One of the stumbling blocks of many non-Catholics have in embracing Catholicism is understanding why the Church attributes so many extraordinary graces and unique privileges to our Blessed Mother. For example: the belief that she was conceived without original sin, and remained sinless throughout her life; that through the power of God she gave birth to her divine Son remaining a virgin; that after death she was taken up into heaven body and soul, and was exalted by God as Queen of heaven and earth. While full acceptance of the Catholic faith is a grace that only God can give, it is our hope that an explanation of the Church’s teaching regarding Mary’s unique role in the divine plan and her consequent special privileges, will help to remove some of the obstacles that non-Catholics encounter.
The next three issues of Light and Life will be focusing on our belief in the Blessed Virgin’s preeminence among creatures. From the beginning the point should always be made that we do not worship Mary, who is a creature of God infinitely below his greatness and majesty. Any perfection in her came from God, who alone is worthy of worship. We do believe, however, that God Himself has chosen to place her in a special position of dignity and given her privileges far exceeding those given to all other members of the human race. In the current issue we will look at Our Lady’s complete sinlessness from the first moment of her existence in this world and throughout the rest of her life. Our next issue will deal with her perpetual virginity, and the final segment with her exaltation after death.
In clear terms, the Church teaches that Our Lady had no sin whatsoever in her life. She was not just remarkably “saintly” or “upright.” Referring to someone who is upright and holy, Scripture says that the “righteous man falls seven times” (Prov. 24:16). Even the saints, St. Thomas tells us, in momentary weakness occasionally fall into “indeliberate” venial sins in situations that they would normally be able to handle (cf. II-II, 184, 2). The sole exception to this, other than our Blessed Lord, was His Virgin Mother, who like her Son, was totally free from the slightest sin while here on earth.
The sinlessness of Mary, the Church holds, is total and without exception. Beginning with her conception - by the foreseen merits of Christ - she was preserved free from the stain and effects of original sin, so that never for a moment of her earthly existence did she come under the dominion of the devil. All other humans inherit the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve, and come into this world separated from God until restored to His friendship through the sacrament of baptism.
Whenever conception takes place a wondrous act of divine power brings a human soul into existence from nothingness, uniting it to the bodily matter provided by the parents. Each of our lives can be traced back to this one astounding moment when our Creator willed us into existence. Praised be to Him for His great kindness! But for our Blessed Lady, not only did the Creator at that first moment endow her with natural life, but supernatural life as well. He went beyond the act of creation to an act of sanctification, bestowing on her soul not only the divine life of grace received at baptism, but a fullness of grace which Blessed Pius IX (who defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception) declared was “more than that of all the angels and saints.” This wonder that God worked for Mary the Angel Gabriel would acknowledge years later, when he appeared to her at Nazareth with the joyful greeting, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!”
It will be helpful to compare the Angel’s greeting to Mary with that extended to other humans in the Scriptures, to see how uncharacteristic was his greeting to Our Lady. In many cases there is no greeting given, only a command. For example, when the Angel appeared to Elijah, weary after traveling, he immediately said to the prophet, “Get up and eat” (1 Kgs 19:5). But in those cases when a greeting was actually given, there is nothing approaching the respect and honor given to our Blessed Lady. In the Book of Judges, the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior” (Jud 6:12). To St. Joseph the angel appeared with the simple address, “Joseph, son of David” (Mt 1:20). When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah it was, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard” (Lk 1:13). And in Acts of the Apostles an angel appeared to Cornelius the centurion, and said to him: “‘Cornelius.’ He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God’” (Acts 10:3-4). In each case there is some reference to the virtues or prayers or ancestry of the person the angel is addressing. With Mary the reference is not to her background or any action on her part, but only to the action of God upon her, filling her with His divine presence through grace: “Hail, full of grace.”
Without getting too technical, a couple of points need to be made. Firstly, the rendering of the greeting found in many translations of “highly favored one,” or “highly favored daughter” (New American Bible) chooses to emphasize not the presence of divine grace within her but the privilege of bearing the Messiah. The presumption is that St. Luke would not have used the Greek term charis, and its various forms, in the sense of “grace,” or “supernatural gift,” but rather in the more common and honorific meaning of “blessed,” or “favored.” The problem with this view is that St. Luke is writing his Gospel after a number of years of traveling with, working for, and in the process, learning from the apostle Paul. St. Luke would have been thoroughly familiar with the apostle’s much developed meaning of charis as a gift of supernatural power and sanctification, a deepening of the notion of “divine favor.” It is hard to believe that the evangelist would have chosen to sidestep this new and profoundly important development of the word.
Secondly, the Greek term St. Luke uses for “full of grace” is in place of Mary’s name. Whereas the angel referred to Zechariah by name, when he appears to Mary he chooses to address her with the term “Grace-filled” as if it were her proper name. There can be no doubt that it is an exalted greeting. No wonder the next verse says the humble maiden was confused after hearing it! Only for Mary is the word used in the Scriptures as a proper name, clearly showing the singular way God has blessed her with His grace and holiness. The fullness of such grace and holiness would not at all be consistent with any presence of sin, giving us an indirect statement of Mary’s complete freedom from sin.
One point that can certainly be made to those Christians who fail to appreciate our special devotion to Blessed Mary is that we are doing no more than joining the angel Gabriel in his honoring Mary in a special way. Can there be anything wrong with his greeting? Can there be anything suspect in the obviously great respect he gives to this woman? Considering the superiority of his awareness of who she is and her part in the divine plan, isn’t his high regard for Mary in fact something to imitate? Shouldn’t all Christians be Gabriel-like in their devotion to her? This imitation of the angel Gabriel is in fact what we are doing when praying the Hail Mary. Along with him we give praise to God for the fullness of grace that is present in her as we pray: “Hail, Mary, full of grace!”
St. Gabriel’s greeting to Mary gives only a brief glimpse of an underlying current of belief held by the Church from its beginning. Contrary to Protestant objections the apostolic origin of the teaching needs to be kept firmly in mind. This does not mean, however, that the form the teaching took in the early Church was the same as we know it today. There are no second century Christian writers who will use the term “Immaculate Conception.” The expression of belief in ideas and in language develops with time. The use of the term “trinity,” for example, did not begin until the latter part of the second century, but no true Christian would hold that our current belief in the Trinity was not present among the first Christians simply because they did not have the word.
Second century writers who witnessed to the sinlessness of Mary spoke of her as the second Eve. St. Justin Martyr did this around 150 A.D., and St. Irenaeus about forty year later. Their implication is clear that just as the first Eve was a virgin who was created without sin, so was the second. For Irenaeus, God brings back mankind from the state of corruption that began with Adam and Eve by beginning over again. He provides a new Adam, Our Lord Jesus Christ, as St. Paul points out in (1 Cor. 15:45) and a new Eve, the virgin Mary. Although Irenaeus does not explicitly say that Mary was sinless from the first moment of her conception, there is no way the parallel of Christ to Adam and Mary to Eve could work without her complete sinlessness. Indeed, one could hardy imagine him making the comparison in the first place unless there was a commonly held understanding, however incompletely it may have been expressed, that Our Lady had a life that was completely free from sin.
The theme of Our Lady’s complete sinlessness continues appearing throughout the period of the Church Fathers with increasing clarity, as one can see in St. Ephraem (d. 373): “Only you [Jesus] and your Mother are more beautiful than everything. For on you, O Lord, there is no mark; neither is there any stain in your Mother” (Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero, 109). And with St. John Damascene (d. 750) for the first time there was expressed the inspired conviction that was present all along - that this sinlessness extended all the way to the very origins of Mary’s life in the womb of her parents. Praising the parents of the Blessed Virgin, he exclaims, “O blessed loins of Joachim, whence the all-pure seed was poured out! O glorious womb of Anna, in which the most holy fetus grew and was formed, silently increasing!” (Ibid., 402).
With a view to explaining how our belief developed, three brief points can summarize what has been said thus far: a) Those who may conclude from the formal definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 by Blessed Pius IX that this was a late addition to the Church’s teaching, should be encouraged to reconsider their position in the light of such writers as St. Irenaeus, St. Ephraem, and St. John Damascene. b) Those who expect the doctrine of the Mary’s sinlessness to be clearly labeled the “Immaculate Conception” should be helped to understand that the absence of the term is not a gauge of the absence of the teaching. c) Although explicit scriptural references are lacking for the teaching, the exceptional use of “full of grace” needs to be noted as a unique term for a unique state of holiness and freedom from sin in the Virgin Mary.
Particularly useful for our own presentation of this wonderful privilege of Our Lady to Protestant Christians is a look at the debate the conception of Mary received following the period of the Church fathers. It was then that questions were raised that are valuable for us today in answering objections that Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception has exempted her from the need to be redeemed.
During the 900’s a liturgical feast honoring Mary’s conception in the womb of St. Ann grew to become very popular in both the East and the West. It was what one might call a grass-roots surge of devotion to the complete sinlessness of the Mother of God. As of yet neither the doctrine of Mary’s freedom from original sin nor the Feast of the Conception, as it was called, had more than local, episcopal approval.
Not all were supportive of the feast or of the belief. Not being aware of the history of the teaching on Mary's sinlessness from conception, many prominent theologians of the day, including men we now honor as doctors of the Church, were concerned that no matter how devoutly it paid tribute to the Mother of God, it was a misguided innovation that put an important doctrine of the faith into jeopardy. How could Mary be free from original sin when, as St. Paul wrote, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23)? No one is exempt from redemption in Christ. The sanctification of Mary in the womb was possible, but only provided that it was after conception, after original sin was present so that she could be delivered from it. Arguing this point of view were such great men as St. Bernard of Claivaux, St. Peter Damian, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Franciscan Duns Scotus (d. 1308) is recognized as being the first to address the problem with sufficient clarity. Up to this time the mistaken judgment seemed to prevail that if Mary was to be freed from original sin, God also must have been freeing her from the need to be redeemed. Scotus responded that this was not at all the case:
Mary's was not a liberating redemption, cleansing her from original sin as in the case of all other descendants of Adam; but a preventative redemption, preserving her - by the foreseen merits of Christ - from contracting original sin. Our Lady shared in the fruits of her Son's passion before He came into the world. She was indeed speaking the truth when she proclaimed in her Magnificat: "My soul rejoices in God my Savior" (Lk. 1:47). We are dealing here with the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ which extends beyond space and time. At the same moment of her Immaculate Conception, the heavenly Father endowed her soul with a fullness of grace preparing her for the extraordinary role of Mother of God, and enabling her to remain free from the slightest actual sin. It was thus that she exclaimed: "The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name" (Lk. 1:49).
With this new way of elaborating the belief, the objections of theologians began to subside. Both the teaching of Mary’s sinlessness from the first moment of her existence and the celebration of the feast of the Conception (December 8 since the Middle Ages) were never seriously challenged down to the formal definition of the doctrine in 1854. Pius IX, in his proclamation of the dogma, states clearly and emphatically that this original sinlessness of Mary was accomplished “by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race” (New Cath. Encyc., 7, 381).
The resolution to this problem, as explained above, needs to be made clear to those objecting that the Immaculate Conception conflicts with the Church’s teaching that every human person needs redemption through Christ. Mary, as all other descendants of Adam, was in need of salvation through the redeeming merits of her Son. Hers was not an exemption from redemption, but a different form of redemption, due to her role as Mother of God. In her unique case, the heavenly Father intervened, so that in the same act of creating her human soul, through the foreseen merits of Christ's passion He prevented the entry of original sin into that soul, and flooded it with a fullness of grace beyond our power to conceive.
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