Monday, December 8, 2008
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary
The Immaculate Conception, a solemnity, is the patronal feast of the United States. It is one of the few Holy days of obligation on the Church calendar -- that is, all Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on this day. As this feast occurs early in Advent, it is a perfect time to consider Mary and her important role in the celebration of Christmas.
Image: Jean Bellegambe
Saint Anne conceiving the Virgin Mary
Douai, Musée de la Chartreuse
In 1854, Pope Pius IX's solemn declaration, Ineffabilis Deus, clarified with finality the long-held belief of the Church that Mary was conceived free from original sin. In proclaiming the Immaculate Conception of Mary as a dogma of the Church, the pope expressed precisely and clearly that Mary was conceived free from the stain of original sin. This privilege of Mary derives from God's having chosen her as Mother of the Savior; thus she received the benefits of salvation in Christ from the very moment of her conception. (The picture above shows her mother, Anna, with the infant Mary within her womb.) This great gift to Mary, an ordinary human being just like us, was fitting because she was destined to be Mother of God. The purity and holiness of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a model for all Christians. (Women for Faith & Family – www.wf-f.org)
The Immaculate Conception
490 To become the mother of the Savior, Mary "was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role."132 The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as "full of grace".133 In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God's grace.
491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" through God,134 was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.135
492 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".136 The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person "in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" and chose her "in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love".137
493 The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God "the All-Holy" (Panagia), and celebrate her as "free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature".138 By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.
"Let it be done to me according to your word. . ."
494 At the announcement that she would give birth to "the Son of the Most High" without knowing man, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responded with the obedience of faith, certain that "with God nothing will be impossible": "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word."139 Thus, giving her consent to God's word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus. Espousing the divine will for salvation wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son; she did so in order to serve the mystery of redemption with him and dependent on him, by God's grace:140
As St. Irenaeus says, "Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race."141 Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert. . .: "The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith."142 Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary "the Mother of the living" and frequently claim: "Death through Eve, life through Mary."143
133 Lk 1:28.
134 Lk 1:28.
135 Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (1854): DS 2803.
136 LG 53, 56.
137 Cf. Eph 1:3-4.
138 LG 56.
139 Lk 1:28-38; cf. Rom 1:5.
140 Cf. LG 56.
141 St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 22, 4: PG 7/1, 959A.
142 St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 22, 4: PG 7/1, 959A.
143 LG 56; Epiphanius, Haer. 78, 18: PG 42, 728CD-729AB; St. Jerome, Ep. 22, 21: PL 22, 408.
In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin."
"The Blessed Virgin Mary..."
The subject of this immunity from original sin is the person of Mary at the moment of the creation of her soul and its infusion into her body.
"...in the first instance of her conception..."
The term conception does not mean the active or generative conception by her parents. Her body was formed in the womb of the mother, and the father had the usual share in its formation. The question does not concern the immaculateness of the generative activity of her parents. Neither does it concern the passive conception absolutely and simply (conceptio seminis carnis, inchoata), which, according to the order of nature, precedes the infusion of the rational soul. The person is truly conceived when the soul is created and infused into the body. Mary was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her animation, and sanctifying grace was given to her before sin could have taken effect in her soul.
"...was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin..."
The formal active essence of original sin was not removed from her soul, as it is removed from others by baptism; it was excluded, it never was in her soul. Simultaneously with the exclusion of sin. The state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice, as opposed to original sin, was conferred upon her, by which gift every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, essentially pertaining to original sin, were excluded. But she was not made exempt from the temporal penalties of Adam -- from sorrow, bodily infirmities, and death.
"...by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race."
The immunity from original sin was given to Mary by a singular exemption from a universal law through the same merits of Christ, by which other men are cleansed from sin by baptism. Mary needed the redeeming Saviour to obtain this exemption, and to be delivered from the universal necessity and debt (debitum) of being subject to original sin. The person of Mary, in consequence of her origin from Adam, should have been subject to sin, but, being the new Eve who was to be the mother of the new Adam, she was, by the eternal counsel of God and by the merits of Christ, withdrawn from the general law of original sin. Her redemption was the very masterpiece of Christ's redeeming wisdom. He is a greater redeemer who pays the debt that it may not be incurred than he who pays after it has fallen on the debtor.
Such is the meaning of the term "Immaculate Conception."