Just after the beginning of the season of Advent, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Church gives us a front row seat both to the tragic story of the pride and disobedience that led to the fall of man and to the story of faith and humble obedience that culminated in our redemption. The readings selected by the Church for this feast set before us the story of mans sin, and Gods plan to save man from his sin. A plan that includes the woman, Mary, as an integral part.
In the first reading, from the Book of Genesis (3:4-15), we hear again the ancient story. God the Creator has given man life, and all that is essential to sustain his life in loving communion with Him. But that is not enough, and man must have more. He lusts for the power not to just be the image of God (as he truly is), but to be a god himself, co-equal with his Creator. Unfortunately, this tale of rebellion and lust for power will repeat itself over and over in the course of human history right up to our own time and culture, infected with the same overweening pride and lust for power.
The story of the fall of Adam and Eve is always relevant. Satan appears as a snake. The snake we find out is in sales, promoting certain ideas and theories. He strikes up a conversation with Eve, hyping the powerful human, even cosmic, benefits which come to those who eat apples from the tree of life. It is the first real snake oil story.
Eve falls for the phony sales pitch, and then gets Adam into the act. He falls for it too. Satan rings up his first sale of sin to man, and then, we imagine, tries to make a quick garden getaway. The two sinners are left standing under the apple tree, naked and holding the equivalent of a bottle of worthless snake oil. When it finally dawns on them what their pride has led them to do, they hide in the bushes, feeling very guilty.
The Creator asks for an explanation of their disobedience. Adam blames his wife: She made me do it. Eve blames the snake: The devil made me do it. Then, reproved by their Creator and instructed on the consequences of their sinful conduct, they are ushered out of the garden by the angel.
By this point in the story we have witnessed sin and the punishment that must follow the sin. But as the story continues we will also witness Gods faithfulness to his creation, because while Adam and Eve are punished, they are still loved, and along with all mankind will always be loved by Him who is eternal love.
As Adam and Eve are leaving the garden we learn that the Satan has not made his getaway and is still there. At that point in the drama the Creator makes a great promise to Eve and to Satan: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel. God announces for the first time the coming of the Messiah and Redeemer, of a battle between the serpent and the woman, and of the final victory of a descendant of hers (Catechism of the Catholic Church , # 410) .
In the reading from the Gospel of St. Luke (1:26-38) we see that, after centuries of mans sin, punctuated by his periodic faithfulness, the ever faithful Creator makes good on His promise made in the Garden of Eden. He sent his Son to redeem man. The pride and disobedience that led to the fall is surpassed by the humble and obedient cooperation of Mary in Gods plan for redemption. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is an integral part of that plan.
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 Gods grace (CCC #490) . Based on that truth Pope Pius IX, on December 8, 1854, solemnly proclaimed to the world: The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. Ineffabilis Deus . The magnificent truth of the sinless conception of Mary in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, became an official dogma of the Church.
The solemn proclamation by Pius IX was the culmination of years of theological debate. While early on in the Church there was an understanding of the Immaculate Conception, it was not universally accepted by theologians. St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas both taught that Mary was not conceived without original sin. They reasoned that if Jesus came to save all humanity, then that humanity must include Mary, honored and favored though she may be.
The philosopher and theologian Duns Scotus offered a reasoned, but inspired solution. Mary, he said, had to be saved from sin, but that does not mean that she could not have been saved by being excluded from original sin. Scotus argued that it is a more excellent benefit to preserve a person from evil than to permit him to fall into it and then deliver him from it. Simply put, while we are saved from original sin by the waters and grace of Baptism after our creation as human beings, God granted Mary an even greater gift and preserved her from original sin from the moment of her creation as a human being. 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 (CCC #492) .
The debate was settled in 1854 with the proclamation of the dogma, and so the Catholic Catechism now teaches: Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christs victory over sin: She was preserved from stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life (CCC # 411).
Mary was the third human being without original sin, Adam and Eve being the first two. But unlike Adam and Eve, Mary did not sin, and became an instrument for the redemption and salvation of all mankind. Through her cooperation and unique role in the Divine plan Jesus became man to save man, and to show him the way to His Father. This cooperation allowed the Incarnation of Jesus in her womb by the overshadowing of the power of the Most High, and the birth of the infant Jesus nine months later.
But what if Mary had not co-operated? Adam and Eve were free of original sin from the moment of their creation, but they sinned. What if Mary had not said: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word?
While Mary was the beneficiary of a special grace of God, that same God gives every human free will, and Marys love and obedience had to be freely given or else it would not be true love and obedience God sent forth His Son, but to prepare a body for Him He wanted the free cooperation of a creature (CCC #488) .
At the Annunciation the angel Gabriel greets Mary: Hail, favored one! He then announces Gods plan and Marys role in that plan. But it is clear that the plan depends on her co-operation with His plan.
Before the woman responds to the angel all humanity is in suspense. As St. Bernard said of this moment, the salvation of man seems to hang in the balance. Then the tension is broken. Let it be done according to thy will.
The obedient new Eve by the power of the Most High will conceive the obedient Son of the Most High, and that Son will draw all men to the Most High, His Father. Mary responded with the obedience of faith. Thus, giving her consent to Gods word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus (CCC #494 ).
Mary Immaculate is the patroness of the United States, and the dogma that she was from the moment of her conception preserved immune from the stain of original sin is important in the battle for the life and dignity of the unborn. Only human beings have original sin. The life that gave birth to the Word made flesh was preserved immune from original sin at the moment of her conception because, like all human beings, she was human life at the moment of her conception. She did not become a human being an I at some point in the second trimester or after her birth. In short, the dogma recognizes the unique status of Mary as Gods favored one, but at the same time it confirms to our abortion-crazed society the full humanity and dignity of all human beings from the very moment of their conception in the womb. This truth was stated gently but clearly by the woman herself.
In 1858, four years after Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma, a peasant girl was an audience of one when Mary graciously appeared to her. She spoke only five words in this apparition to Bernadette Soubirous: I am the Immaculate Conception.