Catholic Activity: Celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Home
The Immaculate Conception is the patroness of the United States, and December 8 is a holy day of obligation. Included here is the Mary Candle, hymns to Mary and an idea to invoke Our Lady during the octave of her feast for our country and for the virtue of piety.
With such a glorious feast as this during the month of December, we are almost tempted to give up all hope of doing much penance during the season of Advent. On December 8 we celebrate the wondrous moment when the Blessed Virgin began her existence in this world. At the same time we celebrate the sublime privilege by which Mary, alone among all human beings and in virtue of the future merits of Christ, was preserved at the very first moment of conception from the stain of original sin. It is true, of course, that in origin and in principle this great feast does not have any relationship with the time of Advent. It was fixed on December 8 in order to separate the feast by nine months from the date of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin on September 8. However, in celebrating this feast we may easily enter into the spirit of Christmastide, for the feast is like the dawn of the Sun of Christmas. Mary is our hope, guide, and mother along the path of salvation.
The vigil of the Immaculate Conception is an opportune time to introduce the children to the practice of lighting a special Advent candle in Mary's honor. The Advent candle expresses symbolically the words of Isaias, "There shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of this root." A beautiful candle is placed in a candleholder, which is covered with a white silk cloth tied together with ribbon. The candle is then placed before an image, statue or ikon of our Lady before which the family prays to the Mother of God. This ancient custom preaches its lesson with an eloquent simplicity which is comprehensible to little children. The covered candleholder represents the rod out of the root of Jesse, Our Lady, from whose womb will come the Saviour of the world. The candle represents Christ, the Light of the World, who shall come to dispel all darkness and stain of sin. In conjunction with this little ceremony, one of the family could tell of the purity and childlike simplicity of our Blessed Mother, and of how she came to be the mother of us all.
Some of the prophetic lessons of Isaias could also be read, along with Gertrude von le Fort's poem to Our Lady of Advent, from Hymns to the Church. The singing of the Alma Redemptoris Mater, or the beautiful Tota Pulchra Es of Dom Pothier would be a suitable conclusion for the little ceremony.
Several remarks may be added concerning the hymns which we teach children in honor of Our Lady. Much bad taste, musical and theological, has entered into the praises of Our Lady. It would indeed be wise always to teach children only the best, and that which is always truthful and in accord with reality. Would we dare to compare "Macula non est in te," "Mother Dear, O Pray for Me," "On This Day, O Beautiful Mother," or "Bring Flowers of the Rarest," with the Ave, Maris Stella (sung in English, perhaps; but you will find that the children easily come to love and understand the Latin); the Ave Maria, as edited by Solesmes; the sequence Inviolata; the hymn Maria Mater Gratiae, or the Tota Pulchra Es of Dom Pothier?
Mother Church recommends the Ave Maris Stella, which is the vesper hymn of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Compare the theology of this hymn with the sentimental ballads which are customarily taught to children in honor of their heavenly Mother and Mediatrix:
Ave, Star of ocean, Child divine who bearest, Mother, ever Virgin, Heaven's portal fairest.Should we desire other hymns in honor of the Immaculate Conception, we may choose such hymns and carols as "A Child Is Born in Bethlehem," or the superb German Advent carol "Behold, a Branch Is Growing." The latter, a fifteenth-century carol harmonized by Praetorius, is given below:
Taking that sweet Ave Erst by Gabriel spoken, Eva's name reversing, Be of peace the token.
Break the sinner's fetters, Light to blind restoring, All our ills dispelling, Every boon imploring.
Show thyself a mother In thy supplication, He will hear who chose thee At His Incarnation.
Maid all maids excelling, Passing meek and lowly, Win for sinners pardon, Make us chaste and holy.
As we onward journey Aid our weak endeavor, Till we gaze on Jesus And rejoice forever.
Father, Son, and Spirit, Three in One confessing, Give we equal glory Equal praise and blessing.
(Ethelstan Riley translation)
Behold a branch is growing Of loveliest form and grace. As prophets sung, foreknowing; It springs from Jesse's race. And bears one little flower. In midst of coldest winter, At deepest midnight hour. Isaiah hath foretold it In words of promise sure, And Mary's arms enfold it, A Virgin meek and pure. Through God's eternal will, This Child to her is given At midnight calm and still.Even the cook is not allowed respite during the octave of the Immaculate Conception, for it is time to make Moravian Spritz for the children. Ordinarily these gingerbread cookies are made for the vigil of the Immaculate Conception since Mary, too, "gave forth sweet smell like cinnamon and aromatic balm and yielded a sweet odor like the best myrrh." These cookies are loaded with fine, aromatic spices, tempting the appetites of any child of Mary. The spirit of mortification enters in readily, for the cookies must stand for ten days in the refrigerator before baking, and are then shaped into Christmas figures, especially hearts and liturgical symbols. Later on in the season, when we come to Candlemas, we could cut the cookies into the form of candles and turtle-doves.
The Immaculate Conception is the Patroness of the United States. How often our Holy Father has stated in recent years that the hope of peace in the world does not lie in force of arms, but rather in prayers and recourse to the intercession of Our Lady. The octave of the Immaculate Conception furnishes an admirable occasion for a renewal of true love for our country. Children should be reminded that the part played by the Church in the development of the United States was a very important one. The flag could be raised over the school building each day during the octave, and after the pledge of allegiance, it would be most appropriate to sing a hymn in honor of our Patroness. The whole week should foster in the minds and hearts of the children a true conception of the meaning of piety, for piety is essentially the devotion and love of the child for his parents and homeland. It should never be forgotten, moreover, that St. Thomas Aquinas associates the virtue of piety with religion as a part of the cardinal virtue of justice.
Activity Source: True Christmas Spirit by Rev. Edward J. Sutfin, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955