Full of Grace

The Immaculate Conception: An Ancient Belief

Guess who has appeared on the U.S. stamps more than any other person: The Blessed Virgin Mary.  Yep, you read right. Mary has appeared on the stamp more than any president, founding father or entertainer.

The reason, of course, is all the religious-themed Christmas stamps through the years.  Mary is a good subject to write about during Advent because of her essential role in the birth of Jesus Christ.  But there is another good reason to focus on her at this time of the year. On December 8, we celebrate the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception designates the belief that the Virgin Mary was free from original sin from the first moment of her life—that Mary was, by a unique grace, preserved from ever contracting original sin, thus being conceived immaculately.  This privilege, designed to make her a suitable mother for Christ, was given to her in view of his future merits.

The Scriptures make no direct case for the Immaculate Conception, but there is at least one passage that makes for a strong argument.  That is, the archangel Gabriel said to Mary at the Annunciation, “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:28). If Mary is indeed full of grace, as God’s messenger claims, then by default Mary cannot be with sin.  To be full of something, no matter what that may be, implies that we cannot have anything else within us. If Mary were with sin, she could not have been full of God’s grace. And if that were the case, God’s messenger was either wrong or lying.

The earliest church fathers are not explicit in regard to the Immaculate Conception, either.  That merely shows that theology is a progressive science. But it did not take long for the great early theologians to catch on.  St. Hippolytus, who died in 235 AD, wrote that, “Mary is the tabernacle that is exempt from defilement and corruption.” The early church father Origen, who died in 254 AD, wrote, referring to Mary, “Worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, most complete sanctity, perfect justice, neither deceived by the persuasion of the serpent, nor infected with his poisonous breathings.”

These are among the earliest writings that are explicit in regards to Mary’s being without sin, and even though these things were written only about 150 years after her death, they do not, in any way, deny the fact that the belief in the Immaculate Conception very well could have preceded their writing.  In other words, belief in the Immaculate Conception comes from the very earliest times of Christian history.

Despite the sound of “Immaculate Conception,” the dogma really does not have anything to do with physical conception.  The issue is not the beginning of Mary’s biological existence, but rather her spiritual existence, her immortal soul. The soul was without stain of the original sin that affects the rest of humanity.  Some people might object that this claim illustrates that Mary did not need Jesus’ redemptive act, and would inquire as to how is this possible. The answer is that it was Christ’s future merits—Christ’s future death and resurrection—that gave Mary this singular grace.  Mary was redeemed by her son through an anticipatory redemption. Christ’s redeeming act is not confined to time. We believe that those who lived long before Jesus was born were saved through Christ’s death and resurrection, in the same way Mary was spared original sin by Christ’s act despite the fact that it came chronologically before they occurred.

Why was this important to salvation history?  Why was Mary conceived without original sin? The answer is found in her relationship to her son, Jesus Christ.  The Council of Ephesus stated that Mary was “Theotokos; that is, she was the “God Bearer.” It was fitting for the sake of her divine son’s dignity that she received this unique grace.  The portal of the death of sin also was pure and free from sin.

The biblical arguments, the beliefs of the early church and logic all moved Blessed Pope Pius IX to finally declare infallibly that Mary was without sin, that she was immaculately conceived.  On Dec. 8, 1854, in his proclamation “Ineffabilis Deus,” Pope Pius IX wrote, “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”