On December 8th, we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, if you ask people, including many Catholics, what the Immaculate Conception is, there is a good chance that they will tell you that it is the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. In fact, the Immaculate Conception is actually the conception of Mary. The Immaculate Conception reveals to us that Mary was freed from the stain of original sin at the moment of her conception, and remained free from sin for her entire life.
It was intrinsic to God’s plan of salvation that Mary was created without original sin. In the Book of Genesis chapter 3, we see how sin first entered the world through our first parents Adam and Eve. Since Adam and Eve represented all of the human family, when they fell away from God, all of humanity fell away from him. Original sin was then passed on to their children, and to their children’s children, all throughout human history. Thus, when we are conceived and come into existence, we are born into a natural separation from God and an inclination toward sin that is called original sin.
However, God’s plan was to have his only Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, assume a human nature so that as both God and man Jesus could accomplish the redemption of the human race. One problem: God is in complete and total opposition to sin. Anything sinful cannot even come into God’s presence without being purified. How then would God the Son be able to intimately join himself with a fallen human nature? This is where God’s plan for Mary comes in. God chose her to be conceived without original sin so that she would be able to give Jesus a pure and sinless human nature.
Where do we as Catholics get this teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Mary? First, it is in fact revealed implicitly in Scripture as an important part of God’s unfolding plan of salvation.
Genesis 3:15: Let us first go to the book of Genesis where God is announcing for the first time his plan of salvation that will be accomplished through Christ:
“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.” (Gen 3:15)
It is important that we determine exactly who God is addressing and talking about. God is speaking to the serpent and he says that the offspring of the woman will strike at his head. Who is the only one who will strike at the head of the serpent who is Satan? Jesus is the one who will come and strike at Satan’s head and destroy his power. So if the offspring of the woman is Jesus, then the woman must be Mary.
Now God speaks of there being enmity between the serpent and the woman, and the serpent’s offspring and the woman’s offspring. The offspring of Satan is sin, for it is sin that Satan desires to multiply and fill the earth. So therefore, there is enmity between Mary/Jesus and Satan/sin. What exactly does enmity mean? Enmity means total and complete opposition. If two things are in enmity with each other, they have nothing at all to do with one another; there is no cooperation or communion between the two whatsoever. Consequently, both Jesus and Mary are completely opposed to Satan and sin. They would have no cooperation or communion with Satan and sin whatsoever. Mary is given the same absolute and perpetual opposition to Satan and sin as Jesus.
Therefore, it is necessary that Mary would not have a fallen nature, since any participation is original sin or actual sin would destroy the enmity with Satan and sin. Thus, we see in the very first announcement of God’s plan of salvation his plan of Mary being totally free from sin so that Jesus would be able to assume a pure human nature.
Luke 1:28: We see an even more explicit reference to the Immaculate Conception of Mary in Luke’s Gospel at the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce God’s plan of having her be the Mother of Jesus. The Angel Gabriel’s greeting of Mary reveals her immaculate state. His greeting properly translated is, “Hail, you who have been filled with grace.” The Greek word kekaritomene is a perfect participle “have been filled.” Mary has already been filled with God’s grace, for grace has already been infused into her at the moment of her conception.
Also notice that Mary is filled with grace. Anytime we sin, even the smallest sin, we lose at least some of God’s grace. That is the nature of sin. Sin is a choice we make that rejects the grace he offers to us, which is his very life and love. If Mary is filled with grace, then she would have been completely free from sin, as any sin, even the tiniest, would have caused her to be deprived of at least some grace.
Not only do we see the Immaculate Conception in Sacred Scripture, but it has also been constantly and clearly taught throughout Sacred Tradition from the earliest times of the Church:
St. Ambrose (d. 379): Mary is “free from all stain of sin.”
St. Severus, Bishop of Antioch (d. 538): “She (Mary) formed part of the human race, and was of the same essence as we, although she was pure from all taint and immaculate…”
St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (d. 638): “You (Mary) have found the grace which no one has received…No one has been pre-purified besides you.”
These are only a small sample of teachings that clearly show that the Immaculate Conception was a part of the Church’s belief from the very beginning.
Finally in 1854, Pope Pius IX infallibly proclaims the Immaculate Conception as a part of Divine Revelation and a dogma of the Church to be definitively held by all the faithful:
“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine that holds that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, at the 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, the Savior of the human race, was revealed by God and must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”
How exactly, then, did God preserve Mary from original sin? Mary needed Christ to redeem her just as much as we all do. She was redeemed by her Son’s death on the cross, just like all of us. But how could Mary have been redeemed by Jesus’ death on the cross before Jesus was even born?
It is because God is eternal and transcendent, and therefore, he is not bound by either space or time. Because he is outside of space and time, God sees all of time past, present, and future, right now. It is like looking at a very long train from a helicopter. The engines are creation, the caboose is the end of the world, and we are somewhere in between the two. God is able to operate outside of time. Therefore, he took the graces and merits of Jesus’ death on the cross and applied them backwards in time to the moment of Mary’s conception. Thus, Mary was redeemed by Christ as we all are, but through a “singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God” she was not only redeemed but also completely preserved from original sin.
Even though Mary was preserved from original sin at the moment of her conception, she could have still chosen to sin because as a human being she had free will. She could have said “no” to the Father at the Annunciation. She could have also said “no” to the Father at the foot of the cross, where she surrendered her Son, and fallen into despair and cursed God. However, Mary perfectly cooperated and surrendered herself to the great gift of grace that God had given her and lived the most extraordinary Christian life. That is why Mary is the Model of Faith and the Model of the Church. We are all called to cooperate with whatever graces God chooses to give us so that we humbly and lovingly walk whatever path he chooses to give to us.
May the Immaculate Heart of Mary continue to inspire us on our journey of faith, especially during this season of Advent, that we may surrender ourselves fully to God through the “obedience of faith” and become Christ’s instruments of hope and love.