Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the first moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Dec 5, 2014)
Well, it was bound to happen. After I wrote a column in response to a challenge from a friend, an article entitled “The Case for the Assumption of Mary,” I quickly received another challenge from another friend (with friends like these, I don’t need enemies!) to try to do the same for Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
Well, I am not usually one to back off from a challenge. A few years ago Fr. Don Calloway, MIC, edited an excellent book for Marian Press entitled The Immaculate Conception in the Life of the Church to which I contributed a chapter called “The Immaculate Conception in Catholic Apologetics.” That was my first try at this. Mary pray for me, because now, with the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception upon us on Dec. 8, here is my second try!
On Dec. 8, 1854, Bl. Pope Pius IX published the papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus, which defined for all Catholics the doctrine of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. According to the Catechism of The Catholic Church(entries 491-492):
“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
“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 excellent fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.”
What Does the Doctrine Mean?
The Immaculate Conception means that from the first moment of her existence, Mary’s soul was preserved from the effects of the fall of Adam and Eve. As a result, she was “full of grace” right from the start. This special gift was given to her on the basis of the merits of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since God exists beyond all time, and all times are present before Him, He can apply the graces of Christ’s redemptive work to people living at any time in human history. It was on this basis that He poured out graces upon the patriarchs and prophets even before the coming of the Savior. He did so for Mary, too, but uniquely, in her case, right from the first moment of her existence. Father Adolf Faroni wrote in Know and Defend What You Love (Don Bosco Press, The Philippines, p. 47):
An objection to the Immaculate Conception of Mary claims that Mary cannot be Immaculate, otherwise she would not have been redeemed by Jesus. This would detract from the universality of the redemption of Jesus, the only Mediator between God and men (I Tm 2:5), in whom alone there is salvation (cf. Acts 4:12). Mary herself calls God her “Savior” (Lk 1:47).
The objection shows a fundamental misconception that to be full of grace means absence of redemption. On the contrary, it impliesredemption because Mary’s fullness of grace is the fruit of the saving death of Christ. … Mary has been redeemed like us, only in a more wonderful way, not by cure but by prevention. A doctor can save our life by curing sickness. But if He gives us a medicine that keeps us from getting sick, He saves us much better.
In fact, God often gives extraordinary graces to those to whom He entrusts extraordinary responsibilities. Thus, Moses spoke to the Lord in the burning bush, and St. Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus by a vision of the risen Christ. Mary was given the special grace of an immaculate origin in order to prepare her for her special vocation: the responsibility of being the Mother of God incarnate. As Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote (The Mystical Rose, Scepter Publishers, 1996 edition, p. 13):
By original sin we mean … something negative, that is, the deprivation of that supernatural, unmerited grace which Adam and Eve had on their first formation — deprivation and the consequences of deprivation. Mary could not merit, any more than they, the restoration of that grace; but it was restored to her by God’s free bounty, from the first moment of her existence, and thereby, in fact, she never came under the original curse, which consisted in the loss of it. And she had this special privilege in order to fit her to become the Mother of her and our Redeemer, to fit her … spiritually for it. So that, by the aid of the first grace, she might grow in grace, that, when the angel came and her Lord was at hand, she might be “full of grace,” prepared as far as a creature could be prepared to receive him into her bosom.
The Bible Says …
There are two passages in the Bible where we can find the seeds of this wonderful doctrine. First, in Genesis 3:15, after the fall of Adam and Eve, the Lord says to the serpent who tempted them, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
This Old Testament passage is a prophecy of the Gospel, for the “seed” of the woman who will crush the “serpent’s” head (that is, the Devil’s head) can only be Jesus Christ, who is to crush Satan victoriously by His work of redemption. It follows that the “woman” prophesied in this same passage must be the Mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary (cf. Jn 2:4 and 19:26 where Jesus calls her “Woman”). In Genesis 3, both Jesus and Mary are said to be in a state of “enmity” against the serpent, which in the Hebrew original means “complete and radical opposition” to him. It is for this reason that it is not likely that God would have permitted Mary to inherit the condition of “original sin” from Adam and Eve. Any participation by her in that disorder and corruption of the soul that we all inherit from Adam and Eve would place the Mother of Jesus at least partially under the sway of Satan and evil, and thereby contradict the complete “enmity” between Mary and Satan prophesied in Genesis 3.
The second Bible passage that points to the truth of the Immaculate Conception is Luke 1:28, the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation, “Hail, full of grace.” In the original Greek of the New Testament, the phrase “full of grace” is comprised in the word kecharitomene. In this passage, “full of grace” is used as a name or title for Mary, and she is the only one addressed in this fashion in the entire Bible, so it must indicate something special or distinctive about her.
Some modern versions of the Bible translate this passage as “Hail, O favored one.” But that is not an entirely accurate translation. The root word of kecharitomene is the Greek word charis, which is usually translated into English as “grace.” The English word “favour,” on the other hand, can refer merely to an external gift of some kind, whereas God’s highest “favors” are never merely external honors or gifts: an interior gracing of some kind is always involved. Thus, in this passage of Scripture Mary is said to be “graced” in some interior, spiritual sense.
Some Bible commentators argue that by using the word kecharitomene, the angel only meant that Mary was being “graced” in the sense that at that very moment she was called to be the Mother of the Savior. However, the angel Gabriel went on to say in verse 30, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” This implies that she had already been graced in some special way in the past. It is on that basis alone — on the basis of that earlier divine gift of grace — that she was being called by God to her special vocation.
As a matter of fact, the word kecharitomene (“full of grace”) that the angel used for Mary is neither in the present nor the future tense: it is a perfect passive participle. In other words, the angel speaks of a gift that Mary had already received, even before the angel came to her. In effect, the angel says to her: “Hail, you who have already been graced, in a completed way, in the past.”
The only other place in the entire New Testament where the same Greek verb form, charitoo, is used is in Ephesians 1:6. We know from the Greek-speaking Church Father, St. John Chrysostom, that in that particular passage the verb charitoo means to be completely “transformed by grace.” Thus, the most accurate translation of the angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary would probably be: “Hail, transformed-by-grace-one, the Lord is with you!”
What could such a complete transformation by the grace of God consist of other than a plenitude of sanctifying grace, poured into Mary’s heart from the Holy Spirit, right from the start of her personal existence? As the Catechism puts it (entry 492), she was “enriched from the first instant of her conception” with “the splendor of an entirely unique holiness.” Saint John the Baptist was sanctified by the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb, according to Luke 1:15. Is it likely that Mary would receive a lesser grace to prepare her for her role as Mother of the Savior than John did in the preparation for his special ministry?
While these Scripture passages all by themselves do not conclusively prove the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, they are certainly in harmony with it, and strongly point us in that direction!
The Ancient Fathers Agree
Many of the early Fathers of the Church (such as St. Ireneus, St. Justin Martyr, St. Epiphanius, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ephrem the Syrian, and St. Peter Chrysologus) taught that as Jesus is called by St. Paul the New Adam, the Head of redeemed humanity, so the Blessed Virgin Mary must be the New Eve. There was no disagreement among the Fathers on this point. As Eve, the Mother of all the living, had ushered in the age of sin by succumbing to the temptation of the fallen angel (the serpent), so Mary, the Mother of all the redeemed, reversed Eve’s sin by her obedience to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, and thereby ushered in the dawn of our salvation.
We should notice what this doctrine of the ancient Fathers of the Church implies. Eve began her life and vocation as “Mother of all the living” in a state of innocence and grace, without any wound or corruption in her soul of original sin. Can we imagine that the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose vocation was to be the Mother of the Redeemer and of all the redeemed, received a lesser degree of grace in preparation for her singular vocation?
Cardinal Newman once wrote:
I ask, was not Mary as fully endowed [with grace] as Eve? Is it any violent inference that she, who was to cooperate in the redemption of the world, at least was not less endowed with power from on high than she who, given as helpmate to her husband, did in the event but cooperate with him for its ruin? If Eve was raised above human nature by that indwelling moral gift we call grace, is it rash to say that Mary had a greater grace ? And this consideration gives significance to the angel’s salutation to her as “full of grace” — an interpretation of the original word which is undoubtedly the right one as soon as we resist the common Protestant assumption that grace is mere external approbation and acceptance, answering to the word “favor,” whereas it is, as the Father’s teach, a real inward condition or super-added quality of soul. And if Eve had this supernatural inward gift given her from the first moment of her personal existence, is it possible to deny too that Mary had this gift from the very first moment of her personal existence? I do not know how to resist this inference — well, this is simply and literally the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I say the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is in substance this, and nothing more or less than this…and it really does seem to me to be bound up in that doctrine of the Fathers, that Mary is the Second Eve. (The Mystical Rose, pp. 10-11)
From the earliest centuries, the Eastern liturgies hailed the Blessed Virgin as Panagia (all-holy one),Achranatos (the one without even the slightest stain), and Hypereulogoumene (the one blessed beyond all others). How can Mary be called all-holy, without any stain if from the first moment of her existence her soul lacked a complete outpouring of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace and she thereby carried within her soul that disorder, corruption, and inclination to sin that is passed down to all of us from Adam and Eve?
Implicit in the teachings of the early Fathers and early Liturgies, therefore, is the doctrine of Mary’s fullness of grace, right from the start of her personal existence. In other words, her Immaculate Conception.
Some Protestants Object
Some Protestant Evangelicals object to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception on the grounds that Scripture teaches, in several places, the universal “falleness” of humanity. That is to say, “there is no one righteous, no not one” (Ps 14:1-3; 53); “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23); and “through one man’s offence, judgment came to all men” (Rom. 5:18).
But the Bible often uses broad language, even hyperbole, in order to make a point. For example, when the Bible says “all have sinned” or “all we like sheep have gone astray,” it obviously does not intend to include children, who have never committed any personal sins (and if they die before attaining the age of reason, never will). Again, when the Bible says “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Cor 15:22) it evidently does not mean to tell us that the whole human race will be saved through Christ. Clearly, some souls will be eternally lost. The passages in Scripture that speak of the universal sinfulness of the human race, therefore, may be said to refer to the mass of mankind in general, without excluding special cases such as the Blessed Virgin Mary (preserved from the wound of original sin) and little children (not yet guilty of actual sin).
Following in the footsteps of St. Paul, Protestant Evangelicals traditionally have sought to show how every mystery of the faith expresses the saving mercy of God. “To know Christ is to know His benefits,” the early Lutheran theologians liked to say. In other words, speculative theology is of little value if its conclusions fail to glorify God’s free grace and mercy. And yet, properly understood, that is precisely what Mary’s Immaculate Conception magnifies most of all!
The Doctrine Proclaims Divine Mercy
After all, what is Divine Mercy? It is God’s undeserved, unmerited, often even unsought for divine grace — the grace that our compassionate God pours out upon us to help us overcome our miseries and meet our true needs.
Theologians call one form of that mercy God’s “prevenient” grace, from the Latin prae-venire, which means to “come before.” In other words, even before we ask for it, and quite apart from the fact that we do not deserve it and have not earned it in the least, God graciously takes the initiative and comes to our aid. Prevenient grace is this completely free gift of God’s Mercy. We see a faint reflection of it in a parent’s love for a child. A child is loved by its parents not because the child has earned it, or even asked for it in any way. Rather, the parent’s love comes right from the start, a completely free gift, just because the child is the parent’s own child. That is human mercy, “par excellence,” and it is a mirror image of the divine.
When you think about it, that is exactly what is on display in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I have said this before (in a column several months ago), but it is worth repeating here: the Immaculate Conception is really the supreme manifestation of God’s prevenient, unmerited mercy. After all, Mary did not “merit” her Immaculate Conception. Nor could she ask for it. It was something done in her and for her by the Father of Mercy, and solely on the basis of the foreseen merits of His Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy, section 9): “Mary is the one who experienced mercy in an exceptional way — as no one else.” Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, once explained the matter this way:
The mystery of the Immaculate Conception … is the expression of the first act of the heavenly Father’s mercy in Mary’s regard — an act of absolute gratuity. This is why we can see in it the Father’s mercy in its pure state. The first act is the Father’s prevenient mercy for this very tiny child that is to be born.
In fact, we can go further and say that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was the great divine act of grace that lay at the foundation of God’s whole work of salvation through Christ. The Father of Mercy took the initiative with sinful mankind, fashioning Mary’s soul from the moment of conception, preserving it from the effects of original sin, making her soul the very masterpiece of His Mercy, and it was this unique and extraordinary foundation of grace in Mary’s soul that enabled her, years later, to respond to the angel Gabriel’s message with total, trustful surrender: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to Thy word.”
By God’s prevenient grace, therefore, she was made the masterpiece of the Father’s mercy. And in the fullness of time, this special grace enabled her to receive our Savior into the world. In short, the whole world’s salvation began with a foundational act of unmerited, unprompted, freely given Divine Mercy. That act of mercy was Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
This is what Catholics celebrate on this great Feast Day every Dec. 8: By her Immaculate Conception, Mary was prepared to be the Mother of our Savior. Her Immaculate Conception is, thereby, a sign of God’s free grace, making her the gate of the dawn and the cause of our joy. All of us are called to “honor your mother and father,” according to the Ten Commandments. The Son of God honored His earthly mother by pouring His grace into her heart from the first moment of her life.
As disciples of Jesus, called to follow Him in everything, let us also honor His Mother by celebrating God’s special gift to her, Mary’s “original grace.” After all, it was given to her not just for herself, but for the good of the whole world, for by this grace Mary welcomed the Christ Child into the world for the salvation of us all!
For more information on St. Faustina’s devotion to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, read my series on Mary, Mother of Mercy.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at [email protected].
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