Many Catholics misunderstand the meaning of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is also the patronal feast of our nation. In their minds they confuse the Immaculate Conception of Mary with the virginal conception of Jesus. Today we celebrate the fact that Mary was sinless from the very first moment of her existence – a doctrine of our faith which is extremely important because it demonstrates the care with which God guided the entire process of our salvation.
It is not by accident that the Church celebrates this feast right at the outset of Advent. No, this privilege accorded to Our Lady was all a part of the work of salvation begun at the very moment when sin itself first entered the world. The experience of sin and its reign in our world came about because of human weakness and pride. Just as a woman made possible the first sin, so too a woman would make possible the work of our salvation. Mary was God’s answer to Eve. Advent is a month-long celebration of God’s efforts to return mankind to his favor – and the Blessed Virgin’s Immaculate Conception marked a high-water point in God’s proximate preparations for the coming of the Savior.
Christians today and throughout the ages love Mary because she embodies, literally, all that we hope to be. That is why the Protestant poet Wordsworth could rhapsodize on her as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” By her faith and willingness to cooperate with God, Mary showed herself to be a true daughter of Abraham. The humble maid of Nazareth further demonstrated that genuine liberation consists not in doing one’s own thing as much as it consists in doing God’s thing. She proved the angel right, that the Lord was truly with her, as she pronounced that fearful but firm “yes” which reversed every previous “no” in history.
This solemnity gives us a golden opportunity to consider the various theological elements that comprise the dogma of the Immaculate Conception – even if just in passing – for the Doctrine of the Faith is of one piece, a seamless garment, if you will, with each thread intimately intertwined with every other one. So, on what related doctrines might we reflect today?
First of all, we must ask just what is original sin. Original sin is not something we can grasp onto; it is an absence, a lack, a deprivation – of original holiness, grace and unity with the Creator. And it is an “inheritance” from our first parents. If the several Fathers of the Church and other proponents of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception had been writing in the era of the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid, they would have said that original sin is in our DNA; or in the computer era, that original sin is “hard-wired” into our nature. That is the understanding that caused St. Paul to muse about why we find it easier to do evil than to do good (cf. Rom 7:19).
Second, original sin constitutes us as “children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). That is not a very appealing thought for most of us. It is so common for someone to gaze upon an infant and declare, “What an angel!” However, that is more a wish than a reality. An infant is totally self-absorbed and demanding to the n-th degree. This realization made G. K. Chesterton wonder in Orthodoxy about “certain new theologians [who] dispute original sin.” For him, original sin “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” Very insightfully, in his Apologia pro Vita Sua, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman identifies the phenomenon of original sin as “some terrible aboriginal calamity.”
This aspect of the matter is well illustrated by a personal experience of mine. On one of the many occasions when I had the privilege of concelebrating Holy Mass with Pope John Paul II in his private chapel, also present were a young couple with their infant who started to wail right after the Gospel and wouldn’t stop. Now, the chapel in the papal apartments is not like a parish church, from which a parent can exit to a cry room or parking lot. Indeed, there is a big Swiss Guard with a halberd blocking the door! And so, the tantrum went on unabated, making the normally recollected saintly Pontiff visibly agitated himself. After Mass, we all were ushered into the Papal Library for a “meet-and-greet” with the Pope. As John Paul approached the couple, the father apologized profusely for the disturbance. “Do not worry. He’s just a little angel!” assured the Holy Father. “Well, no, Holy Father,” replied the father. “He’s not yet baptized.” “Ah,” exclaimed the witty and theologically astute John Paul, “explains the problem!” So, yes, prior to Baptism, we are just what St. Paul called us, “children of wrath,” in the thrall of the Evil One.
Therefore, thirdly: Baptism is necessary as it moves us from the Kingdom of Darkness into the Kingdom of Light. It returns us to the prelapsarian Garden of Eden. Georges Bernanos in a charming phrase referred to Our Lady in her Immaculate Conception as “younger than sin.” Baptism, we can say, then, is a Christian’s “fountain of youth” as it returns us to that state of original holiness, justice and grace. Hence, Our Lord’s assertion to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).
Fourthly, we have to deal with a common Protestant objection to the Immaculate Conception, namely, that it “divinizes” Mary. It is important to recall, first of all, that not a few of the major Protestant Reformers believed in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – four centuries before its dogmatic definition! Similarly, Cardinal Newman thirteen years before his conversion could preach the following:
Who can estimate the holiness and perfection of her, who was chosen to be the Mother of Christ? If to him that hath, more is given, and holiness and divine favour go together (and this we are expressly told), what must have been the transcendent purity of her, whom the Creator Spirit condescended to overshadow with His miraculous presence? What must have been her gifts, who was chosen to be the only near earthly relative of the Son of God, the only one whom He was bound by nature to revere and look up to; the one appointed to train and educate Him, to instruct Him day by day, as He grew in wisdom and stature? This contemplation runs to a higher subject, did we dare to follow it; for what, think you, was the sanctified state of that human nature, of which God formed His sinless Son; knowing, as we do, that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh,” and that “none can bring a clean thing out of an unclean”?…
… Nothing is so calculated to impress on our minds that Christ is really partaker of our nature, and in all respects man, save sin only, as to associate Him with the thought of her, by whose ministration He became our Brother.
No, neither Luther, nor Zwingli, nor Newman ever imagined that Mary became a goddess because of her Immaculate Conception – any more than Eve was goddess or Adam a god because they were created sinless. That fact made Cardinal Newman speak of Mary as “the daughter of Eve-unfallen.”
Which leads logically to a fifth consideration: Was this dogma’s definition an “invention” of the Church in the nineteenth century? Clearly not, for if Reformers of the sixteenth century and an Oxford don of the nineteenth century – let alone countless Fathers of the Church – believed this to be a truth of faith, we are face-to-face with something deeply ingrained in the Christian mind and heart. Pius IX merely made formal what had been the common faith and piety of the Christian people all along. What Justin, Tertullian, and Irenaeus taught in the second century could not be the concoction of the nineteenth.
Sixthly, we can inquire as to how this privilege was accorded the Blessed Virgin. The pure and simple answer: grace. It is fascinating to note that one of the primary Reformation principles was “sola gratia” (by grace alone). The clearest, finest and most impressive application of that principle is Mary’s Immaculate Conception: She is spared the ravages of the original sin, not through any merits of her own, but solely through the freely given grace of the Blessed Trinity. Indeed, that is at the very heart of the 1854 dogmatic definition of Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus, where we read:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful. (emphasis added)
Seventh, it is logical to ask further how this could happen before the saving work of the world’s sole Redeemer. Again, the dogmatic definition explains that this saving action on behalf of the Virgin Mary took place “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race.” The fancy theological term for this is “prevenient grace,” heard in the Prayer over the Offerings of today’s Mass; in simpler language, we can call it “preventive medicine.” That means that a future event and its merits were applied beforehand (for God exists in an eternal present), making the future Mother of the Redeemer an apt dwelling for Him for, as we read in the Book of Job (to which we heard Newman have recourse), “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one” (14:4). Or, as St. Eadmer of Canterbury in the twelfth century put it so succinctly: Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit (God was able to do it, it was fitting that He do, and so He did it). This is wholly God’s work.
In his usual, inimitable style, Blessed John Henry connects the dots for us as he leads us from the first book of the Bible to the last:
A war between a woman and the serpent is spoken of in Genesis. Who is the serpent? Scripture nowhere says till the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse. There at last, for the first time, the “Serpent” is interpreted to mean the Evil Spirit. Now, how is he introduced? Why, by the vision again of a Woman, his enemy – and just as, in the first vision in Genesis, the Woman has a “seed,” so here a “Child.” Can we help saying, then, that the Woman is Mary in the third [chapter] of Genesis? And if so, and our reading is right, the first prophecy ever given contrasts the Second Woman with the First – Mary with Eve, just as St. Justin, St. Irenaeus, and Tertullian do.
Moreover, see the direct bearing of this upon the Immaculate Conception. There was war between the woman and the Serpent. This is most emphatically fulfilled if she had nothing to do with sin – for, so far as anyone sins, he has an alliance with the Evil One.
Today, then, we laud the one who is “younger than sin,” “the daughter of Eve-unfallen,”and “our tainted nature’s solitary boast” – proud to fulfill Mary’s Spirit-filled prophecy in her Magnificat: “Henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48).
Mary, the Immaculate One, the one who is “full of grace,” said, “Let it be done to me according to your word” – Fiat! What was the result? “The Word became flesh.” Every time that we imitate her response of love, God takes on flesh and comes among us once again. And that ability to utter our own fiat to God’s plan for us is most truly what it means to be a son or daughter of Mary – that sinless woman who brought to life mankind’s 4,000-year-long dream for a Christmas Day.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on December 8, 2018.)
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