The 'Immaculate' Conception
The following is an excerpt from the new Marian Press title Meet Your Mother, by Dr. Mark Miravalle:
The Church's dogmas about Mary reach out and touch many areas of contemporary life and culture — even professional American football!
In 1972, Franco Harris, a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, made an amazing, near-miraculous catch and subsequent run to win a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. Many commentators have called it the greatest single play in the history of professional football. What was this extraordinary catch nicknamed for all pro football perpetuity? The "Immaculate Reception."
Well, this is a sports pun named after the greatest single moment of grace for a human being in the history of humanity: the "Immaculate Conception."
The third dogma that the Catholic Church has proclaimed about Mary is precisely her Immaculate Conception. This dogma teaches that Mary was conceived without Original Sin or any of its effects by the "merits" of Jesus Christ, as we'll discuss. Positively put, this truth reveals that Mary was "full of grace," in the words of the Archangel Gabriel, from the moment of her conception.
On December 8, 1854, Blessed Pope Pius IX used the "charism" or gift of papal infallibility (a protection of the Holy Spirit from error regarding faith and morals that Catholics believe Jesus gave to Peter and his successors, the Popes) to solemnly define the dogma of the Immaculate Conception:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, was preserved immune from all stain of sin, by a singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was revealed by God and must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.
This profound Marian truth has been passed down through what we call "Apostolic Tradition" (the teachings of Jesus to the Apostles, which were then transmitted to their successors, the Pope and bishops, under the Holy Spirit's guidance). As we'll see, the essence of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was taught within the first centuries of Christianity.
Church Fathers from the early centuries compared Mary to Eve's state of created purity and innocence. In other words, Mary was as Eve was before her participation in the Original Sin with Adam and her resulting fall from grace. Obviously, before Eve sinned with Adam in what we now call the "Original Sin," she was entirely free from Original Sin and all its negative effects! Another Church Father, St. Ambrose, taught in the late 300s that Mary was "altogether without the stain of sin." By the sixth century, she was called "Immaculate"; and by the ninth century, Mary was understood to have been "conceived by a sanctifying action." This is really remarkable, since the common biological teachings of the day did not even universally accept that human life begins at conception until several centuries later!
So you can see that while the papal definition of Blessed Pope Pius IX was a true development of this truth in the form of an official dogma, it was by no means the beginning of the truth. The Immaculate Conception of Mary, although understood better over time within the Church, is a doctrine that was certainly known within Christian faith and life throughout the first thousand years of Christianity.
In the Bible, the Immaculate Conception of Mary can be seen implicitly in the famous passage of Genesis 3:15 (known as the "Protoevangelium" or "First Gospel"), the first reference to Jesus as the future Redeemer of the world. After Adam and Eve commit their sin of disobedience, God addresses the serpent (who represents Satan) and says: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. She shall crush your head and you shall lie in wait for her heel." Notice that God himself places "enmity," which is a total and absolute opposition, between the woman and the serpent and their respective offspring, or "seeds." (By the way, have you ever thought about how strange it is to talk about the "seed" of a woman rather than the seed of a man — already a hint of Mary's virginal conception of Jesus!)
Now, how do we know the "woman" referred to in the passage is ultimately Mary? Because Eve did not give birth to the "seed of victory." Since the seed who is victorious over Satan and sin must be Jesus, the "woman" in this prophecy who gives birth to the future savior must be Mary. Let's look more closely at what's going on here.
First, God puts a total, radical opposition between the woman and the serpent. Then, what does he say? "She will crush your head" (Gen 3:15). Because of Mary's Immaculate Conception being completely in opposition to Satan (in fact, in the passage, Mary has exactly the same opposition to Satan as Jesus does to sin — it's a parallel opposition), Mary's future role with and under Jesus in the redemptive defeat of Satan and his seed is subtly revealed in this text.
Regardless of the issue of the pronoun, (whether it be "she" will crush your head, traditional translation, or "he" will crush your head, more recent translation), what's clear is that the woman is intimately involved with Jesus, the victorious seed, in the saving victory over Satan and sin.
In the New Testament, we find more evidence to support the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. For instance, in Luke 1:28, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and greets her with a new name, "Hail, full of grace!"
The Greek translation here is really fascinating and helpful to fully appreciate this passage. (I won't be throwing any more Greek your way — just this once.) The Greek verb for "full of grace" is kecharitomene, a perfect passive participle (stay with me here) that grammatically refers to an action completed entirely in the past but with a relevance to the present. This means the Angel Gabriel refers to Mary with a name or phrase that points to an action of grace that was perfectly completed in the past yet is still important for the present. What completely perfecting action of grace in the past did Mary experience? You got it — the Immaculate Conception! Beautiful! That's worth a little Greek grammar.
But how is Mary preserved from Original Sin by the "merits" of Jesus? Mary's Immaculate Conception is a higher form of salvation accomplished by Jesus than the rest of us receive (if we so choose). We are born in a deprived state due to the Original Sin of our first parents. We have to be baptized for the life of sanctifying grace to return to our souls, for us to receive the saving graces of Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, was "saved" by receiving a fullness of grace at the moment of her conception, graces that also come from the redeeming death of Jesus on the Cross. (God, who is outside of time, can apply the graces of redemption to Mary at the moment of her conception.)
In short, Mary, as a daughter of Adam and Eve, needed to be saved, and she was saved by the grace of Jesus Christ — applied to her soul at the moment of conception.
Again, I want to quote Martin Luther in support of Mary's Immaculate Conception (taken here from his personal prayer book of 1522). He says: "She is full of grace. Proclaimed to be entirely without sin, God's grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil."
Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest-saint known for giving up his life to save a married man in an Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, adds some stunning insights about Mary's Immaculate Conception that I want to share here. They have to do with what Our Lady said about herself in Lourdes, France.
In Lourdes, the Mother of Jesus appeared to the young seer Bernadette Soubirous. Mary answered Bernadette's repeated question "Who are you?" with the powerful response, "I am the Immaculate Conception." Saint Maximilian understood that Mary was saying something more than just "believe in the Immaculate Conception," or even "I was immaculately conceived." Mary was saying something about her very person, her very being.
Saint Maximilian struggled to make sense of this, since it almost seemed to give Mary the appearance of divinity. After years of such struggle, he realized the solution: There are two "Immaculate Conceptions," both intimately connected. Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, describes Kolbe's discovery:
Mary is the created Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit is the uncreated Immaculate Conception. In other words, before there was the created Immaculate Conception (Mary), for all eternity, there is the uncreated Immaculate Conception, the One who for all eternity "springs" from God the Father and God the Son as an uncreated conception of Love ... .
Now, the Holy Spirit is a "conception" in the sense of being the Life and Love that springs from the love of the Father and the Son — in some analogous way, there's the conception of children who "spring" from the love of husband and wife. The Holy Spirit is an "immaculate" conception because, being God, he is obviously without sin. And finally, the Holy Spirit is an "eternal, uncreated" conception because, again, he is God.
This truth about the Holy Spirit explains Mary's words at Lourdes. Mary is the (created) Immaculate Conception because of her union with the uncreated Immaculate Conception. Saint Maximilian described their union as follows:
It is above all an interior union, a union of her essence with the "essence" of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells in her, lives in her. This was true from the first instant of her existence. It was always true; it will always be true.
In what does this life of the Spirit in Mary consist? He himself is uncreated Love in her; the Love of the Father and of the Son, the Love by which God loves himself, the very Love of the Most Holy Trinity ... the Holy Spirit lives in the soul of the Immaculate, in the depths of her very being. He makes her fruitful, from the very first instant of her existence, all during her life, and for all eternity.
This eternal "Immaculate Conception" (which is the Holy Spirit) produces in an immaculate manner divine life itself in the womb (or depths) of Mary's soul, making her the Immaculate Conception, the human Immaculate Conception.
Saint Maximilian further explains how appropriate it is for Mary to take on the name of her Divine Spouse:
... If among human beings the wife takes the name of her husband because she belongs to him, is one with him, becomes equal to him and is, with him, the source of new life, with how much greater reason should the name of the Holy Spirit, who is the divine Immaculate Conception, be used as the name of her in whom he lives as uncreated Love, the principle of life in the whole supernatural order of grace?
Mary, of course, is not divine, but by calling herself the Immaculate Conception, she was telling the world that she, in some real way, is full of grace, by her very God-given nature. Just as God, on the divine level, said to Moses, "I am who I am," which describes his divine nature as God who has always existed; so also on the human level, in saying "I am the Immaculate Conception," Mary describes her nature as created full of the grace of God without any effects of Original Sin. She's a "new creation," as the Church Fathers would say.
Awesome and beautiful! God's finest masterpiece, beyond the greatest natural wonders of the world and even beyond the galaxies of stars in the cosmos, is the creature who received the highest level of sanctifying grace (which is a participation in the very life and love of God) at the moment of her conception. Second only to her Son's own sacred humanity, nothing on earth is or ever will be more holy.