The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 9
Exclusive Excerpt from Faith Questions Edited by Brendan Leahy
On December 8 every year the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. To some it’s not clear what exactly we are celebrating. Is it the same as the doctrine of Mary’s virginity? What does it mean to say that Mary was ‘immaculate’?
It’s true that the Immaculate Conception sometimes gets confused with other aspects of our faith. Mary’s virginity, for instance, is about her conceiving Jesus in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit rather than as a result of a sexual union with a man. Jesus has only one Father – God the Father. His relationship with the Father is a central theme of the Gospels. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, on the other hand, is about Mary’s own identity from the first moment of her existence – she was totally sinless, open to God. This is not a statement about how Mary was conceived. She was conceived in the normal way through the sexual union of her parents, Joachim and Anna.
Often Mary’s preservation from original sin sounds negative. But it can and should also be thought of positively.
Original sin is not to be confused with our personal sins. Original sin is more about a deep-rooted turning against God that is written into history, into our social environment and into our lives. We are born into it. We find ourselves touched by this turn against God and so we need salvation, redemption and freedom in order to be able to turn in love towards God and one another. Only God can free us.
When God, who is Love, wanted to enter this world in order to bring us to share in his life and set us free, he needed an access point in history where he would be perfectly accepted and welcomed. This is the context for understanding Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Being preserved from original sin meant she was full of grace, full of love and so able at the Annunciation to perfectly welcome without any obstacles whatever the fullness of God-Love come among us in Jesus Christ.
It might seem that Mary’s Immaculate Conception removes her from us – she’s too perfect, too spotless. But in fact the opposite is the case. It is precisely because she is so full of love that she also knew more than all others the extent to which sin and division impact on people. Love gives eyes and a heart to know what others are going through. Mary understood and was in solidarity more than anyone else with suffering humanity.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is, therefore, a hopeful teaching. It tells us that at the heart of the Church we have a point where God-Love has been perfectly loved and we are embraced within that. No matter how imperfect our ‘yes’ to God who has come among us in Jesus Christ may be, it can be uttered as an echo of Mary’s immaculate ‘yes’.
From earliest times, certainly in the second century, reference was made to Mary’s miraculous conception. The Church came to understand her Immaculate Conception by reading, living and re-reading the Scriptures. St Paul, for instance, writes how we are all called to be ‘immaculate’. It seems that perhaps firstly in Ireland but then certainly in England a feast celebrating Mary’s conception began already around 1000.
There were difficulties in understanding the doctrine. Theologians, especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, faced a conundrum. They knew Mary was uniquely holy, special, worthy of veneration but since it is our faith that Jesus Christ is the saviour of all humankind, how can Mary be exempt? She too needs to be saved, does she not? So how could she be immaculate from her conception before Christ?
It was the Franciscan theologian, Duns Scotus, who offered a simple solution that helped. He made the point that yes, all of us need to be saved by Jesus Christ. And that is true of Mary too. But in her case, God applied to her in advance the salvation that would come into humanity through Jesus’ death and resurrection. He did so in view of the unique mission she was to carry out as the Mother of God.
On 8 December, 1854 Pope Pius IX declared to be infallible the doctrine that 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.
The Pope had previously consulted the bishops of the world to see if this doctrine was in accordance with what Catholics believed. Their answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
One final point. Mary was immaculate by a gift from the Triune God of Love from the first moment of her conception. But in baptism we too are given the gift of an immaculate new start in life (freed from original sin)! The Christian life then is a journey of letting that gift have an effect in our lives; of letting ourselves become immaculate, that is, full of love. We have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world ‘to be holy and blameless … in love …’ (Eph 1:3–5). It’s good to be reminded of this before Christmas when we celebrate Mary’s Immaculate Conception.