“Chaire, kecharitōmenē, ho kyrios meta sou!”
“Ave, Gratia Plena, Dominus tecum.”
“Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you.”
The feast of the Conception of Our Lady was celebrated during the 7th century in Palestine. The feast spread as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception to Italy by the 9th century, in England by the 11th century, and in France by the 12th century.
One notable 16th century theologian said, “It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin.” That was actually a quote from Martin Luther (his sermon, “On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God,” 1527). The Christian faith in the Immaculate Conception was well established long before Martin Luther, and long, long before it was declared as an essential article of the true Christian faith—a dogma of the faith—by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
Catholic writer Stephen Beale says the Church had always believed in the sinlessness of Mary. St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus, from the 2nd century, identified Mary as a second Eve, as the one whose humble obedience reversed Eve’s disobedience. In the third century, Origen, one of the earliest Church Fathers, called Mary “immaculate of the immaculate.” St. Augustine, in the 4th century, skirted around the question of sin in Mary, out of reverence for Christ. The dogma was implied, but not defined. Why did they stop short of declaring Mary conceived without sin? Because they couldn’t figure out how Mary was saved by Christ if she didn’t have sin, and therefore wouldn’t have need of a savior… and that didn’t seem correct.
Resolving this difficulty took a big step forward in the 11th century by a Benedictine monk named Eadmar. Eadmar provided an arsenal of arguments in support of the belief in the Immaculate Conception. For one, he said, St. John the Baptist was purified from sin in the womb, and Mary is far greater than any other saint, including St. John the Baptist. In another argument he says, God preserved the angels from sin from their first moment of creation, and Mary is the queen of angels. And building on the earlier work of St. Irenaeus he says, Mary is the “new Eve,” in a unique position to restore humanity from the Fall by her perfect obedience in place of Eve’s disobedience, and so that parallel requires Mary to begin with the same original innocence that Eve enjoyed before the Fall. The Church always had a sense of, but struggled to articulate, Mary’s particular privilege of divine favor—that the angelic greeting “Hail, full of grace” held a special mystery that was not yet fully understood.
It was the brilliant 13th century Franciscan, Blessed John Duns Scotus, who discovered the key of how to affirm the sinlessness of Mary without excluding her from the need for the Savior. He argued that Mary was “preserved” from original sin, rather than freed from it. It is one thing to have someone be soiled by sin and to cleanse and redeem them, but it is a greater thing to preserve them from the stain of sin from the beginning. In other words, if I found you stuck in a big mud puddle, you would be thankful if I got you out of it. But you would be even more thankful if I preserved you from falling into the big mud puddle in the first place. It is the normal human condition to be conceived, born, and live in sin until we are rescued by the grace of Christ in baptism. It is a special privilege to be the one whom Jesus inoculates from the stain of sin from the first instance of her existence. Mary is still saved from sin only by the grace of Christ. She is immaculate only because of her savior. But in her unique privilege, she was not washed, but rather kept clean, from the stain of sin.
So I’ll end with these two questions. First question: Mary was conceived long before Jesus, her son, was crucified. How could Mary be the Immaculate Conception as a result of the Paschal mystery of Jesus? The answer is that Jesus is God, and his Paschal Mystery transcends time, and its grace available to all of time. From our perspective within time, the Immaculate Conception was, you might say, purchased on credit, and was paid for along with all the sins of humanity by the Paschal Mystery.
The second question is, so what? Good question; glad you asked. It was in wrestling with this question about Mary’s privilege of being the kecharitōmēne, the person who is the Immaculate Conception (and also with the question about why the Church has always baptized infants), that it was understood that it isn’t that people are born with sin, but we are born lacking saving grace. Sin isn’t a thing, it’s an absence of a thing that ought to be there. When we commit a sinful choice, it’s not that we get a thing that is sin stuck to us, but that we lose the thing that is grace that we need to have. And so this affects the whole understanding of sin and grace. We talk about the Immaculate Conception as Mary conceived without sin, which is true, but as the angel said, it’s really Mary conceived with the fullness of grace.
Another point is that, in the modern philosophies of the 18th and 19th centuries, which are still influential today, the concept of original sin, the default lack of saving grace in the human soul, is completely rejected. The belief is that, it is the disorders of society that corrupts the human person, and not the other way around. And from that came the idea of the noble savage, the human person uncorrupted by the sinful effects of society. This idea is very active, for example, in how Thanksgiving has been treated lately: Imperial Christian Europe, with all its sins, corrupted the pure noble humanity of the Native American (as though the Native Americans hadn’t been involved in centuries of brutal wars among themselves long before the first European explorers). But individually speaking, this error would also lead one to think that everyone is immaculately conceived; that we just need to legislate away the sins of society, like bigotry, racism, and greed, and then all humanity is returned to its original noble sinlessness. Yes, we truly do need to avoid social and personal sins, but we as humanity still need the grace of Christ and his Paschal Mystery to be saved and have a hope for heaven. We cannot get there on our own efforts, without grace. Score another one for Martin Luther.
In 1858, a few years after Pope Pius’ proclamation of this dogma, the Blessed Mother appeared to a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in Lourdes, France. Bernadette asked this “beautiful Lady,” who appeared before her, who she was, and the Lady responded, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette didn’t understand these words, and she went to the priest to repeat what the Lady said. The priest was convinced Bernadette couldn’t have understood what it meant, and would not have been able to have made it up. Mary herself thus confirmed the dogma of her Immaculate Conception, the truth that Pope Pius IX defined when he promulgated the 1854 decree Ineffabilis Deus:
“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”