The dogma of the Immaculate Conception (dogmas are doctrines or teachings of Jesus and the Apostles that the Church formally defines) teaches that from the moment of conception, Mary’s soul was infused with sanctifying grace and “she was preserved free from every stain of original sin” (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus).
What a profound gift of grace! But this gift should not surprise us. It is nothing new. It was what God had originally intended for all of us, and was also the state our first parents, Adam and Eve, were created in.
It’s important to understand what some of these terms mean. Simply put, sanctifying grace is God’s supernatural life that is infused into our souls. Without it, we cannot grow in holiness or enter into heaven and God’s presence.
Original sin refers to being born deprived of this sanctifying grace. The resulting “stain” of original sin is our fallen human nature, resulting in a tendency towards sin, which is called concupiscence.
But where do we see this doctrine in Sacred Scripture? Our first consideration centres on the Ten Commandments, and it is perhaps the most powerful: Honour your father and mother.
Jesus keeps the Commandments perfectly, honouring his mother perfectly. If you could create your own mother, how would you do it? It is fitting that Jesus honours her perfectly by creating her perfectly! It is not essential – God could have created Mary however he wanted. But it is fitting that he honours her this way – and also prepares an immaculate vessel to carry his son.
Building on this, the Early Church Fathers saw Mary as the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant. The Word of God on stone tablets is now replaced by the Word of God made flesh – and correspondingly, there is a new ark of flesh as well!
When we examine the honour that was given to the Old Testament ark (e.g. Nm 4:15, Wis 1:4, 2 Sam 6:7), it shouldn’t surprise us that this new ark, filled so gloriously, should be all the more gloriously prepared and honoured. It is fitting that Mary’s body not be tainted by the stain of original sin, just as it is fitting that such purity be reserved for the person from whom Jesus would take his human nature.
Our next scriptural testimony is Genesis 3:15. Arguably one of the most important passages in all the Old Testament, it is the first announcement of the Gospel (protoevangelium) – God’s great plan to save a now fallen humanity: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
There will be enmity (complete opposition) between Satan and “the woman,” and a battle between his seed and hers. And as you read on, in the context of all of Scripture, the seed can only be Jesus, and the woman can only be Mary.
This text reveals some foundational things about Mary. First, she is in complete opposition to Satan – she will not submit to him in any way, particularly through sin. Secondly, she is not of the devil’s “seed”! This is profound!
Since the Fall, all people have been born with original sin – spiritually dead, without sanctifying grace in their souls. At this point, they are in a sense of “the devil’s seed,” falling under his reign because they have been born outside of God’s family and unable to enter heaven.
St Paul notes this in Ephesians 2:1-3, saying that “by nature” we are all “children of wrath.” This condition usually remains until baptism restores this lost grace and makes us children of God – of God’s “seed” (though God can work outside the sacraments.)
Based on Genesis 3:15, Mary is clearly not of the devil’s seed. In fact, Jesus is said to be of “her seed”! This means that Mary could not have been conceived in original sin or been affected by its accompanying stain/fallen nature, but must have been born into God’s family with sanctifying grace present right from conception.
Our next testimony comes from the Angel Gabriel, where he greets Mary with a revealing title: “Hail, full of grace” (Lk 1:28). The greeting “hail” was usually reserved for someone of significance, often royalty, and then typically would be followed by a title that would tell us something more about the person’s standing – like hail Caesar, or hail King of the Jews. In this case, the angel uses the title “perfected in” or “full of grace” –“kecharitomene” in the original inspired Greek of St. Luke’s Gospel.
Greek, like English, can use tenses of words to convey more information through that word. Kecharitomene is in the perfect tense, revealing that this fullness of grace had been completed in the past, resulting in a present and ongoing perpetual state of grace. Being “full of grace” was not a result of the angel’s visit, but a state that Mary had always been in!
Additional fascinating insight comes to us from the writings of the early Church. Both the Ascension of Isaiah (70 AD), and the Odes of Solomon (80 AD) testify that Mary gave birth without pain. Pain at childbirth was one of the consequences of original sin [Gen 3:16]. That Mary did not experience pain at childbirth implies that she had not suffered this consequence precisely because she had been preserved from original sin. While these writings lack the inspiration of Sacred Scripture, they certainly give us historical insight into this very early Christian belief about Mary.
Some significant objections still need to be answered. The Church also teaches that one effect of the Immaculate Conception was Mary’s perpetual sinlessness. But “all have sinned,” Romans 3:23 says.
In fact, not “all." Better read my next column!
Graham Osborne presents the YB Catholic? Explaining the Faith Conference at St. Mary's Church, Vancouver, Feb. 23 and 24. See the RCAVcalendar for details or visit rcav.org/event/y-b-catholic-conference.