Lourdes: 160 years of healing
Greg Daly explores the roots of the title Our Lady used at Lourdes
“I am the Immaculate Conception,” St Bernadette was told when, on March 25 1858, the simple peasant girl asked the lady who appeared to her who she was.
Not knowing what this meant, the young girl hurried to see the parish priest, Fr Dominique Peyramale, and told him what the lady had said. The priest stood stunned, and then stammered: “Do you know what that means?”
On being told no, he asked how she could say such a thing if she did not understand the phrase. He sent her away, and wrote to his bishop that evening.
It was only later that Bernadette was told how less than four years earlier, on December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX had formally sought the guidance of the world’s bishops and formally defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, stating that: “The Blessed Virgin Mary in the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”
Regularly confused with the doctrine of the Virgin Birth – dramatically so by Republican congressman Matt Gaetz on CNN last month, but commonly so even in the middle of the last century, with C.S. Lewis observing in a couple of essays that whenever the average person says the former he invariably means the latter – the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been believed in one form or another since at the very latest the 2nd Century.
Indeed, since the 7th Century the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God had been celebrated throughout the Christian east, while in the west, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was formally instituted in 1476, and even during the Reformation, Martin Luther himself held to this belief.
In 1527 he preached, for instance, that: “It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused from God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin.”
Belief that Mary had been exempt from the stain of sin from the first instant of her conception had its roots in, as much as anything, an incredulity in the early Church that the flesh from which Jesus was made – flesh he had inherited from Mary and Mary alone – could ever have been tainted by sin and been what C.S. Lewis called “enemy-occupied territory”.
Following 1 Corinthians 15:45-9, which reads Christ as a new Adam, the early Church looked at the so-called ‘Protoevangelium’ or ‘First Gospel’ of Genesis 3:15 and saw our redemption as a re-enactment of Eden with the Cross as the new Tree of Knowledge, and with Mary as the new Eve. Just as Eve’s disobedience opened the way to Adam’s sin, so Mary’s obedience opened the way to Jesus’ saving of us.
This reading is apparent in such 2nd-Century writers as St Justin Martyr and St Irenaeus of Lyons, the latter of whom was taught by John’s pupil Polycarp and was the first person we know of to describe the four Gospels – and those alone – as canonical. By the 4th Century, it was almost proverbial that Mary was the new Eve, and could hardly have been created less than her: as Eve was created sinless, so too must Mary have been.
A pointer to this is found at Luke 1:28, where the angel Gabriel salutes Mary as Kekharitōmenē, traditionally translated – at least since the late 4th Century – as ‘Full of Grace’, though sometimes rendered, as in the Jerusalem Bible we use at Mass, ‘highly favoured’.
In truth, Jerome’s rather more concise translation of the Greek with the Latin term gratia plena – ‘full of grace’ – is best understood as an elegant paraphrase that attempts to encapsulate the wealth of meaning embodied in the highly, highly unusual grammar of the Greek original which could more fully be rendered “you who are already, absolutely, and enduringly endowed with grace”.
Kekharitōmenē is also the only instance we know of that an angel ever honoured any of God’s creations with a title. Being completely graced by God leaves no room for sin; this can’t be dismissed as though it just means ‘highly favoured’.
Some, of course, find it difficult to square this with the with the rest of the Bible, in particular as it might seem to suggest that Mary was somehow unique among created humanity in not needing to be saved from sin by Jesus, something which would fly in the face of how, for example, Luke 1:47 records her as saying that her spirit rejoiced in God her saviour.
The question was, of course, how could someone without sin need to be saved – how could Our Lady need a saviour?
The answer the Church reached was by way of analogy, recognising that there is more than one way of saving someone.
Imagine that you fall into a deep pit, and someone comes along and reaches down and pulls you out; the person who pulled you out would have saved you. That, the Church says, is essentially what Jesus does with us, as a rule.
However, imagine a woman should be walking along, approaching the same pit, but on the brink of it should be grabbed and pulled back and prevented from falling in; the person who did that would have saved her, and would have done so in a better way, preventing her from even being dirtied, let alone bruised and scraped from the fall. Jude 1:24 says “glory be to him who can keep you from falling”, and Duns Scotus, writing around 1300 AD, observed: “It is a greater good to be preserved from evil than to fall into it and afterwards be freed from it.”
In other words, it’s obviously better to be saved by prevention than cure, and it’s in this sense Mary was saved by Jesus: he preserved her from sin, rather than allowing her to fall into it and dragging her from the hole like the rest of us. And why wouldn’t he? He loved and honoured his mother; if he could save her by preserving her from sin, rather than allowing her to fall into sin in the first place, why would he have done otherwise?
Like the other Marian doctrines, the Immaculate Conception was a miracle the Church recognised as glorifying Jesus, the new Adam made from untainted flesh and the perfect Saviour who is able to keep us from falling.