The Virgin Mary – The Immaculate Conception

Blessed art thou among women.”  (Lk 1,42)

In order to become incarnate, and fully participate in the life of man, God had to be born of a woman, so that “just as a woman contributed to death, so also a woman should contribute to life.”[1]  It had to be a woman worthy to carry the Son of God, a woman specially prepared, one who was therefore persevered from the stain of Original Sin.  The purpose of this preservation was not so Christ would not inherit Original Sin, but so that there could be a fitting shrine for Christ.  The flesh He was to inherit had to be one without blemish, and so Mary became the perfect creation, and God “loved her above all creatures.”[2]

Mary was to be the new Ark of the Covenant, because of her “original grace, not the condition of her body.”[3]  She was not born sanctified, like John the Baptist and Jeremiah, who were sanctified in the womb, but at the moment of her conception, she was sanctified, and therefore Mary was immaculately conceived.  The Fathers used the words of the prophets to express her perfection.  She was seen as the “unspotted dove, the holy Jerusalem, exalted throne of God, and the Shrine of holiness.”[4]  She is the one mentioned in Rev 12, where “the beginning and the end of Sacred Scripture come together.”[5]  She is the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Rev 12,1).  She is the one foretold in Gen 3, 15, whose seed “will crush the head” of Satan.  The Early Church Fathers called the mother of God “entirely holy and free from all stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature.”[6]

There has been some debate over the years about Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and although implicitly suggested by many, it was only officially declared Dogma in 1854 by Pope Piux XI.  One of the most common difficulties that theologians had was in relation to Christ’s redemption of all, and that if Mary was in fact a human person, then she too had to have been redeemed, and so had to have been conceived with sin.  St Thomas Aquinas was not strictly against the Immaculate Conception, and knew that Mary was “full of grace” (Lk 1,28), and that she therefore did not suffer inflammation, disordered desires or inclination towards sin, which was rather rendered harmless, rather than removed.[7]  He saw Mary too, as a rational creature, who had to have been redeemed by Christ.  St Thomas differs from some early Church Fathers, like Basil, who thought Mary must have at least committed a minor sin such as doubt, or as St John Chrysostom who said perhaps she committed the sin of “vainglory”.[8]  They felt Mary had to have sinned, even in some small way.  St Thomas’ different point of view stemmed from his idea of when the rational soul was infused.  He saw the body first coming into existence, not the body and soul together at conception as is the current Catholic understanding.  He saw the body as “animated in succession”; firstly a vegetative soul came into existence, followed by a sensitive soul, and finally a rational soul.[9]  It was at the point of this rational soul infusion, that he saw Mary as being sanctified.

Mary was seen by the Fathers as the new Eve.  Eve’s disobedience resulted in the fall of man, and through Mary’s obedience God would become man, and man would be redeemed.  As St Irenaeus said, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience received its unloosing through the obedience of Mary.”[10]  Eve, did not carry the stain of Original Sin, and had she not sinned, her children too would have been immaculately conceived.  Both, Eve before the fall, and Mary had what Augustine called “posse non peccare”, which is the grace to not sin.  We do not have this grace as we cannot avoid sin, through the fallen nature that we have inherited, and Augustine called this lack of ability to avoid sin as “non posse non peccare”.  Mary, technically, could have chosen to not do God’s will, but the major difference between her and Eve, was that she was “full of grace”.  Although she inherited a nature from her parents, she also had the fullness of grace, and therefore she also had the grace to persevere until the end, or what is known as “the grace of final perseverance.”  Mary’s lack of sin and her immaculate conception are not to be confused with Our Lord’s human nature.  Mary was partially exempt from the law, whereas Christ was wholly exempt, and therefore His conception was a miraculous conception, whereas Mary’s was immaculate.  Mary, like us, sprang “from Adam materially and seminally”[11], but Our Lord sprung from Adam only materially, not seminally. Christ’s body therefore did not lie under the guilt or effects of Original Sin, whereas ours and Our Lady’s lay under the effects of Original Sin.[12]

Mary had a free will, like all rational creatures, and chose to fully cooperate with God’s salvific plan, and “with a full heart and impeded by no sin, she devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord.”[13]  Her role in God’s salvific plan was therefore most certainly not a passive one.  Her steadfast faith and obedience to the will of God, are greater than those of even the Father of the Faith, Abraham, and make her the model disciple for all Christians.  When Jesus was told that his mother and brothers had arrived he explained that it is those who do the will of His Father in Heaven, that are His mother and brothers (Matt 12, 46-50).  When the woman in the crowd shouted to Jesus, that “blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts you suckled”, Jesus’ reply shows that it is not the fact that Mary is the Mother of God, that makes her great but rather “blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11, 27-28).  It is Mary example in obedience to the will of God, and her example of faith, that all are called to follow, and that led to our salvation.  As St. Irenaeus says, she “being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.”[14]  Mary is the model disciple by virtue of her faith, and, she, in hope “believed against hope” (Rom 4,18).  In her association with the apostles and several women, “we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit.”[15]

Mary’s role is not however complete, and the catechism tells us that after her son’s ascension she “aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.”[16]  Through her consent at the Annunciation, Mary was collaborating with the whole work her Son was to accomplish, and is therefore “mother wherever He is Savior and head of the Mystical Body.”[17]  Mary is not only honoured as being the Mother of God, but also as the Mother of the Church, and she continues to intercede for her children.  She is “clearly the mother of the members of Christ, she is a mother to us in the order of grace.”[18]

[1]    Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 56   

[2]    Piux XI, Ineffabilis Deus (Dogmatic Definition of the Immaculate Conception), 1854, p.1  

[3]    IBID, p.1  

[4]    IBID p.3

[5]    John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt By Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, p.132  

[6]    Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 56   

[7]    Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III.27.1-6 “The Sanctification of the Blessed Virgin Mary”  

[8]    John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt By Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, p.138  

[9]    Thomas R Heath O.P., St Thomas and the Immaculate Conception”, p. 113  

[10]  John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt By Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, p.139

[11]  Thomas R Heath O.P., St Thomas and the Immaculate Conception”, p. 117  

[12]  IBID p. 118  

[13]  Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 56   

[14]  IBID

[15]  IBID   

[16]  Catechism of the Catholic Church No 965   

[17]  IBID  

[18]  IBID   

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