Read ~ Chapter 17: Mary Immaculate Conception
Father Anthony Nachef, STD (Doctorate in Sacred Theology)
The teachings contained in this chapter are based on Holy Scriptures, the Tradition of the Catholic Church [especially the First and Second Vatican Councils, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Fathers of the Church (especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine)], the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (especially Saint Pope Paul VI, Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis). All Apostolic Encyclicals and Letters are found on the Vatican Website: Vatican
Creation and Original Sin
God created authentic freedom: It is obvious in the book of Genesis that when God created man and woman he gave them freedom. That freedom is authentic but still limited. God commanded Adam and Eve to eat from all the fruits of the garden except the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Allowing them to eat from the fruits of all the garden, Saint Pope John Paul II comments, means God gave them a wide range of true and authentic freedom. Yet it is a limited freedom because from the tree of knowledge of good and evil they were not allowed to eat: determining what is truly good and what is evil is always the prerogative of God. The fact that Adam and Eve decided to go against the commandment of God created in them what we call ‘original sin’.
Original Sin: St. Paul taught that through the sin of the first parents sin entered our human history. Adam and Eve allowed sin to start existing in our world for the first time ever. Mysteriously, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, original sin has been inherited by all human beings ever since (see CCC, 385-409). Original sin is like putting mud in a fountain that nourishes a river causing the entire river to be muddy. The whole human nature began to be stained by original sin because of the sin of Adam and Eve as if the whole human race was like one body.
Immaculate Conception: Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother Anne
Dogma of the Immaculate Conception: The dogma of the Immaculate Conception that was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854, concerns the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother Anne, not the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. Of course, the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary is an Immaculate Conception, but it does not need to be proclaimed as a dogma because Jesus cannot sin. Even though Joachim and Anne, the father and mother of Mary, had a regular sexual relationship, from the very first moment of her conception in the womb of her mother Anne, Mary was prevented by a special grace of God from the stain of original sin. In this supernatural event, nature yielded to grace and, unable to go on, stood trembling (see Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854).
Pope Pius IX summarizes this dogma by saying: “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.” (Ineffabilis Deus (1854): DS 2803)
It is of extreme importance to assert the holiness of Mary from the very instant of her conception, not only after her sanctification in her adult life. Pope Pius IX emphasizes that all the Popes, his predecessors, “denounced as false and absolutely foreign to the mind of the Church the opinion of those who held and affirmed that it was not the conception of the Virgin but her sanctification that was honored by the Church.” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854). Almost two centuries before Pope Pius IX, already Pope Alexander VII confirmed: “Concerning the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, ancient indeed is that devotion of the faithful based on the belief that her soul, in the first instant of its creation and in the first instant of the soul’s infusion into the body, was, by a special grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin. And in this sense have the faithful ever solemnized and celebrated the Feast of the Conception.” (Apost. Const. Sollicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum, December 8, 1661)
Mary remained sinless throughout her entire life: Later in her life when Mary was able to exercise her freedom, she continued to choose freely and willingly a life without sin. Mary did have an authentic freedom, but she willingly submitted this freedom to God’s will every moment of her life. The whole life of Mary is sinless, and that is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is all about.
Immaculate Conception in the Bible
‘First Gospel’ in the Book of Genesis: When Adam and Eve sinned and were punished, God did not abandoned them. Already in the book of Genesis, God promised the savior to come from the descendant of Eve: “I will put enmities between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed”. Theology calls this promise ‘proto-evangelium’ (first Gospel of salvation) in which the coming of the savior was foretold. The statement of Pope Pius IX associates Mary to Jesus in the work of salvation: “Hence, just as Christ, the Mediator between God and man, assumed human nature, blotted the handwriting of the decree that stood against us, and fastened it triumphantly to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, united with him by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with him and through him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854)
Biblical foundation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception: When the Angel Gabriel announced the Incarnation to Mary, he said: “Hail Full of Grace (Luke 1:28).” The expression “Full of Grace” in Greek is Kecharitomene and is used only one time in the entire Bible and never again. Kecharitomene does not mean “favorite one.” That is a very bad translation of the original Greek. The word Charis means ‘grace’ a term that has an elaborate theology behind it: it indicates God’s divine life that was given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Such a grace has been planned by God from the beginning of time. God who created the human race has already foreseen his glorious grace being shared by the redeemed humanity (see Ephesians, 1).
Meaning of “Full of Grace”: Kecharitomene does not only mean ‘Full of Grace.’ That word in Greek is difficult to translate because the verb tense excludes any time that Mary is not Full of Grace. More precisely, Kecharitomene means, if I may translate it word for word, ‘hail you who have always been full of grace, who is now full of grace and will always be full of grace.’ From the moment of her conception until her assumption into heaven, Mary has always been full of grace.
Mary’s name is “Full of Grace”: Notice that when the Angel Gabriel came to announce Christ’s Incarnation to Mary he didn’t say ‘Hail Mary Full of Grace.’ He said instead “Hail Full of Grace.” The angel skipped her name (which was mentioned in a later verse in the same chapter of Luke 1). Why did the angel skip the name of Mary?
On many occasions in the Bible when God calls someone to a special mission, God gives them a new name (Abraham became Abram, Jacob became Israel, etc…). The change of name indicates a new identity and a new mission. The fact that the angel called her “Full of Grace” that became Mary’s name, identity, and mission. Her name becomes identified with her whole being as a ‘Full of Grace.’ Mary’s entire existence is immersed in the mystery of her Son to the point that His grace permeates her entire being. This does not eliminate her individual identity; Mary is still an authentic human person different then her Son. Yet, even though maintaining her human properties, her union with him immersed her in God’s eternal plan: her entire being is “Full of Grace.”
Mary’s Immaculate Conception draws its meaning from Christ’s Incarnation
Incarnation as a sinless New Creation: In the Incarnation God the Son assumed a human nature in order to recreate it without sin. The parallel between the book of Genesis and the Gospel of John elaborates the new creation theology. The book of Genesis relates that the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, allowed sin to enter our human nature; the Gospel of John calls Jesus “Man” (Pontius Pilate called Jesus “Man” when he is about to be crucified for our salvation) and Mary “woman” (in the wedding of Cana in Galilee where Jesus started the new messianic time of recreating our nature by changing the water into wine). The New Man and the New Woman replace the old order of sin.
God had in mind Jesus the New Man and and Mary the New Woman when creating Adam and Eve: Since God has no past and no future, God sees the entire human history in a ‘one shot deal.’ This means that God knew at the moment of the creation of Adam and Eve, that they will be introducing evil into our world. But God knew too that he will be sending his Son to be incarnate of Mary. The New Adam and the New Eve were in God’s mind at the moment of the first creation. Chapter one of the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians focuses on the new creation as a part of God’s transcendental plan. Here is how the Catechism uses Ephesians 1 to summarize this theology: “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)
Pope Pius IX also summarizes the theology of the Letter to the Ephesians by saying: “From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world.” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854) Commenting on the Letter to the Ephesians 1, St. Pope John Paul II confirms that God the Father foresaw the Incarnation as the re-creation of the human race. If at the moment of creation the Father knew he was going to send his Only Son to redeem us, the father must have also foreseen that Jesus Christ was going to be born of Mary, the woman ‘Full of Grace’ (see Redemptoris Mater, 8)
Immaculate Conception draws its meaning from the Incarnation: The mission of the new Man and the new Woman is to recreate a new human nature without the stain of sin. At the center of this redemption is the God-man Jesus Christ. The presence and role of the Virgin Mary, despite her personal merits as the most eminent creature in the history of humanity, draws its strength and meaning from Jesus Christ alone. Mary is still need of redemption. However, since she was created sinless, the redemption of Christ were applied to her differently then us: at the moment of her conception in the womb of Anne. Vatican II, confirming the theology of Pope Pius IX, teaches in this regard: “The ‘splendor of an entirely unique holiness’ by which Mary is ‘enriched from the first instant of her conception’ comes wholly from Christ: she is ‘redeemed’, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.” (LG, 53 and 56; see also CCC, 492)
Mary is pre-redeemed: In what sense is Mary pre-redeemed? According to teachings of Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Tradition of the Catholic Church, the salvation of Christ is universal. Every single person in the history of humanity must be redeemed by Christ including the Virgin Mary. Well if Mary was conceived without sin and lived her life sinless, how is she redeemed by Christ? The Second Vatican Council calls her redeemed in a more eminent manner. The merits of the redemption of Christ were still applied to Mary but in a different way than us. At the very moment of her sinless conception in the womb of Anne, the merits of Christ’s universal redemption were applied to Mary so she is the “Full Grace.” She is still redeemed by her Son but in a more excellent manner than us. The Catechism summarizes this theology by saying: “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.” (CCC, 491)
Grace and Freedom in Mary
God’s grace perfected Mary’s freedom: The new Adam, Jesus Christ, took on a human nature without sin. The subject in Jesus is divine. Jesus cannot sin even if he tries to since God cannot commit an act against himself. Mary, on the other hand, was a creature endowed with a true freedom but, at the same time, God gave her the grace not to sin. So, on the one hand we see God intervening and giving Mary a special grace not to sin, yet on the other hand Mary did have an authentic freedom and had to cooperate with the grace of God to stay away from sin. The true meaning of freedom is not doing ‘whatever we want.’ It really is conforming our will to God’s will. This relationship between freedom and grace is summarized by St. Augutine when he prayed to the Lord saying: “grant what you command and command what you will.” (Confessiones, X, 29, 40: CCL 27,176)
Freedom and Grace in Mary is a paradox: It is a paradox because it looks like God is doing everything for Mary, even though Mary was still free and needed to cooperate with God’s grace. Vatican II and the Catechism teach that for her “to become the mother of the Savior, Mary ‘was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.’ (LG, 56) The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as ‘full of grace.’ (Luke 1:28) In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.” (CCC, 490) Vatican II has already explained this paradox by saying: “in order to have faith, the grace of God must come first and give assistance; there must also be the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and gives ‘to everyone joy and ease in assenting to and believing in the truth.” (Vatican II, Dei verbum, 5)
Comparing our condition to Mary: Our condition is at the same time similar and different then Mary’s. It is similar because God’s grace is always available and present in our life; we just need to freely accept it and cooperate with it. It is different because we are not immaculate conception.
Being Immaculate Conception is the goal of the Church
Mary “Full of Grace” is what the Church hopes to be: What are we doing here as a Church on earth? We are praying, we are celebrating the sacraments, we are receiving communion, we are going to confession, we perform acts of charity, etc. All we do is oriented to be united to the Blessed Trinity at the end of our lives. That union presupposes the destruction of sin in our lives. Well, this has already taken place in Mary because from the moment of her conception until the end of her life, she was immune from the stain of sin. That’s why the Second Vatican Council called Mary the ‘pre-redeemed par excellence.’ The Church hopes to be what Mary already is. Mary is the most perfect icon of the Church (see Pope Pius XI, Apostolic Letter Ineffabilis Deus (8 December 1854): Pii IX P.M. Acta, pars I, 616; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 53).
Mary is still redeemed by Christ: In order to eliminate all misunderstanding and abuses about the identity and role of Mary in the mystery of Christ and the Church, Vatican II strongly underlines the universality of Christ’s redemption. If Mary was redeemed in more eminent manner, this does not mean that she did not mean redemption. In fact, Mary “stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently await and receive salvation from him.” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 55)
Exulting with joy, Pope Pius IX writes: “Our soul overflows with joy and our tongue with exultation. We give, and we shall continue to give, the humblest and deepest thanks to Jesus Christ, our Lord, because through his singular grace he has granted to us, unworthy though we be, to decree and offer this honor and glory and praise to his most holy Mother. All our hope do we repose in the most Blessed Virgin — in the all fair and immaculate one who has crushed the poisonous head of the most cruel serpent and brought salvation to the world: in her who is the glory of the prophets and apostles, the honor of the martyrs, the crown and joy of all the saints; in her who is the safest refuge and the most trustworthy helper of all who are in danger; in her who, with her only-begotten Son, is the most powerful Mediatrix and Conciliatrix in the whole world; in her who is the most excellent glory, ornament, and impregnable stronghold of the holy Church; in her who has destroyed all heresies and snatched the faithful people and nations from all kinds of direst calamities; in her do we hope who has delivered us from so many threatening dangers.” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854)