Today’s Solemn Feast of the Immaculate Conception is often mistakenly thought to refer to the conception of the Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Mother. It does not. Perhaps it does not help the confusion that the Gospel chosen for today’s feast is in fact the gospel of the Annunciation wherein Jesus is conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is a reason this Gospel is chosen as we shall later see. However, the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s Conception in the womb of her mother Anne. The Dogma is stated as follows in the Papal Document Ineffabilis Deus issued by Pope Pius IX in 1854:
The Most holy Virgin Mary was, in the first moment of her conception, by a unique gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Mankind, preserved free from all stain of Original Sin (D 1641).
Note how carefully the Dogma is worded. Mary receives this gift from God on account of the merits of Jesus Christ. Hence we do not teach that Mary was not in need of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, for it is only by his merits that she is able to receive this gift.
Why does the Church Teach this? Perhaps we can look at it from three perspectives:
1. Fittingness– When we consider the fittingness of something we do not deny that God could have done things otherwise. We argue only that what he did makes sense and is in accord with what seems best. For example, Jesus could have chosen to appear on earth as a full grown man, never having been born, never having been a child or a carpenter. I was surely possible for God to have done this. He could have created a human nature for himself ex nihilo (from nothing). However it seems fitting that the Lord Jesus lived life as we do, having been conceived, born, raised, nurtured, come to manhood, labored, and finally ministered. So the Lord chose to have for himself a mother and, from this mother, to draw his humanity.
But what sort of humanity would he need to draw from her? It seems clear that the humanity he drew from her had to be sinless since Scripture says of Jesus: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. (Heb 4:15). And again, Which of you can accuse me of sin? (John 8:46). So the humanity that Christ drew from Mary was sinless. But Mary cannot give what she does not have. So it is fitting that God preserved her at her conception from the stain (macula) of Original Sin. Hence she is call Immacula (without stain).
Now one might argue that God could simply have done for Christ what he did for Mary and simply intervened at the moment of Christ’s conception and preserved him free of that stain, while leaving Mary with it. This is true, but less fitting. For if Christ did not take all of his humanity from Mary then incarnation becomes something of a charade, incomplete at best. Christ would have taken some of his humanity from Mary and some from…..where? Hence it is more fitting that Mary be preserved and that Christ’s sonship of Mary be full and her Maternity be full.
It is also fitting that Mary be preserved from Original Sin due to her status as the New Eve. Mary fulfils the text of Genesis 3:15: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. So Mary is the woman, the new Eve, spoken of in this text. But the first Eve was created sinless. Hence it is fitting that the second Eve also be created sinless. In effect God is revisiting the orginal scenario wherein we were harmed by a man, a woman, and a tree. Hence God decrees that we would be restored in the same way: a man (Christ), a woman (Mary) and the tree of the cross. Hence Christ saves us by the wood of the Cross and his obedience. But, just as the original scenario also featured sinless woman who disobeyed, now another sinless woman would, this time, obey. It is thus fitting that Mary be sinless as the New Eve.
2. Faithfulness to Scripture – The Gospel chosen for today may confuse some for it is the gospel that refers to Christ’s conception. However it is chosen for the fact of what the Angel Gabriel says to Mary: And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you (Lk 1:28). There is a Greek word underlying the translation “full of grace” and the word is κεχαριτωμένη (kecharitomene). The meaning of this term is much disputed since it is a hapax legomenon(a word that only occurs once in the whole of Scripture). The great scholar, Greek speaker and Father of the Church Origen said of this word: The angel greeted Mary with a new address which I could not find anywhere else in scripture….This greeting was reserved for Mary alone (Hom 6.7 on Luke).
However, at the heart of the word is the Greek word χαριτόω (Charitoo) which means to show forth grace (charis), or in the passive to have grace shown. Kecharitomene is a perfect, passive, participle of charitoo and hence means endowed with grace (charis). But what does it mean to say it is a perfect participle? A participle is a word that has both the qualities of a adjective and a verb. The ‘perfect’ action of the participle is considered to have been completed before the time of the speaker. How long before is not a consideration, but the Greek verbal idea is that the action has already been completed. Perfected action must imply the past in relationship to the speaker. Thus, Gabriel in using the word, is confessing that Mary had already been graced. So, the most literal rendering of κεχαριτωμένη is “having been endowed with grace.” That is awkward in English however: “Hail! having been endowed with grace, the Lord is with thee!” 🙂 So the more standard and still literal way is “full of grace.” Attempts to render the word more vaguely as, “highly favored” do not respect the root word charitoo and charis which is almost always rendered as “grace” and not mere favor. The plain meaning of charis is grace.
Now, grammar aside, it would be strange for Gabriel to say to a woman who had Original Sin that she was full of grace. In no way can the word be implied to mean that she will one day be graced since it is a past participle. The action of her being made full of grace is past, though its effects are present now. So Gabriel is greeting her in this condition. Hence the text implies some prior action of God. Now, this does not ipso facto prove that the moment in the past where God acted was her conception. But, this seems the most fitting timing since Original Sin is contracted at that moment. Gabriel’s greeting only makes sense if Mary is free from Original Sin, for grace and Original Sin are not compatible
But the point remains that Catholic teaching on Mary’s freedom from Original Sin is most faithful to the Scriptural text here. The Angel’s greeting is significant and Catholic teaching best connects the dots, and takes the greeting at its word, respecting its plain meaning. Mary, having been made full of grace, is free from Original Sin.
3. Fathers of the Church– The Church Fathers did not use the term Immaculate Conception but they did teach on Mary’s holiness and sinlessness. Here are some quotes:
- St. Ephrem, 3rd Century – Thou and thy Mother are the only ones who are totally beautiful in every respect; for in thee O Lord there is no spot and in thy Mother, no stain. (Carmina Nisibena, 27.8).
- Hippolytus 3rd Century – The Lord was sinless, because in His humanity He was fashioned out of incorruptible wood, that is to say, out of the Virgin and the Holy Spirit (In Psalm 22; quoted by Theodoret, Dialogus 1; PG 10:610, 864-5)
- St. Augustine 4th Century – All men must confess themselves as sinners except the Holy Virgin Mary, whom I desire for the sake of the honor of the Lord to leave entirely out of the question when the talk is of sin. For from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.” (De Natura et gratia 36.42)
- St. Ephrem, 3rd Century – Mary and Eve, two people without guilt, two simple people were identical. Later however, one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life (Opus Syr. II, 327)
- Origen, 3rd Century – This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one. (Homily 1)
- St Ambrose – 4th Century – “Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin.” (Sermon 22:30)
In the end, Mary receives this honor to be free of original sin for the sake of Christ. All the great Marian doctrines refer back to Christ. Mary too, as the perfect disciple, and Mother of the Church also prefigures the gifts that we will one day enjoy. For, in heaven, having been freed of all our sins and purified by the blood of Christ, we too will be rightfully called Immaculate (without stain). So Mary’s Feast is ours too by way of promise.
There is a beautiful text for today’s feast which says,
Tota pulchra es, Maria,
et macula originalis non est in te.
Vestimentum tuum candidum quasi nix, et facies tua sicut sol.
Tu gloria Jerusalem, tu laetitia Israel, tu honorificentia populi nostri.
Tota pulchra es, Maria.
You are all beautiful, Mary,
and the original stain [of sin] is not in you.
Your clothing is bright as snow, and your face is like the sun.
You are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the joy of Israel, you give honour to our people.
You are all beautiful, Mary.
Here is a setting by Durufle:
15 Replies to “On The Fittingness and Faithfulness of the Immaculate Conception”
“God is revisiting the orginal scenario wherein we were harmed by a man, a woman, and a tree. Hence God decrees that we would be restored in the same way: a man (Christ), a woman (Mary) and the tree of the cross.”
I never before made the connection between the first and the second tree … Thank you also for the grammar lesson and explanation. My husband and I were confused about this “preservation from original sin” … I suppose this is why Mary is assumed into heaven. She was a perfect, sinless human, so her body was taken up, never corrupted. And certainly no need for purgatory. Only Elijah and Moses are the other humans that were taken up like this, right?
There was Enoch, who walked with God, Genesis 5:24.
Yes, he was assumed, taken up, into glory. Elijah too. As to the question of Original sin etc. these texts are mysterious
The Ark must be golden, not silver.
A beautiful explanation of one of our most treasured dogmas!
Thank you, Monsignor; as a relatively new Catholic I still have much to learn about this and other Catholic doctrines, and this article is very helpful. It is important (and something of a revelation to me) to find support for these doctrines in the Church Fathers, and to realize how ancient they actually are.
It was a great surprise to hear you on the radio this morning, Father!
Thanks for the excellent work you put into this blog, your insights are very much appreciated!
Thank you for the clear and detailed explanation of the much-disputed term κεχαριτωμένη.
Monsignor, this is a great summary of the Church’s teaching. My understanding of the Greek perfect tense, however, is that it refers to an action in the past, but stresses the perduring effect of the action in the present. The simple past (aorist) tense is the usual way of referring to an action that is over and done with; when sacred writers choose to express themselves with the more unusual perfect tense, it seems to me that it’s always with a weighty reason. We have nothing like the Greek perfect tense in English; to translate it literally you often would have to blather on and on explaining yourself.
And I believe that verbs ending in omicron-omega usually mean “to cause to…” When Saint Jerome translated “kecharitomene” as “gratia plena”, he did as well as anyone ever did in capturing the profundity of the Greek expression.
Thanks. I think your explanation is helpful. I attempting to emphasize the action being in the past I did not mean to exclude the perduring effect, only to say that Gabriel was not announcing some merely future quality that she would obtain (as in, “You’re gonna be famous one day).
I know nothing of Greek, but from this discussion, it would seem that, even at her conception, Mary was caught up in eternity, just as she is now. Certainly from the perspective of God, who is eternal and, thus, has no past or future — all of human history in linear time is “now” for Him — Mary’s conception was already happening when He pronounced the protoevangelium in the Garden. She already existed in God’s mind — He had already “conceived” of her, and, thus, she already existed in the ultimate reality.
Besides, if we are to say that Mary is the Mother of God, if Jesus is truly eternal, then Mary was and always has been the Mother of God from the beginning of time. And if she was the Mother of God from the beginning of time, then she must necessarily have been full of grace from the beginning of time.
St. Thomas tells us that Mary’s motherhood . . . it is clear that she was not eternally Mother of God nor was she “Mother of God from the beginning of time”, hence neither was she “full of grace from the beginning of time.”
Well, not to be too flippant about it, but St. Thomas Aquinas, of course, had problems accepting the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. (I prefer Augustine myself)
But, to reiterate what I specifically wrote, Mary being in eternity now (being one with her Son), from the above discussion on the exact tense used by the angel, it would seem to follow that Mary was in eternity even at her conception (which is different from always being eternal), but even if that goes too far, what I specifically said was that she was Mother of God from the beginning of time. Was she also Mother of God before the beginning of time (if one can say that there is a “before” time exists)? I did not raise that point, but thinking about it now, it would seem hard to see how (reality before space-time existed is a rather mysterious concept), rather, it was when time began, then, and not before, that she was full of grace and Mother of God.
But rather than me merely thinking out loud, this is what Pope Pius IX (who does speak of before the beginning of time), had to say — “From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son, a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world.” — Ineffabilis Deus
That would seem to be consist with what I said above — that, just as Mary conceived Jesus in her spirit before she conceived Him in her body (St. Augustine), her own “conception” (and hence immaculate fullness of grace) was not merely when the biological event happened in St. Anne’s womb, but rather, she was conceived by God from the very beginning of the temporal universe. Indeed, the Holy Father, who infallibly and officially declared the doctrine, even goes so far as to say that God chose and prepared Mary even before the beginning of time, even if her motherhood did not come to full fruition until “the fullness of time” many millenia later (by human reckoning of time).
thanks for this i am
glad i read it today
i didn’t realise that the immaculate conception referred to Mary’s conception in Saint Anne’s womb
it is lovely now that i think about it
part of the divine plan worked out in advance
Interesting Reginald. Although I am puzzled if you are asking what I think about this or telling me since, at the begininng you say you “seek clarification” but then do not really pose a question for me to calrify. As for what I seem to be saying you would be wrong to wit: that Christ’s sinlessness, in some sense, derives from Mary’s sinlessness. I state clearly and also quote the dogmatic formula that Mary’s sinlessness is wholly a grace of God based on the merits of Jesus Christ and thus she is not exempt from the need for Christ’s grace in this regard. Christ alone and his merits are the cause of Mary’s sinlessness.
Hence your second point about circularity does not hold.
You seem also to miss the point that I am arguing from the fittingness of the thing. Now an argument from fittingness does not attempt to establish a dogmatic certainty. Fittingness does not equal absolute necessity nor does it insist that it must be this way. It simply notes that it seems fitting that God has acted in a certain way.
I think the postion you state regarding Thomas and Augustine is interesting, though you do not say where they say this. But my own recollection of these things, 25 years after entering seminary and hence a bit foggy as to all the details, is that some of these views of THomas (not as sure about Augustine) are based on somewhat dubious understanding of physiology which, if applied uncritically today may lead to problems. Specifically then I would have the following question for you:
If it is true, without any qualificiations, that original sin comes only through the male seed, then what if we were to parthenogenically clone a human being (as we may be sinfully closer to doing) from the cell of a woman. Would her cloned daughter be immaculate? Would this clone require no baptism? For recall that there is no male seed (active power of generation as you put it) and it would seem, according to this theory, original sin could not reach her. While the question may seem theoretical and parthenogentic cloning may be further away that other forms of cloning, recent medical breakthroughs (e.g. gene splitting etc) do not make the question utterly improbable. Such a question shows the difficulty of basing too much on physiology here.
While I realize that Scripture calls original sin the “Sin of Adam” I am not aware that it uses purely physiological reasons for saying this or means by it that Original sin comes only through the sperm and in no way the ovum. I don’t think scripture is this specific and am not certain that theologians ought to be either. Rather, it may affirm male headship, and other aspects of the Sin rather than just physiology and the marital act. The Council of Trent is clear to point out that Original Sin is tranmitted by natural generation not by mere imitation. But I am unaware of any canon from that council that specifies that it physiologically comes only from the male seed. The term “Natural Generation” (propogatione) does not specify the exact physical cause nor does it attribute it only to the man even if it is the sin of Adam that is conferred. The same text from Paul (quoted by the Council of Trent) indicates that in Adam all have sinned. Hence it seems incautious to say as you do that “Hence, anyone who was conceived solely of woman would not inherit original sin.”
Neither do I think it follows that anyone conceived soley of a woman cannot contract Original sin. If so we may be heading for a newly immaculate race of clones so day in the not too distant future! Perhaps the Church’s caution in defining the exact mechanism of Original Sin’s transmission via propogation is proper and fortuitous.
You final statement is gratutious given my clear statement in the article to this effect and also my exact quoting of the dogmatic formula at the head of the article.
I think that as I have come to know you I find your grasp of theological concepts thorough. But I also find your capacity to understand and flexibly move between literary form and to distinguish the theological from the dogmatic somewhat limited. You seem to read everything is a mechanistic and literalist manner. An argument from fittingness does not need to be subjected to the rigor that you insist. If you do not like the argument let it go. Fitting does not equal dogma, or dogmatic certainty. Further you seem to think of this blog as a theological. It is not. Parsing every word and debating every possible implication is the stuff of theological journals and your rather insistent demenor is more suited for those sorts of contexts.
To retiterate: I speak here in terms of fittiningness as I state in the article: When we consider the fittingness of something we do not deny that God could have done things otherwise. We argue only that what he did makes sense and is in accord with what seems best. For example, Jesus could have chosen to appear on earth as a full grown man, never having been born, never having been a child or a carpenter. I was surely possible for God to have done this. He could have created a human nature for himself ex nihilo (from nothing). However it seems fitting that the Lord Jesus lived life as we do, having been conceived, born, raised, nurtured, come to manhood, labored, and finally ministered. So the Lord chose to have for himself a mother and, from this mother, to draw his humanity
Hence it is only to observe that what God has freely chosen to do in this matter seems fitting. This sort of observation seems hinted at in the preface for I.C.: qui in beatissimam Virginem Mariam ab omni originalis culpae labe preaservasti, ut in ea, gratiae tuae plenitudine ditata, dignam Filio tuo Genetricem praepares ……Filium enim erat purissima Virgo datura, qui crimina nostra Agnus innocens aboleret. Once again, fitting does not mean necessary, it only acknowledges that what God freely did by his grace makes sense. You are free to set aside the opinion, as you have done. But it is not necessary in such a matter, when the operative grace of God has been acknowldeged that you win in this matter. I understand you do not like the point, but no winner is necessary here.
Further, as regards St. Thomas, you seem to implicitly and I would add, stridently insist that all in his works rise to the level of dogma. Yet in Thomas there is theological speculation, common theological opinion, as well as retieration of dogma and various other distinctions. This lack of critical distinction tend to lead in in one of two ways: either you stridently defend Thomas when you don’t absolutely have to, or you quote him and think you are simply done with the matter. St. Thomas is a reliable source, but not infallible, no unassailable in every matter. His (rather, your) insistence on the physical location of the trransmission of Original sin in the seed of the man is surely respectable but the Church has not defined this as dogma. It remains a theological postion, worthy of some respect but not unassailable. Others are free to speculate a more broad understanding of is meant by propogatione to include also the woman. Here too, you don’t have to win. It is possible to allow for diversity in such a matter.
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