The belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma unique to Catholicism. Catholics believe that by a special act of God’s favor and grace in her role to become the mother of God, Mary was conceived without original sin. We also believed she remained sinless her entire life. The Orthodox churches often affirm they too believe Mary lived a sinless life, but they tend to reject the belief she was also conceived without original sin.
In a previous post. I covered what is the most common objection to those who believe this dogma is not Biblical, and that is when St. Paul says in Romans 3:23 “all have sinned.” For most Protestants that statement by St. Paul should end any discussion of whether Mary remained sinless – they interpret “all” to mean every individual who ever lived. But when we actually study how the Bible uses the term “all,” and especially within the context of Paul’s statement “all have sinned,” we discover that is not the case.
In my last two posts here and here, I covered many of the other common objections based on Scripture we can often hear regarding this dogma. In this post I’ll turn to the evidence in Scripture that supports the Catholic understanding of the Immaculate Conception.
In Ephesians 3:7 St. Paul wrote he was made a minister “according to the gift of God’s grace” that had been given to him. Not all are ministers and St. Paul recognized this gift of grace was specific to his role as a minister. While he acknowledged we are all part of one body of Christ, he also recognized we all have “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:4-6). He speaks to each of us as having our own special gift from God (1 Corinthians 7:7) and that grace was given to each of us “according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4:4-7).
So why is it so hard for some to believe that in her unique role to be chosen to be the mother of God, Mary could have received a unique gift of grace? That is what the Immaculate Conception dogma comes down to – Mary received a unique gift of grace because she has a unique role that is shared by no other person in all eternity. The catechism (CCC411) states it this way –”Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin.”
It is important to remember that as Catholics, we reject sola-Scriptura and also rely on Sacred Tradition to form us. And while there is not an explicit statement within Scripture that tells us Mary was conceived without sin and remained sinless because of a unique gift of God’s grace, we can certainly see that truth reflected there. It begins in Genesis when God promised a redeemer who would be “at enmity” with Satan, but that “enmity” was also shared with “the woman” who seed would be Christ. God tells Satan “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Genesis 3:15). Could “the woman” who becomes an enemy of Satan as is Christ truly be his enemy, if when tempted by Satan she joins him in sin, as Eve did? That would not seem to be possible.
Therefore, in the earliest of Church writings we see a recognition that while Christ is the new Adam, Mary is the new Eve, and the parallels between Mary and Eve are covered in detail here. Eve was created without original sin. Just as we see Eve take flesh only from Adam, we see Christ take flesh only from Mary – and the reversal of the fall is set into motion. And the “enmity” that was prophesied in Genesis between Christ and Satan and is shared with “the woman” is fulfilled.
We can look at the Old Testament creation of the Ark of the Covenant that also has strong parallels in Scripture to Mary. And one of the most important lessons we can learn as the Ark was being created is how deliberate God was with His instructions on how His dwelling place was to be constructed, and how it was to be perfectly sanctified before His glory filled the sanctuary (Exodus 30:22-29). Do we really believe that as He was preparing to become flesh and dwell among us (John 1:14) He would take less care in the creation of the woman who would become His dwelling place? The Ark contained sacred objects that were “types” of Christ; Mary contained within her womb Christ himself.
Was it necessary that Mary be free of sin to become the mother of God? Perhaps not, but everything Scripture teaches us about God should help us to understand it was certainly more fitting she would be, in order to be consistent with His nature. She was the woman who would bring into the world “the king of kings and lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16). Are we really to believe God took no special care to prepare her and provide her with a unique gift of grace for her role? If that thought seems foreign, I would suggest you return to Exodus Chapters 25-30 and discover just how particular and thoughtful and detailed God was when giving Moses the instructions to prepare his dwelling place among the Israelites.
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary with the news she had been chosen to be the mother of God’s son, Mary’s reaction is very telling. For one thing, she is not startled or frightened or tempted to worship as many others within Scripture are when seeing an angel, like Cornelius (Acts 10:3-4), John (Revelation 22:8), the shepherds (Luke 2:9), Zechariah (Luke 1:12), or the guards at Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 28:4). But we are told she was greatly troubled by his greeting of “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28-29). She was troubled because she wondered what his greeting meant.
In his book “Walking with Mary,” Edward Sri looks back into Israel’s history and the significance of the angel’s words to Mary that “the Lord is with you.” He says, “Throughout the Bible, these words of greeting were used to address men and women who were called by God for a special task, one that would have an impact on all of Israel. Their mission would require much generosity, many sacrifices, and great trust.” He gives the example of those who heard these words before Mary — Jacob and the covenant blessing entrusted to him (Genesis 28:15), Moses’ call to lead the people out of Egypt (Exodus 3:12), before Joshua was to lead the people into battle for the Promised Land (Joshua 1:5), when an angel called Gideon to defend the people from a foreign invasion (Judges 6:12), when David was placed as head of an everlasting kingdom (2 Samuel 7:9) and when God called Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:8). Sri continues, “From Moses to Jeremiah, the pattern is clear: ‘The Lord is with you’ signals that someone is being called to a great mission that will be difficult and demanding. And the future of Israel is largely dependent on how well that person plays his part.” Reaching back into her Jewish history, Mary undoubtedly recognized the significance of the angel’s words, but she certainly had to wonder what this was going to mean for her personally and what her specific mission would be.
But Mary is given an even greater assurance along with the fact that the Lord would be with her on this mission. She is given a title by the angel – “full of grace.” As Catholics since we are so accustomed to praying the Hail Mary with the words “Hail Mary, full of grace” we often fail to realize the angel does not refer to her as Mary, but simply as “full of grace.” “Full of grace” is not an adjective used to describe Mary; rather it is a title given to Mary – a reflection of who she is. He says “Hail, full of grace” when greeting her.
Many will respond to the idea of Mary’s title as “full of grace” as being an indication of her sinless state by stating the Bible also says Stephen (the first Christian martyr recorded) was also “full of grace” (Acts 6:8). That can very much depend on the translation, as can the angel’s greeting to Mary (some translations say “highly favored one”).
I do not pretend to know the Greek language, and especially the Greek language of the Biblical era. But I do know how to use a lexicon. The word used by the angel to greet Mary is kecharitōmenē whose root word is charis, or grace. And that form of the word “grace” is unique in all of Scripture – both Old and New Testaments. It is only used in reference to Mary. A unique title for a unique role it seems.
Catholic answers provides this explanation of kecharitōmenē:
“The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning ‘to fill or endow with grace.’ Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, Catholics hold, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.”
Mary has a statement about her own soul that I also believe is unique in all of Scripture. She says in Luke 1:46 her soul “magnifies” the Lord (other translations say her soul “glorifies” or “proclaims the greatness” of the Lord). Her soul should help us more clearly to see God – it magnifies for us who God is. Can a soul marred by sin do that? Or rather does a soul perfectly redeemed from sin do that? I would contend it’s the latter. Mary shows us our own destiny when we will experience the fulness of Christ’s redemption. As Catholics we understand she experienced this redemption in a unique way due to her unique role, and that is most fitting in the kingdom of Christ for the woman who is both his mother and his queen.
As always, the Marian dogmas help us to know more clearly who Jesus is. My next post will discuss why the dogma of the Immaculate Conception matters.