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The Immaculate Conception: A Celebration of Salvation

While the celebration of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th marks an event of the utmost importance in salvation history, it is not without its conceptual and emotional difficulties. Conceptually the difficulties arise due simply to the Gospel reading chosen for the day. What we are given is the account of the Annunciation from the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38), and thus the mistake is often made that the Immaculate Conception we commemorate is that of Christ. Yet, when we realize that this Solemnity celebrates the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Mother of God, it becomes quickly apparent that the Church faces a certain difficulty in assigning a passage for this day. There simply is no passage in Scripture that explicitly teaches this dogma, or so it seems. But, then, the question naturally arises, what does it mean for Mary to be immaculately conceived? Here the conceptual difficulties potentially begin to merge with the emotional difficulties. If, say, it is a Protestant brother or sister asking this question to a Catholic sister or brother, one would hope that the latter would be able to simply state that this day celebrates the fact that Mary was conceived without original sin. Adding another layer to these difficulties is the fact that since the Second Vatican Council, through no fault of the Council which highlighted the importance of the Mother of God in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (see Lumen Gentium, Ch. 8), Marian devotion and piety has plummeted (see John C. Cavadini, Introduction to Mary on The Eve of the Second Vatican Council, 1-2). And if Catholics are not practicing this part of their faith, over time it becomes increasingly more likely that they will not even be able to state the meaning of this day’s celebration on the most basic level to an inquiring Protestant.

But let’s say this first hurdle is cleared and the Catholic interlocutor is able to state clearly and concisely that this day celebrates that Mary, the Mother of God, was conceived without original sin. Here two equally troubling possibilities come to the fore, the first being more serious. And that is, that such a statement could be met with complete and utter indifference today, when the doctrine of original sin is continually cast as an antiquated and implausible doctrine. If this is the case there is nothing to see here, nothing to talk about, and not only today, but Christmas really isn’t worth celebrating either, for at this point, we have no need of a savior. But the mention of our need for a savior introduces the second, equally difficult possibility. If the statement that Mary was conceived without original sin is taken seriously, does this mean she has no need for a savior? My guess is that most such imagined conversations stop here. The Catholic is likely unable to say more than, ‘I think she still needs a savior, but I’m not sure how that would or could work.’ And at that, the Protestant dialogue partner will likely, and should, be flabbergasted. For they will know that Paul teaches that “just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life” (1 Cor 15:22; cf. Rom 5:12-21), a truth they might add that has been known since David, who said “I was born in guilt, in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:7).

A Catholic eavesdropping on the conversation may be tempted to utter a dismissive sneer, but they and we, ought not. There is a reason that the Immaculate Conception was not officially made doctrine by the Church until Pope Pius IX issued, Ineffabilis Deus, in 1854. The papal bull was the final judgment of what had been an ongoing and open debate in the life of the Church for 800 years at that point on precisely this question: how it could be said simultaneously that Mary was immaculately conceived and needed a savior? (see Aidan Nichols, OP, There Is No Rose: The Mariology of the Catholic Church, 50) Attending seriously to this question pays great dividends, and ought to have a twofold effect. First, it should humble us intellectually. And precisely because of this humbling, we should be moved to respond with renewed ardor to St. Paul’s call to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ in cooperation with God “who, for his good purpose, works in [us] both to desire and to work” (Phil 2:12-13). For the celebration of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is nothing less than the celebration of the salvation of the Mother of God, Mary.

In the Latin West, the possibility that Mary may have spent the duration of her life in a sinless state was first asserted in the early 5th century by none other than Pelagius, whose theological speculation concerning the human person’s role in their own salvation drew the embattled response of the likes of Jerome and Augustine of Hippo. The latter of which ultimately saw to it that the teachings of Pelagius were deemed heretical. To this day if someone is thought to teach or live as though salvation is reached primarily by human efforts they are accused of being Pelagian. In the course of the debate Augustine would, for the first time, systematically articulate the concept of original sin based on the teaching of St. Paul, repeatedly referring to Romans 5:12 as his scriptural basis (see, e.g., Marriage and Desire 2.45-47). To Augustine’s universal account of the need for the grace of the sacraments, in particular baptism, in order to live a virtuously holy life, Pelagius countered with biblical examples of people who were said to live righteously prior to the historical events of the Paschal Mystery. At the top of his list Pelagius placed Mary, writing “piety demands…that we admit that she was without sin” (De natura). Augustine’s response is the occasion of a bit of irony. For, while the Bishop of Hippo’s arguments on the universal inheritance of original sin by every member of the human family eventually became doctrine, he simultaneously left the theological door open for the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. To the leveling of Mary as proof of ability to live without sin by Pelagius, Augustine conceded by way of exception: “Let us then leave aside the holy Virgin Mary; on account of the honor due to the Lord, I do not want to raise here any question about her when we are dealing with sins. After all, how do we know what wealth of grace was given to her in order to conquer sin completely, since she merited to conceive and bear the one who certainly had no sin?” (Nature and Grace, 36,42). Apart from her, though, Augustine held his ground. He went on to say that, “apart then from this virgin,” if we asked any of the saints up and down the ages whether they were without sin, they would harmoniously respond: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8; cf. Nature and Grace, 36,42).   

That the great North African bishop whose work the whole of Western theology is said to be nothing but a footnote was unable to articulate how Mary could have lived without sin should already be sufficiently humbling. Because of this the question remained open and unresolved for over a millennia, its active debate ebbing and flowing. Celebration of what was known then as the feast of Mary’s conception made its way from East to West and had spread widely by the Middle Ages (Aidan Nichols, OP, There Is No Rose, 53-54). Just exactly what was being celebrated remained an open question of debate, the greatest thinkers of the time naturally weighing in. What was held from the beginning was that Mary certainly had to have been cleansed from original sin and lived a sinless life in order to be fit for her vocation as Theotokos, the Mother of God. But (and here comes what should be the most humbling detail), when faced with the question of when Mary was cleansed from original sin, thinkers no less great than St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas taught that it could not be held that Mary had been conceived without original sin. In his Summa, Aquinas explicitly states: “The sanctification of the Blessed Virgin cannot be understood as having taken place before animation, for two reasons,” sanctification denotes cleansing from original sin and this cannot be done apart from the infusion of grace into the rational soul which must first exist in order to be infused with said grace (Summa Theologica III, q. 27.2). Further on, Aquinas wrote that “if the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, this would be derogatory to the dignity of Christ, by reason of His being the universal Savior of all” (ST III, q. 27.2, ad. 2). For his part, Bonaventure taught in nearly the same terms, writing that to hold that Mary was immaculately conceived was a pious opinion, to hold so doctrinally would leave the Blessed Mother out of the universality of Christ’s salvific action, and thus the “while the Mother’s excellence [would be] enhanced, the Son’s glory should be diminished” (Commentary on the Third Book of the Sentences, 3:1, 1,2).

The tide finally turned with the theology of Duns Scotus (1266-1308). When raising the question whether Mary was incapable of undergoing a divine act in the first moment of her existence, Scotus responded: “No: God could give her, should he wish, as much grace then as he does to other pre-moral souls at infant baptism or, under the Torah, at circumcision.” And then, when faced with the question how the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception did not infringe upon the action of Christ as universal Savior, Scotus responded: “Just as others are in need of Christ for the remission, by his merits, of the sin they have already contracted, so Mary would have been in still greater need of a Mediator preventing her from contracting sin” (Aidan Nichols, OP, There Is No Other Rose, 59). And so a partial answer was arrived at. Mary’s Immaculate Conception was made possible by the grace of Christ. Yet Scotus left an important question unanswered, did this mean Mary did not need to be saved? Did being conceived without sin mean she was not in need of redemption? Interestingly, Pius IX’s Ineffabilis Deus (1854) does not explicitly raise or answer this question. However, in order to solve the theological difficulty that continued to trouble many, especially the Dominicans, Thomas Cajetan (1469-1534) affirmed that Mary most certainly needed to be saved and redeemed by Christ from “non-orderedness to grace” (Aidan Nichols, OP, There Is No Other Rose, 62-63). Thus, in the end, what the Immaculate Conception celebrates is the unique way Mary was saved by Christ. St. John Henry Newman writes that in God’s plan for the salvation of the human race, “Mary’s redemption was determined in that special manner which we call the Immaculate Conception. It was decreed, not that she should be cleansed from sin, but that she should, from the first moment of her being, be preserved from sin; so that the Evil One never had any part in her” (Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman, 43-44).

As has been mentioned several times, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is ultimately based on the belief that Mary’s own unique vocation within salvation history was to be the Theotokos, literally, the God-bearer, the Mother of God. Whatever side a thinker fell on regarding the question of the Immaculate Conception, it was never in question that in order to conceive and give birth to the one who would crush the head of the serpent as foretold by God in the first reading from Genesis used for the Solemnity (Gn. 3:15), Mary had to be without sin. This speaks to just how radically concrete the doctrine of the Incarnation really is. The doctrine of the Hypostatic Union holds that in the Incarnation, the Person of the Son of God is wholly united with a complete human nature, without division, separation, confusion or mixture. Thus, in order for his human nature to be spotlessly created a spotless Mother was required. St. John Henry Newman writes in very fleshy terms to describe this reality when commenting on Mary’s title of the Domus Aurea, the House of Gold: “He took His flesh and His blood from this house, from the flesh, from the veins of Mary. Rightly then was she made to be of pure gold, because she was to give of that gold to form the body of the Son of God. She was golden in her conception, golden in her birth” (Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman, 47-48).

There are two points to consider based upon the quote from the late Cardinal Newman. The first is the fact that, as all Marian celebrations, the keeping of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception ultimately says more about God and his loving activity on our behalf than it does about Mary. And what this most august celebration tells us is that precisely because we were in need of a Savior, God has definitively acted within human history on our behalf, sending His Son into the world for its salvation (John 3:16), so that the human family might possess the fullness of life for which it was created (John 10:10). The dire necessity to recapture the fullness of the doctrine of the Incarnation is seen in that a recent survey conducted by Ligonier Ministries titled “The State of Theology” found that a full 57 % of Catholics agree with the statement “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” This is precisely why Marian celebrations like the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception need to be kept in a fashion that takes in the truth being expressed by it as outlined here, and likewise why we are in sore need of recovering Marian devotion and piety today. Mary makes Christ’s coming real for us! If Jesus is not the Son of God, we are wasting our time with Mary. She may have been a nice woman, but her role in our lives historically and today is very minimal at best at that point. But if Jesus is the Son of God, and Mary is indeed the Mother of God, we have every reason to attend to what this most magnificent of God’s creatures has to tell us with the whole of her life.  

The second point follows closely on this. That is, not only has God definitively acted within human history on our behalf during the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth, but he continues to do so today. What’s more, He does so in the same way as He did in acting to redeem Mary at her conception, i.e., through the gift of grace. In Mary’s case, the fact that God had gifted her with the grace of Christ at her conception is seen by the Church as signified by Gabriel’s greeting: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). As Raniero Cantalamessa explains, it is as though in his greeting, Gabriel repeats the same thing twice, for to be given grace is nothing else to be given a share in the very life of our Lord and God (Mary, Mirror of the Church, 31). For us this grace is given principally in the Sacraments of the Church, and most especially in the Eucharist. We see a Eucharistic connection in the quote from Cardinal Newman above when he describes how Christ took his flesh from the flesh of Mary, and His blood from her veins. Mary, then, in the totality of her person, is truly the Woman of the Eucharist, as St. John Paul II wrote (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 53), whom we are called to imitate.

By imitating Mary we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). We do this in two ways: first, by being receptive to the grace and call of God within our lives, and second, by not accepting the grace of God in vain (2 Cor 6:1). And the way this is done is through participation in the sacraments and the intentional cultivation of the virtues, the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Mary, Mirror of the Church, 33). There are many virtues to focus on so as to become conformed to Christ. However, in accordance with this Solemnity we would do well to seek to develop with God’s grace those ten which St. Louis de Montfort called Mary’s principal virtues: humility, lively faith, continual prayer, universal mortification, purity, charity, patience, sweetness and wisdom (True Devotion to Mary, 108). By doing so, we imitate Mary’s fiat and say yes to God, yes to Christ’s presence growing within us through the virtues because they are first his and ours by way of participation (True Devotion to Mary, 24). In this way we seek increased participation in the saving power of Christ in our lives and so truly celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. For, in so doing, like Mary we place our lives at the disposal of God’s own good purpose (Phil 2:13), magnifying him with the whole of our lives (Lk 1: 46), and calling all to share in the salvation won for us by Christ, and given first and most wondrously to Mary.  

Your servant in Christ,


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