Today’s solemn Feast, the Immaculate Conception, is one of the most controversial and misunderstood doctrines that the Catholic Church holds to be true. In the East, most Orthodox Churches see this doctrine either as a pious Roman invention, or as a threat to the way we make sense of human salvation. In the West, Protestants consider the Immaculate Conception as non-biblical nonsense which only serves to prove their erroneous impression that Catholics worship Mary. Furthermore, many Catholics themselves do not understand the Church’s dogma that Mary was immaculately conceived, or the reasons we hold this to be true. Indeed, Mary’s Immaculate Conception is nowhere explicitly mentioned in the Bible, which certainly feeds into these attitudes. However, it doesn’t follow that this doctrine is therefore unbiblical, much less pious nonsense. Here I offer this brief reflection to show the theological principals that underpin the Immaculate Conception.
The story of creation in the book of Genesis reveals that human beings were made to live in friendship and harmony with God as represented by the Garden of Eden, the place God walked among men. This friendship and harmony we call original holiness and original justice, which are a result of God’s sanctifying grace, and do not exist without it. Through Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience, which we call the “original” sin, human beings fell from that original harmony and friendship, becoming enemies of God, as well as bringing injustice in their dealings with one another and with creation, in effect, dis-ordering them and their relationships. This is exemplified by the subsequent curse and their being driven out of the Garden, as well as the ensuing corruption that comes into the world, which includes death. From then on, all their offspring come into being outside of the Garden, that is, deprived of the grace of the original holiness and justice. We don’t have to look far to see the truth of this in our own personal disordered affections and inclination to sin, as well as the trouble we have living in harmony with one another, with creation, and with God. We refer to this inherited state as original sin. Original sin does not mean that newborn babies are personally guilty of having committed a sin in the sense that Adam and Eve are, but that they come into being in a state that is without the grace and justice God originally intended for us. In that sense we are “stained” by the original sin in that we are deprived of our original beauty that grace bestows.
But of course, God had a plan to restore all things in Christ, so that even “if because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17). Jesus, the unblemished lamb, becomes the new Adam, restoring those who are incorporated into his body (the Church) to the life of holiness and justice that God intends for us. But how did he do this? The sacrifice of the cross, the resurrection, the institution of the Church and Sacraments proceed from, and are an unfolding of the mystery of the Incarnation. He becomes what we are, so that we might become what he is. Now, this is where Mary comes to the fore. The Incarnation began with Mary, a woman, in whom Jesus took flesh and from whom his flesh was taken. Likewise, sin began with Eve, in whom it was first conceived, and from whom it was taken by Adam (Gen 3:6). Mary has therefore been identified by many of the Church Fathers as the new Eve, just as Jesus is the new Adam. She is called the new Eve because of the essential role she played in facilitating salvation by cooperating with God’s plan, just as the first Eve facilitated destruction by cooperating with the Devil.
Now, the first Adam and Eve were created for the Garden of Eden, in the original state of holiness and justice. The new Adam, Jesus, is untouched by any sin, and is the perfect source and model of holiness and justice. If Mary is the new Eve, she too must be untouched by any sin and share in the holiness and justice that Christ bestows, otherwise, there’s nothing new about her! Indeed, this much is revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel who, at the annunciation, declared Mary to be “full of grace” (Lk 1:28). In the original Greek text, the term used here is kecharitomene (κεχαριτωμένη), which literally means, “one having been endowed with grace”. The grammar of this greeting indicates that Mary is graced prior to the angel’s appearance and prior to her acceptance of God’s plan. Indeed, St Gabriel goes on, “the Lord is with you.” This of course evokes the fact that the Lord was with Adam and Eve in the garden. So, the Scriptures reveal that Mary received sanctifying grace prior to the annunciation, hence her rightly ordered disposition was totally willing to accept God’s shocking plan for her, despite the fact it would cost her deeply in both shame and sorrow. The question is, when was she sanctified by this grace?
St Thomas Aquinas observes that Mary had a far more significant and crucial role in salvation than anyone else, since the bringing forth of the one in whom was “grace and truth” hinged upon her generous consent, it is therefore reasonable to believe she received greater privileges than other saints. He also observes that various saints were sanctified while still in the womb, including St John the Baptist (Lk 1:15) and the Prophet Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), which leads him to concede that Mary was also most likely sanctified while still in the womb. Now, being born in grace is still a step away from being conceived in grace. Some further considerations are therefore necessary. First, many, including St Thomas Aquinas himself, argue against the Immaculate Conception in the basis that one must be infected by sin in order properly to be saved. If one is without sin, there is no need for salvation. This is a good point; however, the Church’s claim of the Immaculate Conception has another nuance. The Collect of the Mass for the Immaculate Conception reads:
O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin
prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son,
grant, we pray,
that, as you preserved her from every stain
by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw,
so, through her intercession,
we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.
The Church here explicitly states that Mary’s preservation from the stain of sin is one “by virtue of the death of your son, which you [God] foresaw…” That is to say, the very act of preserving her from original sin was the result of the saving grace merited and bestowed through the Sacrifice of Jesus. It makes clear, therefore, that Mary was in need of salvation, just like each and every one of us, and was truly of the same nature as us. Simply put, Mary’s Immaculate Conception means that she is the first human being to receive the effects of Jesus’ redemption, which embraced the totality of her life, just as she was the first to love him and give her life in obedience to him. This again mirrors the life of the first Eve, who was the first to disobey God and forfeit divine grace by eating of the tree.
Finally, one last observation in regard to Mary’s being the new Eve is apt. The first Adam was created and then subsequently placed into the Garden of God’s friendship (Gen 2:15). However, Eve came into being in the Garden of God’s friendship from the side of a sanctified and just Adam. In the same way, the new Adam being himself divine, pre-exists independent of the Garden, but subsequently enters it not as a friend to God, but as a friend to mankind. The new Eve, like the first, then, must have come into being in the Garden of God’s friendship from the side of the holy and just Christ, the new Adam. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that while accomplishing the saving sacrifice of the cross, blood and water, symbols of the Church’s sanctifying and justifying Sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist), gush forth from the new Adam’s side. Mary, the new Eve, is sanctified and justified from the moment of her coming forth from the new Adam in the Garden, then becomes the symbol and embodiment of Holy Mother Church, whom Scripture calls the stainless bride of Christ (Eph 5:7) whose yes to God gives birth to innumerable children.