to Mary, and a better understanding of her role as the Sharer of the Sufferings of Christ, an attribute explored in the chapter which follows
In 1993, I was pregnant with our first child. As the due date of August 31st came and went, I thought about significant dates and how nice it would be for the baby to come on my best friend’s birthday, September 4th, and then, September 8th, the Blessed Virgin’s birthday! But that came and went as well. Finally, after two days of induced labor and a c-section, James Anthony arrived, on September 15th. I was disappointed to see it was it was indeed a Mary feast day, but Our Lady of Sorrows. I didn’t know why—here was a joyful event, balancing a great sadness in my family– my 34-year-old brother was dying of cancer. The connection of sorrow to birth was unsettling.
When James was four, he was diagnosed with autism, which was devastating at first, but then his diagnosis became just part of the wonderful child he was. We had two more children, and life had its challenges, but there was much joy. At times I thought about Our Lady of Sorrows and thought yes, well I do sort of understand now the significance of the date, but I still kind of kept Mary at arm’s length.
In his young adulthood, however, James’ disabilities have become a crisis, as he has had a mysterious regression. His situation and what to do about it have pushed us to our limits, and caused intense anxiety for me as his mother. Mothers are supposed to know how to make things better, and I can’t!
Partially from desperation, I embarked on a 54-day rosary novena to Mary. One is to pray a full rosary for 27 days for an intention and then immediately 27 more days in thanksgiving—no matter if prayers are answered, trusting that God does what is best. What I found as I prayed to Mary first thing every morning: I started to focus less on what I was begging for, for my son, and more on Mary herself, and I started to experience great comfort in understanding her as the Mother of Sorrows. Each day I brought my sorrow and worries to a mother who shared them in her mother’s heart. I was able to surrender my attempts at control, and put things in the hands of the Lord, her beloved Son. Mary’s role as Intercessor and Advocate became so much more real.
I have learned that when things go wrong, really wrong, the world offers no comfort, but we can go to Mary. By entering into the mystery of the passion of Jesus, with Mary at our side, somehow, we can bear the unbearable, because Mary represents to us the bridge between our human weakness and pain and the glory of Jesus Christ.
And, let us not forget, though Mary suffered the unspeakable agony of the loss of her child, three days later, she saw Him again! And if we mediate on that moment, in the midst of our distress, we have all the faith and hope that we are meant to have to sustain us. Love is eternal, and more powerful than death. With the knowledge of the Resurrection we can persevere through suffering and know that as with Mary, God had a plan for all those who trust in Him.
It has taken me many years, but I now thank God that James was born on Our Lady of Sorrows. And I thank God that through this difficult time with my son He has offered me new hope through closeness to Mary.