Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic tradition and is an extremely important day in the church and in Catholic countries in general. Here in Italy and in Argentina it is a national holiday, and it is a day of obligation in the church. According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, Mary could not have been worthy of the Virgin Birth unless she herself was free of Original Sin. That means that, although Mary was conceived in the normal way, her conception was “immaculate” (i.e. free from sin). This makes no sense to me whatsoever, but I understand why it is an important dogma for the church. It’s what happens when people start applying logic to faith. Personally, I think the dogma of the Virgin Birth (let alone the whole Bethlehem tale), was invented by the early church to make sense of actual events versus Hebrew prophecy. The Immaculate Conception is one more brick in the wall.
The Immaculate Conception is commonly mistaken to be the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb which is a complete misunderstanding of the dogma, which refers only to Mary and her mother. Although the belief that Mary was sinless and conceived immaculately has been widely held since Late Antiquity, the doctrine was not dogmatically defined until 1854, by Pope Pius IX in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus.
A feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God was celebrated in Syria on 8 December perhaps as early as the 5th century. Note that her Greek title of achrantos (spotless, immaculate, all-pure) refers to her supposed perpetual holiness, not specifically to the holiness of her conception. Mary’s complete sinlessness and concomitant exemption from any taint from the first moment of her existence was a doctrine familiar to Greek theologians of Byzantium. Beginning with St. Gregory Nazianzen, his explanation of the “purification” of Jesus and Mary at the circumcision (Luke 2:22) prompted him to consider the primary meaning of “purification” in Christology (and by extension in Mariology) to refer to a perfectly sinless nature that manifested itself in glory in a moment of grace (e.g., Jesus at his Baptism). St. Gregory Nazianzen designated Mary as “prokathartheisa (prepurified).” Gregory likely attempted to solve the riddle of the Purification of Jesus and Mary in the Temple through considering the human natures of Jesus and Mary as equally holy and therefore both purified in this manner of grace and glory. Gregory’s doctrines surrounding Mary’s purification were likely related to the burgeoning commemoration of the Mother of God in and around Constantinople very close to the date of Christmas. Nazianzen’s title of Mary at the Annunciation as “prepurified” was subsequently adopted by all theologians interested in his Mariology to justify the Byzantine equivalent of the Immaculate Conception. The public celebration of the “Conception of St. Ann [i.e., of the Theotokos in her womb]” was becoming popular. After this period, the “purification” of the perfect natures of Jesus and Mary would not only mean moments of grace and glory at the Incarnation and Baptism and other public Byzantine liturgical feasts, but purification was eventually associated with the feast of Mary’s very conception (along with her Presentation in the Temple as a toddler) by Orthodox authors of the early 2nd millennium (e.g., St. Nicholas Cabasilas and Joseph Bryennius).
Enough theology. Today is a big day in the church as well as in the secular culture of Catholic countries. I get a day off work, and in Argentina today was the official start of Christmas celebrations in Argentina, even though we are well into Advent. Here’s a gallery from Immaculate Conception 2013 in Buenos Aires. The church of the Immaculate Conception was just a few blocks from my apartment in san Telmo, and each year they have an evening mass on this day preceded by a procession around the church carrying an image of the Virgin and accompanied by an assortment of people, including young girls in white and street musicians.
In Buenos Aires on this date I always made the Argentine/Italian lentil stew guiso de lentejas. You really don’t need a recipe; I never use one. The main thing is that the lentils have to simmer with at least one pig’s foot. Pork is not common in Buenos Aires most of the year because beef is king. But at Christmas pork is traditional (including whole roast pig on Christmas Eve). Start by soaking some lentils overnight in cold water. Drain them and put them in a pot with at least one pig’s trotter. Bring to a boil and simmer until the lentils are almost fully cooked. Then add chopped bell pepper, chopped onions (or leeks), a can of whole tomatoes, and season with oregano, salt, and pepper. You should also add a few pork sausages of your choice. Continue simmering for about 40 minutes, until the vegetables and sausages are cooked. The thing about this soup/stew is that the meat and vegetables should be served as is with the lentils in deep bowls. Don’t cut any of the meats up. It’s meant to look like a traffic accident. My pictures tell the story.