Mary's Conception in Sacred Scripture and TraditionFR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS
Many people, especially non-Catholics, think that the term "Immaculate Conception" refers to Mary conceiving Jesus. My Protestant friend was surprised when I told her that it is about Mary being free of original sin. She then said, "Where is that in the Bible?"
in mind that in our liturgical calendar, the Solemnity of the Annunciation on
March 25 marks the time when Mary conceived our Lord by the power of the Holy
Spirit. Nine months later, on December 25, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christmas,
the birth of our Savior. To have Mary conceive our Lord on December 8, the Solemnity
of the Immaculate Conception, and then have Him born on December 25, does not
make sense. Rather, December 8 marks when Mary was conceived without original
sin, and then September 8 celebrates her birth.
In examining the history
surrounding the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, we see the beauty of a Church
founded by Christ, whose faithful followers struggle to grasp ever more clearly
the mystery of salvation. This struggle is guided by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus
identified as "The Spirit of Truth," who "will instruct you in everything and
remind you of all that I told you" and "will guide you to all truth" (cf. Jn 14:17,
Part of the "struggle" with the Immaculate Conception
is that there is no specific, crystal-clear scriptural citation for it. Nevertheless,
the references in the Gospels to the Blessed Mother and her role in the mystery
of salvation intimate this belief. In the Gospel of St. Luke, we find the beautiful
passage of the Annunciation, where Archangel Gabriel said to Mary (in our familiar
wording as translated from St. Jeromeís Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible),
"Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you." While some scripture scholars
haggle over "how full is full," the testimony of St. Gabriel definitely indicates
the exceptional holiness of the Blessed Mother. When one considers the role Mary
was to play in the life of our Lord — whether His incarnation, His childhood,
or His crucifixion — she must have been outstanding in holiness, truly "full
of grace" in accepting and in fulfilling her role as the Mother of the Savior,
in the fullest sense of Mother.
Going further to the original
Greek text of the Gospel, we find the wording chaire kecharitomene. Chaire
means "grace." The verb kecharitomene means "having been favored." The
form of the verb is also important: here the verb does not simply imply "fullness,"
but rather instrumentality. The late Scripture scholar, Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller
noted, "Lukeís word puts the emphasis upon the source of goodness rather than
upon its effects. In regard to Mary, therefore, he points out that she is the
object of Godís grace and favor. Because the verb is also a participle, Mary is
shown to have been chosen for a long time past; Godís full flow of favor has already
been concentrating upon her.... In her, more than in anyone else, Godís messianic
fulfillment is achieved. As such, she has received more — from and through
Godís anticipation of Jesusí redemptive work — than anyone else in the Old
Testament or New Testament" (The Jerome Biblical Commentary).
Moreover, Archangel Gabriel announces, "the Lord is with you." Such a proclamation
coming from God Himself implies a particular office or a special prerogative.
Again, Fr. Stuhlmueller noted, "The Redeemer-God professes to find an eminent
fulfillment of His promises in the recipient of the greeting." Given this scholarly
examination of Scripture, we rightly believe, therefore, that an exceptional,
grace-filled holiness extended to the very beginning of Maryís life, her conception,
and that God had prepared her to play an integral role in the plan of salvation.
On the practical side, if original sin is inherited through our parents,
and Jesus took on our human nature in all things except sin, then Mary had to
be free of original sin.
The question then arises, "How is Christ the
Savior of Mary?" Actually much of the debate concerning the Immaculate Conception
during the Middle Ages focused on this problem. Duns Scotus (d. 1308) posited
one solution saying, "Mary more than anyone else would have needed Christ as her
Redeemer, since she would have contracted original sin...if the grace of the Mediator
had not prevented this." Quoting the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,
the Catechism adds, "The 'splendor of an entirely unique holiness' by which
Mary is 'enriched from the first instant of her conception' comes wholly from
Christ: she is 'redeemed, in a more exalted fashion by reason of the merits of
her Son'" (#492).
In essence, since Mary was chosen to share intimately
in the life of Jesus from her conception, He was indeed her Savior from her conception.
Perhaps one reason why the discussion over the Immaculate Conception was
prolonged is because the early Church was outlawed and under persecution until
the year 313, and then had to address various problems surrounding Jesus Himself.
More reflection about Mary and her role occurred after the Council of Ephesus
(431) solemnly affirmed Mary's divine motherhood and gave her the title, "Mother
of God" in that she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and bore Jesus who
is second person of the Holy Trinity, one in being with the Father.
of the early Church Fathers including St. Ambrose (d. 397), St. Ephraem (d. 373),
St. Andrew of Crete (d. 740), and St. John Damascene (d. 749) meditated on Mary's
role as Mother, including her own grace-filled disposition, and wrote of her sinlessness.
A feast day in honor of the Immaculate Conception has been celebrated in the Eastern
part of the Church at least since the sixth century.
As time passed,
further discussion arose about this belief. In 1849, Pius IX asked the bishops
throughout the Church what they themselves, their clergy, and the people felt
about this belief and whether they would want it defined solemnly. Of 603 bishops,
546 responded favorably without hesitation. Of those opposing, only 5 said the
doctrine could not be solemnly defined, 24 did not know whether this was the opportune
time, and 10 simply wanted a condemnation of any rejection of the doctrine. Pope
Pius also saw the spiritual malaise of the world where the rationalist school
of philosophy had denied truth and anything of the supernatural, where revolutions
were causing social upheaval, and the industrial revolution had threatened the
dignity of the worker and family life; therefore, Pope Pius wanted to spiritually
recharge the faithful and saw no better way than presenting again the beautiful
example of our Blessed Mother and her role in salvation history. On December 8,
1854, Pius IX solemnly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in his bull
Ineffabilis Deus (quoted in the opening paragraph).
is also interesting that in several apparitions of our Blessed Mother, she herself
has attested to her Immaculate Conception: On December 9 (the date for the Solemnity
of the Immaculate Conception in the Spanish Empire) in 1531 at Guadalupe, Mary
said to Juan Diego, "I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the
true God, through whom everything lives...." In 1830, Mary told St. Catherine
Laboure to have the Miraculous Medal struck with the inscription, "Mary conceived
free from sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee." Lastly, when she appeared
to St. Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858, Mary said, "I am the Immaculate Conception."
In a homily on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception delivered in
1982, Pope John Paul II wrote, "Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who filled you, Virgin of Nazareth, with every spiritual blessing in Christ. In
Him, you were conceived Immaculate! Preselected to be His Mother, you were redeemed
in Him and through Him more than any other human being! Preserved from the inheritance
of original sin, you were conceived and came into the world in a state of sanctifying
grace. Full of grace! We venerate this mystery of the faith in today's solemnity.
Today, together with all the Church, we venerate the Redemption which was actuated
in you. That most singular participation in the Redemption of the world and of
man, was reserved only for you, solely for you. Hail O Mary, Alma Redemptoris
Mater, dear Mother of the Redeemer."
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary
of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and as we continue
our Advent preparation, may we invoke the prayers of our Blessed Mother, Mary
Immaculate, to draw ever closer to our Lord, her Son, this Christmas.
Saunders, Rev. William. "Mary's Conception in Sacred Scripture
and Tradition." Arlington Catholic Herald.
This article is reprinted
with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.
William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College
and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article
is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father Saunders is also the author of Straight
Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral
Press in Baltimore.
Copyright © 2004 Arlington