I hope you are enjoying this Marian series. This week we continue our in-depth look at what the Church teaches about Mary as we dive into the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Typically, we would start by explaining what we mean by Immaculate Conception. In this case though, we must first settle on what it is not. It is not uncommon for people to think the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Jesus Christ in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. That was certainly a miraculous conception, but it is not what we mean by the Immaculate Conception. By means of the Magisterium, on December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX gave us a very succinct and meaty definition of the Immaculate Conception in his apostolic constitution entitled Ineffabilis Deus which reads:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, was preserved immune from all stain of sin, by a singular grace and privilege of the omnipotent God in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the savior of the human race, was revealed by God and therefore must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.
Now let’s explore what this means and why it’s important.
First, we must understand what it means to be born with the stain of original sin. Prior to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, humanity had three preternatural gifts: infused knowledge, absence of concupiscence, and bodily immortality. That means, firstly, we were intended to have an intimate understanding and knowledge of God, His plan, and supernatural realities. Secondly, we were intended to have a perfect balance of our passions, senses, emotions, intellect, and will in order to aid us in avoiding sin. Finally, it means our bodies were not meant to become ill or die. The result of the first sin was a loss of these preternatural gifts, not just for our first parents, but as a condition to be passed on to every generation afterward. I’m sure you can see in your own life, as I can in mine, how the loss of these gifts has affected humanity over time. The stain of that original sin and its consequences is present at the moment of conception of every single person, which we deal with as quickly as possible in the Sacrament of Baptism. In the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary, this stain of original sin was withheld from her soul at the moment of her conception, allowing her to maintain all of the preternatural gifts that were intended for us from the beginning. Since her preternatural gifts were preserved at conception, she was able to remain free from sin her entire life and therefore, Jesus and Mary were the only two humans on Earth to have never sinned.
If we go back to Pope Pius’ definition, we see that Mary was spared from the stain of original sin and its effects by the merits of her Son, Jesus Christ. How is this possible since Mary was conceived long before Jesus was ever born, much less before he completed His saving work in His Passion and Resurrection? If Mary was saved before she was born, does this negate Jesus as the Savior of the World? We answer this with a term called “preservative redemption.” Certainly, Mary needed to be saved as a member of humanity. However, there are two ways one can be saved. One, is that you can fall and then have the grace restored at your Baptism and the other is that you can be prevented from falling in the first place. Think of it this way: You can fall into a hole in the ground and your savior can rescue you from that hole, or, your savior can prevent you from falling into the hole in the first place by pulling you back before you fall. Since God is outside of time and exists on an eternal plane, the merits of Christ’s saving work were applied to Mary in a preservative way and she was spared from original sin and its effects.
Now the next question to answer is why was it necessary that Mary be conceived without sin? We can first look to Scripture for some answers. Beginning with Genesis 3:15, we read that God tells Satan that He will fix the mess that was made in Eden by putting a woman and her seed at enmity with Satan and his seed. Satan’s seed is sin and the woman and her seed that will defeat them is Mary and Jesus. If Mary and Jesus are to be directly pitted against Satan and sin, there is no room for sin to exist in either of them. Jesus and Mary have to be in direct opposition to Satan and sin in order for the battle to be black and white and good vs. evil. Secondly, when the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary in Luke 1:28 he says, “Hail, full of grace.” There are two things to note here. Gabriel uses “Full of Grace” as a title. He does not say, “You who are full of grace.” Secondly, when something is full of something, there is no room for anything else. So, if Mary is full of grace, there is no room for sin. This title effectively translates back to the title of the Immaculate Conception which represents one and the same reality.
As I move on to the next scriptural reference in defense of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, please keep in mind what I said a few weeks ago, that what the Church teaches about Mary protects what is true about Jesus. If you recall from the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was the most holy object of the Israelites and in it was kept the Ten Commandments (the law), the rod of Aaron (the priesthood), and the manna from the desert (the bread of life). The Ark was so holy that, in order to not defile the holiness of it with sin, it could not be touched by human hands. It was carried on posts to avoid human contact. In 2 Samuel 6:6, we see the Ark of the Covenant being carried and the oxen stumble causing the Ark to shake. Uzzah instinctively reached his hand out to steady the Ark and God struck him dead then and there for even daring to touch it. Now, in the New Testament, we have Jesus who is the new law, the new priesthood, and the new bread of life. He is the fulfillment of everything that was contained in the most holy Ark of the Covenant. This means that Mary became the New Ark of the Covenant. It makes very little sense that the earthly items representing the Old Covenant should be spared from being touched by sinful humans, while the fulfillment in the New Covenant, the Son of God, should be carried around for nine months in a dirty, stained, unworthy vessel. Having been given the privilege of being the Immaculate Conception, Mary protects the truth about who Jesus is and preserves His holiness.
Of course, our other source of authority is Tradition. Let’s review a few quotes from early Christianity that indicate that the Church has always had a sense of the Immaculate Conception as being a fitting dogma of Mary, rather than it being a modern development in a modern Church.
“Mary was not infected by the venomous breath of the serpent.”
– Origen, In Div. hom. 1 (d. 254)
“…Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a virgin not only undefiled, but a virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin.”
– St. Ambrose, Commentary on Psalm 118, 22:30
“Come, let us wonder at the virgin most pure, wondrous in herself, unique in creation, she gave birth, yet knew no man; her pure soul with wonder was filled, daily her mind gave praise in joy at the twofold wonder: her virginity preserved, her child most dear. Blessed is He who shone forth from her.”
– St. Ephraim the Syrian: Songs of Praise (d. 373)
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Read more about the four Marian dogmas and one doctrine:
****An in-depth examination of Mary’s role as Advocate under her spiritual motherhood