Today the Universal Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. I think of all the teachings of the Catholic Church, the Immaculate Conception is one of the most misunderstood by our Protestant brothers and sisters and, sadly, by Catholics. Take for example, the art that is associated with it (both pieces are titled “The Immaculate Conception”):
Artwork such as this, while attractive, doesn’t really help us to understand what the dogma is all about. Actually, it steers us in a direction away from what the dogma is about. If art doesn’t help us to understand the teaching, perhaps the Mass readings would help us understand it better. Unfortunately, the Gospel reading from Luke actually provides the most common misunderstanding of the dogma; specifically, that the Immaculate Conception is about Jesus’ conception. In fact, the teaching is not about Jesus’ conception, but about Mary’s conception.
So here is the exact wording that defines what the Church is teaching; it comes from the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus issued by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854:
Declaramus, pronuntiamus et definimus doctrinam quae tenet beatissimam Virginem Mariam in primo instanti suae conceptionis fuisse singulari Omnipotentis Dei gratia et privilegio, intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis, ab omni originalis culpae labe praeservatam immunem, esse a Deo revelatam, atque idcirco ab omnibus fidelibus firmiter constanterque credendam
Oh, I suppose you want that in English…
“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that 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, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
So what is important to ask once we have the definition is: What does that really mean and why did God do this?
First, what does the definition mean? It has to do, primarily, with “original sin,” a concept that is unique to Christianity. That is why the first reading in the Mass for the Solemnity is from the third chapter of Genesis. Man was originally created in a “state of holiness and justice” whereby man would not have to suffer or die.” Instead of choosing to remain in such a state, “man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him” (CCC 375-376, 398). The net effect of “Adam’s sin” was a loss of his original holiness, not just for himself, but for “all human beings” (CCC 416). St Augustine taught that Adam and Eve’s sin was then passed down biologically to all human beings so that we all suffer from “the original sin,” even while we may not have done anything ourselves.
The idea behind the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was preserved from original sin, not because of anything Mary did so right, remember she hasn’t been born yet, but because of what Jesus Christ would do. We know (believe) that Jesus Christ was the Son of God who saved us from original sin so therefore he must be without original sin himself. However, if he was born of a human mother, how could he avoid being affected by the original sin in her? This is where the idea of the Immaculate Conception comes in. Mary was immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb. Now when Jesus is born of Mary, he would not be affected by that same sin.
So putting the technical aspects aside for a moment, we can turn to the second question; specifically, what was God’s motivation? If God is capable of preserving someone from original sin, why not just do it to Jesus while he is in Mary’s womb? Why Mary first? As I already stated, Mary’s sanctification was as a result of the merits of Jesus Christ in advance of his birth. God the Father granted Mary this “singular grace” to show what Jesus would do for all of humanity, for you and I. Sounds confusing? Stay with me, it’s going to get good.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not really about Mary. I have to keep stressing, the dogma defines something that happened before her birth! The dogma is really about God wanting to restore the relationship that was lost with humanity and his plan to do that through his son, Jesus Christ. Sadly, Catholics are not taught the faith too well these days and so a combination of ignorance, along with some romanticized notions about Mary, tend to obstruct what this is all about. When we read that Jesus was tempted the same as us but never sinned (Heb 4:15), I think that we say, “Well, of course he isn’t going to sin, he is God.” But then Jesus sets the bar pretty high for us by telling us to be as perfect as our heavenly father (Mt 5:48). Now we think, “Hey, hold up. How am I supposed to do that, I’m not God?” There is a way and Mary’s Immaculate Conception prefigures it for us.
The Immaculate Conception is important for us today because it is integrally related to our baptism. What God did for Mary at her conception, he does for us at our baptism! Yes, it does! Read what the Catechism says: “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle” (CCC 405). Did you catch that? Our baptism “erases original sin!” What did the Immaculate Conception do? Kept Mary preserved free “from all stain of original sin.” The graces we receive in our baptism are the same as those Mary received in her mother’s womb! They both come from the same wellspring of love and mercy. Now that doesn’t mean that after our baptism we can’t sin anymore, we obviously still do, but the Immaculate Conception didn’t mean that Mary couldn’t sin any more either. God did not take away her free will, just like he didn’t take away Adam and Eve’s. This makes people squirm a bit, but Mary could have sinned, Catholics just believe she didn’t because to sin is to choose something other than God. By always choosing to put God first, Mary was able to rise above the evils of the world. We have been given the same graces as Mary, our choices just don’t seem to be as good as hers.
All of this is pure gift because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. It is certainly not because we are virtuous; we never could have earned it. But then again, Mary did not earn it either because she wasn’t born yet to earn it. Do you know what a consolation this is? You should immediately feel encouraged by this! God has not held anything back from us. In Mary we have such a beautiful model of a human being, not a god or goddess, living fully in cooperation with the abundant graces God provides. And now that we have learned that we are gifted with the exact same graces through our baptism, we should feel even more encouraged, not discouraged, when we contemplate her perfect submission to the will of God. In fact, we have the benefit of additional graces she didn’t (e.g the Eucharist).
Hopefully this post will help to clear up the definition of the Immaculate Conception, as well as, provide some hope and encouragement. God freely chooses to share his grace with us, to share his own self with us, as a pure gift all because of Jesus Christ. We need not earn God’s gifts to us, in fact, we never could earn God’s love and grace in a million years. And because we are so richly blessed with it, we are given the power to cooperate, like Mary, with God’s plan and to rise above the evils of this world.
I’ll close by taking some liberties with the Immaculate Conception definition from Ineffabilis Deus: “In the first instance [after your baptism], by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, [set YOU] free from all stain of original sin.”
Now go and live fully in that grace!