8th December is a public holiday in Peru, and much of the Catholic world, but I doubt many of you know why. It is the Day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which celebrates God’s granting of ‘grace’ to the Virgin Mary.
To explain briefly: in being a descendant of Adam and Eve, Mary would have been tainted by their Original Sin, as indeed is the whole of Mankind. But to give birth to the son of God, she would have had to be completely free of sin. A dilemma solved by the neat, theological trick of a catch-all sin eliminator delivered in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne - the ‘immaculate conception’.
There is no mention of the immaculate conception in the Bible, however, which means that it can be defined as 'dogma', in the sense that it was only laid down as a Catholic doctrine in 1854, by Pope Pius IX, despite having been discussed - often heatedly - in theological circles, and celebrated with feasts in certain areas of the World, perhaps as early as the 5th Century. It had also been represented in religious artwork, most notably in masterpieces by Spanish artists, such as Bartolomé Murillo and Diego Velázquez in the 1600s.
Most Protestants, who are not bound to papal authority, reject this doctrine. Instead, for them, Mary was purified by the Holy Spirit.
Interestingly, some historians have claimed that the idea of the immaculate conception comes from Islam, where the Virgin Mary is highly regarded as a model of female purity; although, others have disputed this claim.
Whatever the case, the day is celebrated throughout Latin America, with processions and masses in her honour. In Peru, it is particularly enthusiastically embraced in Cusco, where it is given an Andean flavour with local dances accompanying the parade. And like nearly all Peruvian festivals, alcohol and food are a key component!