Immaculate Conception

Mary, mystic Rose of purity, I rejoice with thee at the glorious triumph thou didst gain over the serpent by thy Immaculate Conception, in that then wast conceived without original sin. I thank and praise with my whole heart the Ever-blessed Trinity, who granted thee that glorious privilege and I pray thee to obtain for me courage to overcome every snare of the great enemy, and never to stain my soul with mortal sin. Be thou always mine aid, and enable me with thy protection to obtain the victory over all the enemies of man’s eternal welfare.

(From the Raccolta, a novena for the Immaculate Conception)

rubens-immaculate
Rubens, L’Immaculée Conception, 1628-1629

The Immaculate Conception is a Madonnine feast day which celebrates the belief that Mary was conceived without sin. It occurs on December 8, nine months before the feast of the Nativity of Mary on September 8. Like the feast of the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception has over time evolved into an emanation of the Madonna, so the words “Immaculate Conception” may refer to the feast or the Madonna herself. Statues of the Immaculate Conception were common enough in Italy, but rose to even greater prominence among Italian-American immigrants and their descendants due to their wider availability in the United States. We might hypothesize that the image of the Immaculate Conception in some cases conceals still greater mysteries of the Madonna and her many faces.

That being said, the Immaculate Conception is not without power of her own, and that power cannot be understood without contemplating Eve. The Madonna is often contrasted with Eve, the pair being the only two women born without sin.  We see this juxtaposition in the Ave Maris Stella, which describes the Madonna in her emanation as the Star of the Sea as “taking that sweet Ave, / which from Gabriel came, / peace confirm within us, / changing Eve’s name”. The heretics among us may see this as an opportunity to bring Eve into our personal practice through the image of the Immaculate Conception.

santino-immacolata-conezione
santino or holy card for the Immaculate Conception.

Contained in the image of the Immaculate Conception we find the Serpent, often biting an apple, which may represent ancestral knowledge or entheogenic exploration. We also see the Madonna with her feet on the earth and her body standing upright in space, like the world tree which stretches from this world to the next. These are the themes which have come through strongly for me in devotional work with her: women’s mysteries of ovulation and birth, the channeling of ancestral knowledge, and the ritual use of entheogens.

These attributes may have been noticed by practitioners of African Diasporic Traditions, leading to some revealing syncretism. In Vodou, the Immaculate Conception is syncretized with Ayida-Weddo, the “Rainbow Serpent” of fertility. Many Lukumi houses syncretize the Immaculate Conception with the orisha Iroko, who is said to be a sacred tree which assisted Obatala’s descent from Heaven to Earth during the creation of the world.

You can honor the Immaculate Conception by performing her novena, which is traditionally said in the nine days leading up to her feast day, i.e. November 29 through December 7. There is also a 15-bead chaplet of the Immaculate Conception which is short enough to be prayed everyday.

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Christian novenas & pagan funerary rites

“The Jews had no nine days’ religious celebration or nine days’ mourning or feast on the ninth day after the death or burial of relatives and friends. They held the number seven more sacred than any other. On the contrary, we find among the ancient Romans an official nine days’ religious celebration whose origin is related in Livy (I, xxxi). After a shower of stones on the Alban Mount, an official sacrifice, whether because of a warning from above or of the augurs’ advice, was held on nine days to appease the gods and avert evil. From then on the same novena of sacrifices was made whenever the like wonder was announced (cf. Livy, XXI, lxii; XXV, vii; XXVI, xxiii etc.).

“Besides this custom, there also existed among the Greeks and Romans that of a nine days’ mourning, with a special feast on the ninth day after death or burial. This, however, was rather of a private or family character (cf. Homer, Iliad, XXIV, 664, 784; Virgil, Aeneid, V, 64; Tacitus, Annals, VI, v.). The Romans also celebrated their parentalia novendialia, a yearly novena (13 to 22 Feb.) of commemoration of all the departed members of their families (cf. Mommsen, “Corp. Inscript. Latin.”, I, 386 sq.). The celebration ended on the ninth day with a sacrifice and a joyful banquet. There is a reference to these customs in the laws of the Emperor Justinian (“Corp. Jur. Civil. Justinian.”, II, Turin, 1757, 696, tit. xix, “De sepulchro violato”), where creditors are forbidden to trouble the heirs of their debtor for nine days after his death. St. Augustine (P.L., XXXIV, 596) warns Christians not to imitate the pagan custom, as there is no example of it in Holy Writ. Later on, the same was done by the Pseudo-Alcuin (P.L., CI, 1278), invoking the authority of St. Augustine, and still more sharply by John Beleth (P.L., CCII, 160) in the twelfth century. Even Durandus in his “Rationale” (Naples, 1478), writing on the Office of the Dead, remarks that “some did not approve this, to avoid the appearance of aping pagan customs”.

“Nevertheless, in Christian mortuary celebrations, one finds that of the ninth day with those of the third and seventh. The “Constitutiones Apostolicae” (VIII, xlii; P.G., I, 1147) already speak of it. The custom existed specially in the East, but is found also among the Franks and Anglo-Saxons. Even if it was connected with an earlier practice of the pagans, it nevertheless had in itself no vestige of superstition. A nine days’ mourning with daily Mass was a distinction, naturally, which could be shared by none but the higher classes. Princes and the rich ordered such a celebration for themselves in their wills; even in the wills of popes and cardinals such orders are found. Already in the Middle Ages the novena of Masses for popes and cardinals was customary. Later on, the mortuary celebration for cardinals became constantly more simple, until finally it was regulated and fixed by the Constitution “Praecipuum” of Benedict XIV (23 Nov., 1741). For deceased sovereign pontiffs the nine days’ mourning was retained, and so came to be called simply the “Pope’s Novena” (cf. Mabillon, “Museum Italicum”, II, Paris, 1689, 530 sqq., “Ordo Roman. XV”; P.L., LXXVIII, 1353; Const. “In eligendis” of Pius IV, 9 Oct., 1562). The usage still continues and consists chiefly in a novena of Masses for the departed. A rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Rites (22 Apr., 1633) informs us that such novenas of mourning, officia novendialia ex testamento, were generally known and allowed in the churches of religious (Decr. Auth. S.R.C., 604). They are no longer in common use, though they have never been forbidden, and indeed, on the contrary, novendiales precum et Missarum devotiones pro defunctis were approved by Gregory XVI (11 July, 1853 [sic]) and indulgenced for a confraternity agonizantium in France (Resc. Auth. S.C. Indulg., 382).”

Hilgers, Joseph. “Novena.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 20 Feb. 2016<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11141b.htm&gt;. Emphasis mine.