The Immaculate One
To the honor of the Holy and Undivided Trinity,...We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary at the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in virtue of the merits of Christ Jesus, the Savior of the human race, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God and on this account must firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful. "(Ineffabilis Deus" Dec. 8, 1854)
Not to be confused with the virginal conception or virgin birth, the Immaculate Conception is the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother St. Anne. It was a natural conception. That is, St. Joachim, the father of Mary, had conjugal relations with his wife St. Anne and Mary was conceived by that union. It was a supernatural conception in that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. She was conceived without sin and remained sinless her whole life. The point of this article is to inform my readers of the reasons why the Church teaches this as a dogma of the Faith, the history of how this dogma developed and why this dogma is supremely logical as are all things that Christ has revealed.
Now it is important to recall that a dogma is not something the Church proclaims on a whim. The Church does not invent dogmas, rather it clarifies and defines that which has already been revealed by Christ. The full public revelation of the Truth revealed by Christ and the Holy Spirit ended with the death of the last Apostle. However, the Holy Spirit continues to unfold a deeper understanding of the Truth revealed by Christ throughout the ages.
"I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all Truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you." (John16:12-14)
Therefore many of the things which Jesus revealed to us remain kernels of the Truth which through time and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit blossom forth and of which we develop a deeper understanding. The Church does not make up revelation nor does it present for adherence by the faithful any new truth. All that is necessary for man to know in order to Love God, as He deserves to be loved, was revealed by Christ 2000 years ago. It is only when a long standing truth has been seriously challenged that the Church must step forth and clarify the truth by definition and by declaring it necessary for belief by all the faithful.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not proclaimed a dogma until December 8, 1854 by His Holiness Pope Pius IX. This is a perfect example of a dogma that had been held by the Church from its very foundation but that took centuries to develop and be understood.
We cannot expect to find the dogma of the Immaculate Conception explicitly proclaimed in the Sacred Scriptures. Rather, like many of the revealed truths of God's holy Word, this dogma is implicit in Sacred Scripture and instead explicitly found in the constant teachings Holy Tradition. Nevertheless, it is not impossible to see the dogma of the Immaculate Conception woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis we find an implicit reference to the Immaculate Conception in God's prophecy to Adam and Eve after their sin. We call this prophecy the "Protoevangelium" because it was the first proclamation of the good news; the coming of Christ.
"I will put enmity between you and the WOMAN, between your seed (offspring) and her seed (offspring); He shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for His heel." (Genesis 3:15) Saint Jerome translated the Hebrew as "She shall crush your head and you shall lie in wait for her heel." But in actual case the person referred to who shall crush the head of the devil is the seed of the Woman who is actually Christ. "For this purpose the Son of God appeared that He might destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8) Nevertheless, Our Lady does crush Satan's head by her perfect act of obedience to God's call.
Jesus, constantly refers to His mother as "Woman" (John 2:4: 19:26) which implies she is the WOMAN of the Protoevangelium. God was specifically referring to Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother of Jesus. In other words, Mary was to be the source through which the salvation of the world would come. Jesus, her Son, would crush the head of the devil as he (the devil) attempted to destroy Him.
The above reference does not, of course, refer specifically to the Immaculate Conception but rather indicates the central roll of the Blessed Virgin within salvation history. It was through her and her alone that Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity received His entire human nature. She was the perfect vessel which held the seed of salvation; nourishing it, protecting it and allowing it to blossom forth from her womb to save the entire human race from the consequences of sin.
In the old dispensation the first Eve was formed from the side of Adam and took her complete human nature from him. Through her disobedience she became the source of our enslavement to sin and Satan. In the New dispensation the Second Adam took His complete human nature from the New Eve. Through her obedience she became the source of our salvation and freedom from slavery to sin and bondage to the Evil One. As light penetrates glass So our Lord Jesus Christ came forth through Mary giving light to all men, in every place, throughout time. It is, therefore, essential in any understanding of Mary's roll in Salvation history that we realize that whatever graces she possessed and possesses now all center upon one supreme reality; the fact that she is the Mother of God. It is from her divine motherhood that everything else about her finds its meaning and profound beatitude. There is no greater nor singular privilege of God's grace ever bestowed upon humanity then that God chose a WOMAN to bring Him forth into the world as a man. The Infinite One united Himself to a finite creature in such a profound unity that we can only scratch the surface of its mystery.
The Old Testament refers to her in many different places.
"As a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters." (Song of Songs, 2:2)
"Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee." (Song of Songs, 4:7)
"My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up." (Song of Songs, 4:12)
"Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and His name shall be called Emmanuel (meaning God is with us)." (Isaiah 7:14)
"Blessed art thou, O daughter, by the Lord the most High God, above all women upon the earth."
"Blessed art thou by thy God in every tabernacle of Jacob, for in every nation which shall hear thy name, the God of Israel shall be magnified on occasion of thee." (Judith 13:23 & 31)
The New Testament
The most important Scriptural text is found in the Gospel of St. Luke:
"Ave Gratia Plena : Dominus tecum: benedicta tu in mulieribus." The Greek term is ( )kecharitomene. Both terms in Latin and Greek mean exactly the same thing; "Full of Grace." The most significant thing about the construction of the original Greek is that this greeting; literally, "Rejoice FullofGrace", makes the participle kecharitomene a proper name or title given to Mary. Notice that Gabriel does not address her as "Mary" but rather as "Kecharitomene". In other words, for the angel Gabriel "Full of Grace" is Mary's name in the same way that Jacob was given the new name "Israel" by the angel with whom he "wrestled" and in the same way that Abram was given the new name Abraham by God in the covenant He established with him.
Mary is not just filled with grace but the fullness of God's good will is so profound in her soul that she literally embodies the very meaning of the term "Full of Grace." This term cannot be translated simply in the way the Protestant and Modernist theologians translate it: "highly favored one". Grammatically and theologically this translation falls infinitely short of the total meaning of the term. The only other time that this term is used in Scripture is when it is used of Jesus in the gospel of St. John. "...full of grace and truth..." In Latin "Plenum gratiae". In Greek "Pleres charis". But even this expression is not as strong as the term used for the Blessed Virgin. It could be compared to one who is just "resurrected" as opposed to Jesus who calls himself "The Resurrection". Resurrection is, of course, an event not a name or a title. Nevertheless, our Lord Jesus Christ so embodies the very essence of this central event that the title is appropriately applied exclusively to Him. Without Him there would be no resurrection and through Him we will all be resurrected. He is the very cause of every resurrection. Likewise, Mary is "Full of Grace" because it is through her and her alone that the saving grace of Christ came into the world. She alone was the vessel of the living God and she alone was so perfected by God from the moment of her conception that she was the only vessel created specifically by God to be worthy enough to enflesh the living God. She alone can be called THEOTOKOS, the Mother of God.
The term grace means many different things. It can mean a pure and gratuitous gift of God, undeserved but given by His mercy. It can mean favored by God. It also can mean filled with the very life of God Himself as when the merits of the redemption of Jesus Christ are applied to our souls through the Sacraments. We call this sanctifying grace. It makes the soul holy and righteous in the eyes of God. It is in a combination of the above second and third meanings where we find the best understanding of "Full of Grace". Grace, then, is a supernatural gift infused by God into a soul with the specific purpose of making that soul righteous and pleasing to God. It signifies the saving will of God and all of its effects. "Full of favor", doesn't make sense in the context of the angel's greeting. Kecharitomene expresses Mary's unique holiness and created perfection. This is why she was puzzled by the angel's greeting. In her perfect humility she could not understand such an extraordinary title being given to her. To be full of grace means just that FULL of grace. There was nothing left in Mary to fill. Her virtue and holiness were complete.
St. Thomas Aquinas states the following:
"The nearer a thing is to a principle, the more it receives from the operation of that principle. But of all creatures Mary, His Mother, stands nearest to Christ, Who is the source of Grace, as God by His authority and as man by His instrumentality. Consequently she duly received from Him a SUPREME measure of Grace. But above all Mary's vocation to be Mother of God demands for her the richest endowment with Grace. (Summa Theologia III:27,5)
It is in this simple passage of Scripture (Luke 1:26-37) that we find the implicit foundation for the constant Tradition of the Church regarding 3 specific Marian dogmas: the Immaculate Conception, the perpetual sinlessless of the Blessed Virgin and the perpetual virginity of Mary.
The Fathers of the Church
The Fathers of the Church teach that since Mary is the New Eve she, therefore, is the source of the salvation of Mankind in her Son, Jesus Christ. As "the Woman" of the Protoevangelium Mary would be the instrument by which her Son, the Savior of mankind, would crush the head of the devil and destroy his works. Mary's victory over Satan as the New Eve would have been incomplete and imperfect if in fact she had ever been under his dominion. Unlike the first Eve she remained sinless because of her simple but total obedience to God. "Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it."
St. Augustine proclaimed:
"We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honor to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin."
St. Ephraem wrote some of the most beautiful poetry regarding the holiness of the Blessed Virgin. In one of his many poems he wrote the following:
"Truly you, Lord and your Mother are the only ones who are beautiful, completely so in every respect; for, Lord, there is no spot in you, and in your Mother no stain." (Nisibene Hymns)
Finally, St. Ephraem, brings the whole concept of Mary as the New Eve to completion such as is found in the following passage:
"Mary and Eve, two people without guilt, two simple people, were identical. Later, however, one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life." (Op. Syr. II 327)
There are many other Fathers of the Church who proclaimed our Lady's immaculate and sinless nature. St. Irenaeus (190AD), St. Epiphanius, Isidor of Pelusium, St. Cyprian, St. Leo the Great are some examples.
The Historical Development
The official teachings of the Church regarding this dogma has always been weighted on the side that Mary, the New Eve, was conceived without sin. However, it was a matter of great debate. The biggest restriction to proclaiming it an official dogma was the fact that no theologian until John Duns Scotus could explain how the Blessed Virgin Mary could be exempt from being redeemed by Jesus Christ. For as St. Paul states; "All men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23)
In other words all human beings are in need of redemption and no one can be saved without the saving merits of Christ's death upon the cross being applied to their souls. The difficulty lies in the fact that if the Blessed Virgin Mary were free from original sin and remained pure and sinless her whole life then she would be exempt from the need of a Savior and would not need redemption. We were all redeemed from bondage to the devil by Christ's death upon the cross and His resurrection from the dead. How then does Mary fit into this plan of salvation and redemption if, in fact, she was never under the dominion of the devil or sin?
This, of course was the major objection to the proclamation of this dogma. A dogma held continuously but unofficially throughout the history of the Church. Together with such voices as St. Ephraem in the mid 300's and all the earlier Fathers proclaiming the sinlessness and purity of Mary the Church established a special feast in honor of the Virgin's conception calling it the Conception of St. Anne in the 600's. This feast began in the East and spread to the West where it was changed to The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When the feast came to Europe several Saints of the twelfth century warned the faithful that they were not to take this feast as indicative that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin but was sanctified in the womb of St. Anne after her conception. The Saints who taught this were; St. Bernard, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, and even the great St. Thomas Aquinas.
These great Saints taught this because they could not reconcile the fact that original sin coming through human generation tainted the entire human race and since Mary had been conceived naturally and therefore through human generation she had to have been tainted with original sin and in need of redemption.
St. Thomas put it this way:
"We can reasonably suppose that the woman who gave birth to the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth, received greater privileges of grace than anyone else: Hail. Full of grace, said the angel. Other people have had the privilege of being sanctified in the womb...Jeremiah and John the Baptist. So one can reasonably suppose that Mary too was sanctified before her birth, Only grace can cleanse from faults, and only reasoning creatures can receive grace, so Mary could not have been sanctified before she received her rational soul. Moreover, since a conceived child is not liable to fault before reception of that soul, if she had been sanctified before that moment, she would never have incurred the blemish of inherited sin, and would have no need of the ransom and salvation of Christ. If Mary's soul was never infected with inherited sin that would prejudice the dignity of Christ as the savior of all mankind; but her purity was the greatest after Christ, who as universal savior did not Himself need salvation. He did not inherit sin in any way but was holy from His conception, whereas Mary inherited sin but was cleansed from it before she was born.... Since Mary would not have been a worthy mother of God if she had ever sinned, we assert without qualification that Mary never committed a sinful act, neither venial nor mortal."(Summa Theologica III:27,2)
As we can see even the great theologians of the Church had difficulty in reconciling the two most important aspects of the Incarnation; the universality of original sin and the necessity for all men to be redeemed. St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian the Church has ever know within its 2000 year history with perfect logic explains why he believed the Immaculate Conception was impossible.
It took the mind of John Duns Scotus to discover the missing element involved in the whole puzzle that Mary was, in fact, conceived without the taint of original sin.
Fr. Scotus reasoned thusly: There is no salvation except through the redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, His saving grace is retroactive in the sense that those holy men and women of the Old Covenant were saved by Christ's grace being applied to their souls "in anticipation" of His redemptive act upon the cross. In other words, the Passion, Crucifixion and Death of Jesus on the Cross was an eternal event having effects from the beginning of time to its ending and beyond. As St. John puts it in the Apocalypse: "The Lamb who has been slain from the foundation of the world." (Apocalypse 13:8)
Now there are two ways of saving someone. First, by rescuing them once they are in danger and secondly, by preserving them from harm in the first place. Now all men have contracted the infection of original sin because we are all children of Adam. Therefore, every one must be rescued from the slavery of sin into which we are all conceived. There is only one person in all of history that did not need to be rescued from sin because she was preserved from sin. That one person is Mary. Of all human beings born of Adam and Eve, Mary is the only human saved from sin through preservation. This means simply that the merits of Christ's eternal act of redemption were applied to the soul of Mary from the very moment of her conception within her mother's womb. Her soul was shielded and saved by the Blood of her Son Jesus Christ in anticipation of His redemption on the Cross. This singular privilege of grace was given to Mary because she was to become the Mother of God the greatest privilege ever bestowed upon any human creature from the beginning of time.
Now once Duns Scotus (d.1308) solved the puzzle of Mary's redemption the theologians had a deeper understanding of this truth. Mary was not exempt from redemption but rather was redeemed through an act of preservation, whereby she was saved from even the slightest taint of sin in keeping with her God-given dignity as the Mother of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity who became a man through her and her alone.
The Synod of Basle held in 1439, even though not considered an ecumenical council, declared in favor of the Immaculate Conception.
In 1476 Pope Sixtus IV in his Constitution "Cum Praeexcelsa" declared that the faithful who participated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and other devotions to honor the feast of the Immaculate Conception were worthy to receive indulgences.
Also in 1483 in the Constitution "Grave nimis," signed by Pope Sixtus and consequently four of his successors; Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Pius III and Julius I, condemned those who preached against this doctrine and those who held it as if they were heretical. They also forbade the condemnation of those who held the opposite view since, "...up to this time there has been no decision made by the Roman Church and the Apostolic See." (D734-735)
In Session V of the Council of Trent (June 17, 1546) in the Decree On Original Sin this sacred council made the strongest statement to date about the Immaculate Conception. Curiously it was not a positive affirmation but a significant negation. The statement reads as follows:
"This holy Synod declares nevertheless that it is not its intention to include in this decree, where original sin is treated of, the Blessed and Immaculate Virgin Mary mother of God, but that the constitutions of Pope Sixtus IV of happy memory are to be observed, under the penalties contained in these same constitutions, which it (this Synod) renews. (D792.6)
Pope Pius V (1567), Pope Paul V(1616), Pope Gregory XV (1622) and Alexander VII (1661) all held to this dogma without offically proclaiming it. It was finally and definitively proclaimed a dogma of faith and a necessary belief by all the faithful on December 8, 1854.(D 1641)
The Logic Behind God's Revelation
Does it make any sense to say that Mary was Immaculately Conceived within the womb of her mother Saint Anne? I mean did Christ need a mother that was conceived without original sin? For centuries the best minds the world has ever known wrestled with this issue. Some of the greatest of them, as we have seen, seemed to believe it was not necessary. However we also know that the Church is infallible when it comes to matters of faith and morals and that the Holy Spirit will not allow error to be taught as truth in the Church established to preserve the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth for all ages. Let us look at the reasons and logic behind this dogma. Remember, God is logic itself and whatever He may reveal to us is supremely logical and reasonable when seen through the order of His universe.
Now Mary conceived Jesus (the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity) through the power of the Holy Spirit and she had no cooperation by any man. She was a virgin, undefiled, intact and integral before, during and after the miraculous birth of her Son Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus received His entire human nature from Mary and Mary alone makes Christ's human nature completely dependent upon the perfect or imperfect nature of Mary. Now we know that the taint of original sin is passed on from human to human from the very process of human generation. If Mary's human nature was exactly as every other child of Adam then Jesus would have received from his fallen mother a fallen nature. Now this is repugnant to the very idea of Christ as the New Adam (the perfect man) who by His obedience would undo the results of the disobedience of the first Adam.
In fact it makes supreme sense that if Jesus was the New Adam and was to receive His entire human nature from the New Eve that her nature should be preserved from the taint of sin so that she could pass on to her Son an unfallen human nature thereby allowing him to receive His humanity in a type of natural perfection rather than having to save His own human nature from the taint of original sin by the merits of His own act of redemption. It would be totally inappropriate that the Man who saved humanity would Himself need to be saved by His own Blood on the cross. Rather it is more appropriate that He should save His own mother so as to make her the perfect receptacle of the Perfect Seed placed in her womb through the infinite power of the Holy Spirit.
Imperfection can only bring forth imperfection. An imperfect human nature can only produce an imperfect human nature. Even if the Seed is perfect it cannot overcome the imperfection of the egg. The resulting embryo would be infected by the imperfection of the egg. Thus in order for a human to be perfect all the elements that comprise it must be perfect. Therefore, God created His Mother to be perfect, preserving her from any stain of sin from the moment of her conception and her entire life that she in turn could pass on to her only Son the human perfection appropriate for His mission to redeem the world.
O Mary conceived without sin pray for us who have recourse to thee! =