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 was conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit! But there is a reason this gospel is chosen, as we shall later see. 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 received 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 was able to receive this gift.
Why does the Church teach this? Let’s look at it from four 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, never having learned to be a carpenter. It 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 instead the Lord Jesus lived life as we do: being conceived, born, raised, and nurtured; coming to manhood, laboring, and finally, ministering. So the Lord chose to have for Himself a mother, and from her to draw His humanity and be tabernacled within her for nine months. As such, it is fitting that Mary was the uncorrupted ark of his dwelling.
2. Fairness – It is also fair that Mary was preserved from Original Sin, due to her status as the new Eve. Mary fulfilled 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. Mary was the woman, the new Eve, spoken of in this text. Because the first Eve was created sinless, it is fair that the second Eve was also created sinless. In effect, God revisited the original scenario in which we were harmed by a man, a woman, and a tree. Hence God decreed that we would be restored in the same way: via a man (Christ), a woman (Mary), and a tree (the cross). Christ saved us by the wood of the cross and by His obedience. The original scenario featured a sinless woman who disobeyed, but this second time a different sinless woman obeyed. It is thus both fair and fitting that Mary, as the new Eve, was created sinless.
3. Faithfulness to Scripture – The gospel chosen for today may confuse some people because it refers to Christ’s conception. However, it is chosen because of what the angel Gabriel said 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 that word is κεχαριτωμένη (kecharitomene). The meaning of this word is not universally agreed upon, since it is a hapax legomenon (a word that only occurs once in the whole of Scripture).
The great scholar and native Greek speaker, 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).
At the heart of the word kecharitomene 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.
What does it mean to say it is a perfect participle? A participle is a word that has the qualities of both an 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; the idea is that the action has already been completed and perfected. Perfected action implies the past in relationship to the speaker.
Thus Gabriel, in using this word, was confessing that Mary had already been graced. So the most literal rendering is “having been endowed with grace.” But in English that would lead to the awkward translation “Hail, having been endowed with grace! The Lord is with you.” So the more standard and still-literal way of translating this is “full of grace.” Attempts to translate the word more vaguely as “highly favored,” do not respect the root words charitoo and charis, which are almost always rendered as “grace” and not mere favor. The plain meaning of charis is grace.
Grammar aside, it would have been 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 would one day be graced, since it is a past participle. The action of her being made full of grace was in the past, though its effects were present then and continue forward. So Gabriel was greeting her in this condition. Hence the text implies some prior action by God. This does not ipso facto prove that the moment in the past when God made her full of grace was the time of her conception. But this seems timing seems to make them most sense, since that is the moment at which Original Sin is contracted. Gabriel’s greeting only makes sense if Mary was free from Original Sin; grace and Original Sin are not compatible.
The essential point remains that Catholic teaching on Mary’s freedom from Original Sin is most faithful to the Scriptural text here. The angel’s greeting was significant and Catholic teaching best connects the dots. It takes the greeting at its word and respects its plain meaning: Mary, having been made full of grace, was created free from Original Sin.
4. 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 received this honor to be free of Original Sin due to her relationship with and for Christ her Son. All the great Marian doctrines refer back to Christ. Mary, as the perfect disciple and Mother of the Church, also prefigured the gifts that we will one day enjoy. 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). 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, and the highest honor of our people.
You are all beautiful, Mary.