Understanding the Immaculate Conception

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Genesis 3:9-15, 20, Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12, Luke 1:26-38.

I grew up in a Catholic family and attended a Catholic school, so veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a part and parcel of my faith. I never found it odd, or over the top, nor did I feel like we worshipped her as we worship our Triune God. It wasn’t until college that I became aware of the fact that Protestants and other denominations criticize Catholics for their Marian devotions. These criticisms struck me as superstitious, but I understand that they were earnest. So, I wanted to write about the deep devotion the Church has had since its inception for the Mother of God and hopefully help explain the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mary, Mother of God (20th Century), provenance unknown | Image from draganbachev.wordpress.com.

Perhaps the hardest Catholic dogma for non-Catholics to accept is the Immaculate Conception. Yet, if we follow today’s readings closely, we can understand the deep theology and Biblical underpinnings of the doctrine behind this Solemnity. It starts, unsurprisingly, with Adam and Eve. We are reminded of the original sin: “You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!” Adam immediately recognizes his sin and his own fallen state: “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.” He is afraid of retribution because he knows he has disobeyed God. He is naked both physically (loss of innocence) and spiritually before his maker. This is our founding, fundamental story of humanity.

Whether we think of this story as literal or allegorical is not the point – all Christians agree that we have inherited a fallen nature thanks to the sin committed by the first man and woman. In the Catholic Church, this sin has a number consequences:

  • The dominion of death. As God tells Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Clearly, this was “baked into” Adam and Eve, meaning it is a genetic inheritance for us. The consequence of their sin was passed down to us: to toil on the earth and eventually return biologically back to it.
  • Genetic inheritance of death is but one type of inheritance! We are body and soul, and our spiritual inheritance from this first sin is our tendency to fall into sin (the fancy term would be concupiscence). Just as Eve was tempted by the serpent, we have that inclination to be tempted by Satan throughout our lives. 
  • Perhaps the worst of our curse, however, is not the physical death or inclination to sin, but being deprived of the sanctifying grace of God at our birth. As the Catechism states: “Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice” (CCC, 405). Original holiness and justice describe the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before they sinned. This is the real original sin that we “contract” from Adam and Eve (as opposed to “commit”). Our shorthand for this is “fallen state,” but thanks to Jesus Christ, who came to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, we are cleansed of original sin through our Christian baptism. Lest we get too cocky, though, “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle” (CCC, 405). 

Adam and Eve started this great drama of humanity’s distance from God, yet as far back as this very passage from the Book of Genesis, we learn that God promises to rectify it. Many people don’t realize this, but the pinnacle of today’s first reading is contained in these lines, spoken to the serpent:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
        and between your offspring and hers;
    he will strike at your head,
        while you strike at his heel.

This is referred to as the Protoevangelium. With this pronouncement, God is gracing us with a natural hatred of evil, to counteract our tendency to be drawn towards it. What’s more, he is hinting at the Messiah, the offspring of Eve, who will strike Satan’s head while Satan strikes at his heel. As the Catechism tells us: “After his fall, man was not abandoned by God. On the contrary, God calls him and in a mysterious way heralds the coming victory over evil and his restoration from his fall. This passage in Genesis is called the Protoevangelium (“first gospel”): the first announcement of the Messiah and Redeemer, of a battle between the serpent and the Woman, and of the final victory of a descendant of hers” (CCC, 410). We Christians call Jesus Christ the “New Adam” because he crushes the serpent (while being struck on his “heel” by the Cross), and his mother, Mary, is the “New Eve.” This fulfillment of a promise from Genesis through Mary and Jesus is so central to our faith that it can be found in popular hymns, such as Charles Wesley’s carol:

Come, Desire of Nations, come, Fix in us Thy humble home.
Rise the woman’s conquering Seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface, Stamp Thine image in its place,
Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in Thy love,
Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.

Saint Paul expounds upon God’s plan in the second reading today: “he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.” We can’t overstate how important the words “holy” and “without blemish” are to our faith. As we reflected in the past week, God is pure goodness, pure love, and in order to be suitable to be united with Him in heaven, we must also work to become purified through our faith. What Paul is saying is that it has always been God’s plan, since “before the foundation of the world” that we should be united with him in holiness and purity. Theologically, this resonates with the problem of original sin. If we have contracted the lack of “original holiness and justice” from Adam and Eve, then restoring original holiness is a major step to reunification with God – thus, Christ comes to reinstate our holiness through baptism.

But original sin also poses a particular problem for the New Eve, Mary. Like the holy Ark of the Covenant that held the commandments, the Aaron’s rod, and manna from heaven, this Ark of the New Covenant that will hold Jesus must be holy, too. Remember that the acacia wood-covered-in-gold ark upon which a giant slab of gold and two angels in gold rested was the place where God manifested Himself to the Jews. Remember, too, that poor Uzzah was stricken dead when he tried to steady the Ark in the cart being transported by King David to Jerusalem. The holiness of the Ark was so great that God’s commandments regarding who could touch it were inviolate.

Detail from Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, Benjamin West (1800) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia. If such prayerful care and ceremony was given to the Ark of the Covenant, why would someone be surprised that we give equal veneration to Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant?

So, if the original Ark was holy, how much more must the Ark of the New Covenant be if it is to hold the incarnate God?

All of this is drawing to a logical conclusion: that Mary must be holy, that is, lacking even original sin, if she is to bear Jesus. But let’s not assume that our dogma comes about because of a logic puzzle. Nor does it exist out of some kind of sentimental, emotional attachment to Mary, who is Our Lady, most pure. No, the Church did not acknowledge the dogma of the Immaculate Conception either because it was logically convenient or because it seemed fitting to support the cult of devotion to Mary that had developed over the centuries.

From the earliest moments of the Church, the apostles and Church Fathers believed that Mary had special grace and purity beyond all other humans. The dogma of the Church, although not formalized until 1854 by Pope Pius IX, stands firmly in a tradition that was held from the very beginning of the Church. And even before tradition, we have the scriptural basis, the words of the Angel Gabriel as we hear them in today’s gospel reading:

Ancient Greek:  χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ.
“Greeklish”:      Chaire, kecharitōmenē, ho kyrios meta sou!
English:             Hail, “Full of Grace,” the Lord is with you!

I want to dwell on the actual Greek text here because it’s very important. The Angel Gabriel bestows on Mary a one-of-a-kind greeting, and “Full of Grace” doesn’t quite sum up the name he calls her, Kecharitōmenē (pronounced keh-kah-rih-toe-MEN-ee). Notice that the root of his first two words is the same: χαῖρε (chaire) and χαριτω (charitō), which would have sounded a bit like heavenly wordplay coming from the Angel Gabriel, or at least a doubling or emphasis. “Kai-ray, keh-kah-rih-toe-MEN-ee,” he said. This root word χαριτω (charitō) means “grace”; χαῖρε (chaire) means “hail!” or “greetings!” and is clearly meant to be a happy greeting since the addition of -τε makes χαίρετε (chairete), meaning “rejoice!”

Our Lady of Peace tapestry (printed on cotton), photo of tapestry hanging in the author’s home. The artwork was originally created in the workshop of Hendrik Slabbinck in Bruges, Belgium during World War II.

Kecharitōmenē is only used once in scripture and never in secular writings. That’s right, this one-of-a-kind word is invoked by the Angel Gabriel at that moment, used uniquely as a title for Mary. The common English translation is “full of grace,” which is fairly close, but does not express its true depth. In fact, “full of grace” is properly written as πληρης χαριτος (pleres charitos), which is used in reference to Christ in the prologue of the Gospel of St. John (Jn 1:14) and in reference to St. Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6:8).

But Kecharitōmenē is not a description like “full of grace.” It is a noun, a title, and would be better translated as “The One Whom Grace Has Always Perfectly Inhabited.” You see, Kecharitōmenē is the past perfect participle of the verb charitŏō, “to be graced.” Past, meaning this had already happened to Mary, not just when Gabriel appears. Perfect, meaning completed in its entirety yet ongoing. Gabriel is telling the unsuspecting young Mary that she has been perfectly graced by God from the beginning and continues to be pure. Even before she learns that she is to bear God in her womb, she trembles with the fear of God at the revelation of her own holiness. The Magisterium has always understood this to mean that it was God’s will that she be born without original sin. Thus, we have the scriptural, theological basis for the Immaculate Conception right here in the queenly title acknowledged by Gabriel.

So, let us celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception today with a true grasp of the dogma, with a love of God and His amazing plan for humanity, and with a thankfulness that the New Eve said yes to the Father and bore unto us our Savior.

One comment

  1. suzanne

    This was very enlightening to have the catechism explained plainly. I also appreciate the Greek, although I think you have taken us through that in a previous post. I like the idea of the past participle, Mary, full of Grace, really outside of time.

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