In the second century, apocryphal “gospels” known as the Protoevangelium of James and The Nativity of Mary appeared, compiled by devout Christians seeking to supply a fuller account of the Virgin Mary’s birth and family. The books include legendary stories of Mary’s parents Joachim and Anna that are built out of the Old Testament narratives of the births of Isaac and of Samuel (whose mother’s name, Hannah, is the original form of Anna), and from the traditions of the birth of John the Baptist. Joachim and Anna are presented as a childless, elderly couple whose faith and prayers were rewarded with the miraculous conception of a girl whom they dedicated in infancy to the service of God under the tutelage of the Temple priests.
As early as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Mary was regarded as the “new Eve”. In the East, where Andrew of Crete and John of Damascus had extolled the perfect sinlessness of Mary as implicit in the title Theotokos, the commemoration of her conception was known from the seventh century. The observance of the feast spread to the West and is attested in England by the first half of the eleventh century.
Over the course of the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, culminating in the Council of Trent and the dogmatic definition by Pope Pius the Ninth in the bull Ineffabilis Deus in 1854, the Western Church (and then the Roman Catholic Church) developed a doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that “from the first moment of her conception” she was “by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin” (Ineffabilis Deus). The opinions of Western medieval churchmen were divided on the matter, however. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in his Epistle 174, ““No one is given the right to be conceived in sanctity; only the Lord Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and He alone is holy from His very conception.” Eastern Orthodox theologians have never endorsed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, principally because they do not share the Western Augustinian understanding of original sin, but they do teach that God kept the Blessed Virgin Mary sinless. In both the Eastern and the Western teachings, Mary did not remain sinless through her own moral effort (for that would be Pelagianism), but through the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
While Anglican teaching does not accept the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and has never pronounced officially on Mary’s state regarding sin, the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was restored to the sanctoral calendar of the Church of England in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The Church of England continues to observe the commemoration in the Calendar in Common Worship. The Anglican Church of Canada, in the calendars of both the Book of Common Prayer (1962) and the Book of Alternative Services, commemorates this day as well. The Orthodox Churches observe the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 9, and some Orthodox Churches keep December 8 as the eve of the feast.
adapted from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church,
Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980), and other sources
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. Amen.
The collect is taken from Common Worship (© The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England).