Wednesday, November 26, 2014
The Immaculate Conception: what does it mean?
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated on December 8, is often confused with the Virgin Birth.
Some think that the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception refers to Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit. Jesus being conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary without a human father is known as the Virgin Birth, not the Immaculate Conception.
Neither does the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception mean that Mary was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit or that her own birth was a ‘virgin birth’. In the 4th century there was a popular belief that Mary’s birth was a virgin birth and in the 16th century the belief that she was born of the Holy Spirit circulated. The Church condemned both of these beliefs as error in 1677.
The famous painting, “The Meeting at the Golden Gate”, by Giotto, depicts Joachim kissing his wife, Anna as they celebrate the knowledge that they will be parents. Some interpreted the kiss as the moment of conception. The actual Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception does not say anything about the generative act of Mary’s mother and father. Most theologians, today, believe that Mary was conceived in the usual manner.
In the proclamation, Ineffabilis Deus of December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX defined the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as follows: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was from the first moment of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted of almighty God, and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”
Some object to the doctrine because it seems to contradict St. Paul who says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). Did Paul mean that everyone actually commits sins - even infants? Or could he have meant that everyone is subject to original sin, which then does not contradict the fact of Mary’s being preserved from original sin.
Examining the doctrine of the Catholic Church more closely, we see that like all descendants of Adam, Mary by her humanity, was subject to original sin. Because she was to be the mother of the Christ, God intervened in a special way and preserved her soul from the stain of that sin and its consequences. This intervention was ‘in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race”. Mary was then, saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, as are all believers, but in ‘anticipation’ of those events. She said, ‘yes’ to God and accepted His will for her life. Because she was redeemed by Christ, she could declare in her Magnificat, “My spirit rejoices in Christ, my Saviour” (Luke 1:47).
The angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary, "Hail, Mary, full of grace", (Luke 1:26) is said to point to her sinlessness ie fullness of grace.
Others point out that this is a doctrine that sprang up out of nowhere when it was declared in 1854 and was not believed by the early church. An examination of the writings of the Church Fathers in the very early years of the Church will show:
- that the Church Fathers spoke of the Virgin Mary’s “exemption from defilement” (Hippolytus, “Ontt. in illud, Dominus pascit me”) Hippolytus ?-AD236
-that she was “worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate” (Origen, “Homily i, in diversa”) Origen AD185-254
-that she was “immune through grace from every stain of sin (Ambrose, “Sermon xxii in Psalm cxviii). Ambrose c. AD337-397.
The theologian, Duns Scotus, developed the idea: "Decuit, potuit, ergo fecit, it was becoming that the Mother of the Redeemer should have been free from the power of sin and from the first moment of her existence; God could give her this privilege, therefore He gave it to her".
We see from this small sample of early theologians, that the doctrine of Mary’s preservation from sin was believed very early in the Church.
Early writers also referred to Mary as the ‘Second Eve’. Eve was created without original sin but sinned when she disobeyed God. Like Eve, Mary was without original sin, but unlike Eve, Mary agreed to do God’s will. She is the fulfillment of the proto-evangelium in Genesis 3:15 -16 “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.”
In the Catholic Church, Dogmas are defined when there is a controversy over them or when emphasis of a belief already in existence will help the faithful. In other words the belief is not new but is ‘defined’. In the case of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, there was no controversy at the time it was defined, but Pius IX felt it would help the faithful by inspiring devotion to the Virgin.