Skip to comments.Why do we believe in the Immaculate Conception?
Posted on 09/21/2004 7:43:13 AM PDT by Tantumergo
In discussing why we believe in the Immaculate Conception, its important to understand what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is and what it is not. Some people think the term refers to Christs conception in Marys womb without the intervention of a human father; but that is the Virgin Birth. Others think the Immaculate Conception means Mary was conceived "by the power of the Holy Spirit," in the way Jesus was, but that, too, is incorrect. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception was brought about in the normal way, was conceived without original sin or its stain the meaning of "immaculate" being without stain. The essence of original sin consists in the deprivation of sanctifying grace, and its stain is a fallen nature. Mary was preserved from these defects by Gods grace; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace and was free from the corrupt nature original sin brings.
While in the West the doctrine has been taught somewhat negatively the emphasis being on Marys sinlessness - the East has tended to put the accent instead on her abundant holiness. The colloquial term for her is Panagia, the All-Holy; for everything in her is holy.
Although this doctrine is not explicitly stated in Scripture (as indeed the Trinity is not explicitly stated), there is much implicit evidence that the New Testament Church believed in the sinlessness and holiness of the Mother of God.
The primary implicit reference can be found in the angels greeting to Mary. The angel Gabriel said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). The phrase "full of grace" is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. This word represents the proper name of the person being addressed by the angel, and it therefore expresses a characteristic quality of Mary.
The traditional translation, "full of grace," is more accurate than the one found in many recent versions of the New Testament, which tend to render the expression "highly favoured daughter." Mary was indeed a highly favoured daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that (and it never mentions the word for "daughter"). The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning "to fill or endow with grace." Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates a perfection of grace that is both intensive and extensive. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angels visit, but rather it extended over the whole of her life. She must have been in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence to have been called "full of grace."
However, this is not to imply that Mary had no need of a saviour. Like all other descendants of Adam, she was subject to the necessity of contracting original sin. But by a special intervention of God, undertaken at the instant she was conceived, she was preserved from the stain of original sin and its consequences. She was therefore redeemed by the grace of Christ, but in a special way - by anticipation.
If we consider an analogy: Suppose a man falls into a deep pit and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been "saved" from the pit. Now imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to topple into the pit, but at the very moment that she is to fall in, someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been saved from the pit, but in an even better way: she was not simply taken out of the pit; she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. By receiving Christs grace at her conception, she had his grace applied to her before she was able to become subject to original sin and its stain.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that she was "redeemed in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son" (CCC 492). She has more reason to call God her Saviour than we do, because he saved her in an even more glorious manner.
St. Luke also provides us with further evidence that the early Church believed in the sinlessness of Mary. In the first chapter of his gospel, he goes to great pains to recount the event of the Visitation in parallel terms to the recovery of the Ark of the Covenant by David in 2 Sam 6. The following contrasts are notable:
1) 2 Sam 6,2 So David arose and went set out for Baala of Judah Lk 1,39 And Mary rising up in those days, went to a town of Judah
2) 2 Sam 6,9 How can the ark of the Lord come to me? Lk 1,43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
3) 2 Sam 6,14 And David danced with all his might before the Lord Lk 1,44 the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
4) 2 Sam 6,11 And the ark of the Lord abode in the house of Obededom the Gittite three months. Lk 1,56 And Mary abode with her about three months.
When taken in conjunction with Gabriels earlier promise to Mary that The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. (Lk 1,35) in similar language to that describing the descent of the Shekinah on the ark, it is clear that St. Luke considers Mary to be the fulfilment of the type of the Ark of the Covenant.
In Lukes mind she is the ark of the New Covenant. Just as the old ark contained the Word of God written on stone, the bread from heaven in the form of manna, and the priestly staff of Aaron; so the new ark contains the Word of God enfleshed, the true bread of heaven, and the high priest of the New Covenant.
Up until its disappearance 500 years earlier the ark had been the holiest thing in all creation even to touch it or look into it was to bring death or plagues on non-Levites. Similarly then, the ark of the New Covenant would have been viewed as the holiest created being by the early Jewish Christians. Marys holiness was by the specific design of heaven, just as the old ark was given as a specific design from heaven.
This understanding of Mary as the ark is not just limited to the Lucan tradition. We also find Johannine understanding of this teaching in the Apocalypse. If we omit the medieval chapter and verse numberings, we see that Johns vision, following the judgement of Jerusalem and the Old Covenant, reveals:
And the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of his covenant was seen in his temple, and there were lightnings, and voices, and an earthquake, and great hail. And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: Apoc. 11,19-12,1
While some commentators see in the figure of the woman a corporate type of Israel or the Church, these can only be secondary meanings as the same vision reveals two other figures which both have primary individual identities: Satan and the womans child Jesus Christ:
Apoc 12,3 And there was seen another sign in heaven: and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads, and ten horns: and on his head seven diadems: Apoc 12,9 And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan.
Apoc 12,5 And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne.
Thus many fathers of the Church as well as recent Popes have clearly identified the ark/woman as Mary, the Holy Mother of God. This should not be surprising as John is here recapitulating the whole of revelation. Not only is he portraying the breaking in of the New Covenant, but of the new creation itself. The early chapters of Genesis where we see the man and woman in conflict with the serpent at the beginning of the old creation, are now recapitulated with the new Adam and the new Eve in conflict with that same serpent, though this time with positive results. Revelation has come full circle with the final triumph of God over the devil through the woman and her seed as first foretold in Genesis 3,15.
This is why early fathers such as St Irenaeus, St Ephraim, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine could clearly identify Mary as the new Eve as well as the Ark of the Covenant. For in a way that Eve in her disobedience could only be physically the mother of all the living, Mary is now revealed as the true mother of all the living in Jesus Christ:
Apoc 12,17 And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
It is only reasonable to conclude, then, that just as the first Eve was created without sin and filled with sanctifying grace, so the new Eve who was to untie the knot of disobedience wrought by the first, should be also so conceived. Or, as Cardinal Newman put it:
Now, can we refuse to see that, according to these Fathers, who are earliest of the early, Mary was a typical woman like Eve, that both were endued with special gifts of grace, and that Mary succeeded where Eve failed? Memorandum on the Immaculate Conception. Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Although arguments from authority can often be the weakest form of argument, as Catholics, it is worth finally pointing out that the ultimate reason for believing in the Immaculate Conception is that this doctrine has been infallibly defined as being revealed by God, and as such our salvation depends on adhering to it:
"Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honour of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: "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 Saviour 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." Hence, if anyone shall darewhich God forbid!to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should dare to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart." Ineffabilis Deus, Bl. Pope Pius IX
Ping to the essay in question.
Apologies for the lack of bibliography, footnotes and reams of unattributed plagiarism, but I hope at least that it will help flesh out the doctrine from a Scriptural angle.
Very interesting article. It begs a question though. I've read many times that it appears Jesus had siblings. Were they also, then, immaculately conceived?
He is the Doctor of the Church who beautifully let us know that Saint Cleophas was the brother of Saint Joseph. This explains why Saint James, Saint Simon and Saint Jude, the sons of Saint Cleophas, and Saint James the Greater and Saint John, his grandsons, are referred to as "the bretheren of Our Lord."
If Jesus has blood siblings, why did He leave His mother to John, the Beloved Apostle?
I don't know. Please don't get the impression I am trying to "challenge" Catholicism's doctrines - I am simply learning their position.
"Ah, so this is the standard Catholic position? That the term used for "brother" could mean cousin, etc.? Jesus must have been an only child?"
There was another theory also adopted by some of the Fathers (more prevalent among the Greeks). They said that St. Joseph was a widower when he married the Mother of God, and that he had children by that former marriage - Mary was their step-mother.
Whichever theory that they held, however, the Fathers were unanimous that the Blessed Virgin remained so after the birth of Jesus and consequently bore no other children herself.
Jesus had no other siblings. The term used for "brother" can mean cousin etc.
Our Lady, from the very instant of her existance in the womb of her mother, was concieved without the stain of sin (known as "original sin" or "the sin of Adam") because although every other person that is born into this world has the sin of Adam handed down to them by their parents, for God's purpose and by His will, God spared Mary of this sin due to the impending position that She was to partake of later in life, hence, any child that She would have bore would not have had the necessary ingredient to be born in original sin because She was not born in original sin, therefore the sin itself nor its effects could be handed down to Her child.
"The term used for "brother" can mean cousin etc."
Correct. The Greek word used for "brothers" in the NT is "adelphoi" (cf. Philadelphia - the city of brotherly love).
There is a clear example of it being used to include a wider range of relatives in the Greek translation of the old Testament in the book of Genesis. Abraham and Lot are referred to as bothers - "adelphoi" - however, their actual relationship is one of uncle and nephew.
Thanks for the information.
Interesting. I had not heard that theory. I was taught that the reason St. Joseph was chosen was because of his great love of God and his purity of heart, as demonstrated in the Litany of Loretto ~ "St. Joseph Her most chaste spouse". Its also the reason that in all the pictures, statues etc. of St. Joseph, he always holds a white lily, the symbol of purity.
Sorry. The correct interpretation of 'adelphoi' is 'from the same womb'. Cousins are not from the same womb.
Because at the time, none of his brothers believed he was the Messiah. James did not believe until later.
His being Messiah would have nothing to do with it. He lived in a Jewish culture, and it would be very odd for Him to leave His mother with someone who wasn't related to her.
Then why don't we just let the silence of the scripture remain silent. What scripture does tell us about Mary should be enough for us to highly respect her as the type of woman that God would use to bring his Son into the world. Since that is all that God has told us, shouldn't that be enough.
Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.
The Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth to one child, Jesus Christ. So says Sacred Scripture.
Not really. The jewish culture was about to be drastically changed. And the brotherhood of believers in Christ would become even more binding than that of blood relations.
Matthew 12:50 For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.