St Francis Q&A

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"I don't understand the Immaculate Conception"

Mindy posted the following: “…I've been thinking about that banner in church that says ‘Mary conceived without sin.’ Now, I understand that she was literally ‘conceived’ in the normal way, but at what point did she become conceived without sin. Was her original sin negated and/or how is one, other than Jesus, literally ‘conceived’ without sin? I also read an article that talked about the ark being the holy vessel that held the old covenant and Mary was the holy vessel that held the new covenant. I never thought of her that way- it's pretty cool. I guess my (follow-up) question would have to be, if Mary was immaculately conceived, would it mean that her mother would also have been sinless so that Mary would not inherit sin? I guess, in a nutshell, I don't understand the Immaculate Conception.”

Good questions! In all of my study and research of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, I don’t remember seeing any specific descriptions of how Mary was immaculately conceived. We have that with the conception of Christ: “he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit”. The reason why the Church gives little or no specific analysis of Mary’s conception is because she has already told us how it happened: “by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God”. This was the phrase used by Pope Pius IX when he declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854:

“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” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854).

The definition clarifies a few things for us. First, Mary’s Immaculate Conception occurred by the Grace of God alone. God granted Mary an extraordinary grace by preserving her from any stain of original sin when she was conceived by her parents, (Sts.) Ann and Joachim. This was so that she could live out her vocation as the Mother of God: “To become the mother of the Savior, Mary ‘was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role’” (CCC, # 490).

Second, this was a grace given to Mary alone; no other woman (or created human being, for that matter) has ever been given this grace. Mary alone is “full of grace” (Lk 1:28) from the moment that her body and soul are conceived in the womb of Ann. No other person has received such a salutation in Scripture or the title of “Immaculate Conception” from the Church. “The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person ‘in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’ and chose her ‘in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love’” (CCC, #492).

Third, Mary was redeemed at her conception. This is what “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race” means, as the Catechism helps us understand. “Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses” (#491). In anticipation of the redemption of Christ, God gives Mary at conception the grace that will save her. (others who lived B.C. could have been saved by the grace of Christ in the same way: in anticipation of Christ’s redemption…it is the same grace that Mary receives, but she has it in full and at the moment of her conception).

“Catholic Answers” provides some good insights to all of this as well as a useful analogy. Here are some excerpts; to view the full article, please click on today’s title.

It’s important to understand what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is and what it is not. Some people think the term refers to Christ’s conception in Mary’s womb without the intervention of a human father; but that is the Virgin Birth. Others think the Immaculate Conception means Mary was conceived "by the power of the Holy Spirit," in the way Jesus was, but that, too, is incorrect. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception was brought about the normal way, was conceived without original sin or its stain—that’s what "immaculate" means: without stain. The essence of original sin consists in the deprivation of sanctifying grace, and its stain is a corrupt nature. Mary was preserved from these defects by God’s grace; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace and was free from the corrupt nature original sin brings.

When discussing the Immaculate Conception, an implicit reference may be found in the angel’s greeting to Mary. The angel Gabriel said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). The phrase "full of grace" is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. It therefore expresses a characteristic quality of Mary.

The traditional translation, "full of grace," is better than the one found in many recent versions of the New Testament, which give something along the lines of "highly favored daughter." Mary was indeed a highly favored daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that (and it never mentions the word for "daughter"). The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning "to fill or endow with grace." Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, Catholics hold, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.

Fundamentalists’ chief reason for objecting to the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s consequent sinlessness is that we are told that "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). Besides, they say, Mary said her "spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:47), and only a sinner needs a Savior.

Let’s take the second citation first. Mary, too, required a Savior. Like all other descendants of Adam, she was subject to the necessity of contracting original sin. But by a special intervention of God, undertaken at the instant she was conceived, she was preserved from the stain of original sin and its consequences. She was therefore redeemed by the grace of Christ, but in a special way—by anticipation.

Consider an analogy: Suppose a man falls into a deep pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been "saved" from the pit. Now imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to topple into the pit, but at the very moment that she is to fall in, someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been saved from the pit, but in an even better way: She was not simply taken out of the pit, she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. This is the illustration Christians have used for a thousand years to explain how Mary was saved by Christ. By receiving Christ’s grace at her conception, she had his grace applied to her before she was able to become mired in original sin and its stain.


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