During Advent, all Christians reverently turn their attention toward Jesus’ birth. Regrettably, that focus sometimes obscures an essential participant: Mary. Although primarily a Catholic predilection and emphasis, the deep insights gained by exploring Mary’s unique and mysterious identity – the concept of her “Immaculate Conception” – bear wonderful fruits. This nomenclature may be unfamiliar to non-Catholic Christians. It shouldn’t be. It is a valuable – if not essential – conduit by which we enter a deeper understanding and appreciation of the miraculous event of Christ’s birth.
The Concept of the Immaculate Conception
This article engages those insights for curious Catholics (and adventurous Protestants, such as I once was…) who don’t have doctoral degrees in Theology. I don’t either – having accidently wandered into a Juris Doctor degree instead. Pity. Therefore, what follows will either confirm my competence as a juridical advocate for the “Case of the Immaculate Conception” – or not.
“And the angel said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God’”. [Lk 1:35]
Let’s begin with a bold opening statement: this Annunciation recorded in the Book of Luke defined a procreative act between Divine Spirit and human flesh – an act purposed to bring forth a new person (Jesus) admitting equally of the nature of both parents. The intention proposed by the Angel Gabriel embraces the very essence of the “procreation” concept, doesn’t it? It was the ultimate act of loving union, both by God’s design and also in our human experience: a mutually consensual (otherwise it would be rape), consummating act of intimacy that anticipates a potential to bring forth new life – which God allows only within the Sacramental bond of Matrimony.
No other possibility or explanation suffices! Outside of marriage, God Himself defines this procreative act as the grievous “sins” of fornication or adultery [1 Cor 6:9]. Since God forbids all procreative intimacy outside of marriage, do we dare propose He carved an exclusion for Himself in His relations with Mary?
A Pure, Holy Act
Isn’t it more likely that the very act that delivered His only Son to humankind as the King of Heaven and Earth would also be pure, holy and demonstrative of the conformity to God’s laws that Jesus also perfectly exampled to us? Does the Son’s perfect obedience to God’s eternal precepts suggest that the actions of the Holy Spirit might be any less consistent, obedient or observant?
Consider further that under the Jewish Law, no illegitimate son could inherit the family estate by right [Judges 11: 2] or enter into the Covenant People of God’s Temple [Dt 23:2]. Therefore, Christ had to be legitimate in both His divine and human lineages in order to fulfill His role as the Kinsman-Redeemer of mankind – our “in-the-flesh” Messiah. Only the sacred bond of marriage satisfies these legal requirements of a legitimate heir – a hallmark confirmed and sustained in God’s own Holy Scripture.
God’s Intimate Procreative Process
As we approach this understanding, Mary’s unique intimacy with the Holy Spirit necessarily unveils several “jaw-dropping” implications:
First, God’s intimate procreative process – if acting within human substance not yet justified and redeemed by Christ – would have horribly profaned God’s Holiness. Unredeemed flesh was “untouchable” to the Spirit prior to the Cross. The Holy Spirit could not enter within the fallen human condition that remained still tainted with something called “Original Sin”.
The Holy Spirit’s entrance into the inner theatre of human sanctification, therefore awaited the consummation of Christ, whereby our soiled and sinful condition became redeemed and reconciled to God by Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. Prior to that, the Spirit could only “whisper” His counsels to the Old Testament righteous. He did not dwell within humans because they were still unfit as “tabernacles”.
Therefore, to engage a Divine action of “incarnation” within human flesh was something altogether new in God’s relationship with humanity. It proposed a new level intimacy: an affinity between God’s Spirit and us that far transcended arms-length “whispered counsels”. It proposed the unthinkable to any Jew: an intimacy of union! Here we stumble upon the key challenge unveiled by this consideration:
The Annunciation and Incarnation of Christ in Mary obviously occurred before Christ’s redemptive Cross. Few stumble upon this massive contradiction; perhaps because fewer still have even recognized it.
As such, the predicate for such intimate union to occur within Mary’s human flesh becomes equally self-evident: Mary had to be 100% pure in her body and soul at the instant of Christ’s Incarnation within her! How so? Doesn’t ALL mortal human flesh carry the ongoing taint of a fallen spiritual inheritance?
“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” [Rom 3:23]
In theology, that inherited taint is called “Original Sin”. It wasn’t our fault. We inherited it from Eve. When Eve forfeited her immortality through her “original sin”, her eternal soul was wounded deeply. It no longer evidenced the perfection – and therefore the power – that God’s perfect eternal image and likeness had impressed upon her flesh.
That power had previously vivified her human flesh with an eternal aspect suitable to her equally eternal soul. Disobedience shattered that image in her soul, and therefore that power in her soul. Death occurred when mortal flesh was failed by a soul that could no longer impress eternity upon the flesh. The soul would one day have to separate from the flesh. Thereafter, human flesh would never be able to convey any greater attribute to its offspring than what it had after the Fall. As a result, no human being would EVER again be born without that deficit of darkness in their flesh, unless God intervened.
He did. It was called an “Atonement”. It was singular, and therefore – eternal. No human flesh can ever stand reconciled before God in righteousness without obtaining the benefit of Jesus’ Atonement. Nobody. Including Mary.
Now we’re in really deep weeds… because we’ve just circled right back to our “massive contradiction” earlier defined: how could the intimate union with God required to incarnate a Divine Person in human flesh occurs within Mary before the Atonement of Christ?
The Sole Human Exception to Original Sin
Let’s be very precise in the theology being proposed here – this question does not suggest that Mary suffered any taint of original sin at her conception. She didn’t. The reason is staggeringly consequential.
The reason for her anomaly – this sole and exclusive human exception to Original Sin inherited by all mortal human flesh – was realized in the application of Christ’s atonement to Mary, not in any exemption of Mary from the requirement that all persons be redeemed through Christ’s atonement.
As such, the manner by which the redemption of Mary’s flesh occurred provides the essential distinction between her and us. It remains forever an entirely unique, singular construct with no equal or parallel in all of human history. The efficacy of Mary’s justification was no different than the rest of us who claim the Atonement through Christ’s cross and resurrection. But the application of that justification in Mary enabled an entirely different consequence, attribute and outcome in her that none of us will ever experience or share – those graces remain exclusive to her alone.
Mary’s flesh was redeemed in advance by the foreknown merits of her Son’s redemptive sacrifice on the Cross at the moment of her conception. Therefore, no taint of original sin or personal sin ever stained her flesh. She suffered no concupiscence – her soul and her person remained as limpidly clear, dazzling and pure as the Light of Heaven from the first instant of her conception.
By that incidence, she had an overwhelming propensity and ability to resist all sin that none of us will ever share. Original sin would never predispose, incline or entice her toward any unthinking or intentional disobedience to God. She “floated above” the waters of the mortal temptations that otherwise submerge the rest of us in our disobedience to God. She remained always as Eve once was – pure before God in every intention, action, and attribute of her mind, her soul, and her flesh.
As such, she ALONE among all humans provided what William Wordsworth called “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”: an absolute and completed mortal purity of sinlessness accomplished entirely through the atoning merits of her Son that God’s power and providence saw fit to grant to Mary “ab initio” at her conception.
Blessed John Duns Scotus
Blessed John Duns Scotus first illuminated this structural theology of Mary about 1,300 years after the “Angel Event”. He was ahead of his time, even if Christian theology arrived 1300 years late to the illumination of this Christian understanding. Way back then Duns Scotus had already embraced the modern financial concept of a “credit card”: Mary’s sinlessness was purchased in a present transaction (her conception) that anticipated a future settlement by her Son (on Calvary) that would “clear Mom’s debt”.
As such, Mary was the “Immaculate Conception”. She was a created being of God – but completely and totally unique in that Creation: the solitary and exceptional exemption from the inheritance of Original Sin that is otherwise evidenced in all human flesh. Except hers. And this only by an action of God through the applied merits of her Son’s sacrifice. She got her debts paid before the rest of us did.
That such a singular honor and distinction was granted by Jesus to His mother is, in turn, a rather appropriate corollary to her status as the mother of the Second Person of the Trinity. Rank has its privileges. “Blessed are you among all women.” We won’t oppose admitting the Angel’s declaration into evidence in this case. So stipulated.
God Himself Awaited Mary’s Consent
But Mary has been graced with yet another dignity that simply astounds us completely. She was – and ever will remain – the only created being among all humans and angels upon whom almighty God Himself deigned to become entirely dependent. What! Really? Stay with me here…
God and “dependent” are two concepts that seem incompatible – or at least uncomfortably incongruent – within any proposed association. But such is the case. At the intersection of eternity and one brief single instant of time involving the Angel Gabriel, we actually witnessed the entire, eternal salvific plan of God hanging in the balance and awaiting the consent of a mere mortal human being – that God Himself had created. So too, God the Son also became 100% dependent upon Mary during infancy.
“Let it be done to me…”
All Heaven held its breath awaiting the so very necessary – but in no way assured – response of a young Jewish girl from an obscure rural village in a backwater precinct of the Roman Empire who hadn’t yet reached 20 years of age. Why? Because Mary had free will! Her sinless condition didn’t compromise or coerce her capacity to make the same determinative individual choices that God allows each of us to make without any compulsion or force on His part.
She retained the full potential to say either “yes” or “no” to the angel. The salvation of the world hung in the balance. Other than that, it was an obscure and inconsequential parlay with an angel.
Admittedly, her purity freed her from the influence of any concupiscence which might otherwise have precipitated the kind of bad choices engaged by the rest of us. The danger was real. Mary’s “no” was a possible response to Gabriel – though not perhaps very probable. She was completely aligned with God’s will – she had never disobeyed God in anything at any time. Yet her moment of consent or refusal would forever remain definitive. That singular intersection of a moment in time within eternity which had placed God (and all of us!) at the precipice of Mary’s consent could never again be repeated or offered to any other woman for all eternity!
We need to understand why. What if Mary had said “no” to the angel Gabriel – what is the implication? The atonement that Jesus was to offer was necessarily dependent upon Mary’s consent allowing her body become the womb of God’s baby. Divine rape was not an option; that consent was essential. Therefore, Mary’s consent alone permitted and enabled entrance of the Second Person of the Trinity into the necessary habitation of His human substance later to be offered for our sakes on Calvary.
Our Kinsman-Redeemer had to be a blood relation by inheritance of birth – not a miraculous fabrication of flesh or an Omnipotent declaration of human substance unrelated and unconnected to our human condition. The Kinsman-Redeemer of mankind (“Go ‘el” in Hebrew) had to be like us in all things but sin. We inherit our human condition. Therefore, that same human affinity had to be fulfilled in Jesus.
Mary’s Condition of Sinlessness
Mary’s condition of sinlessness was justified only by that reason: Jesus had to inherit his flesh. He had to be born of a woman’s womb just like the rest of us – and He had to be sinless in that birth. That singular justification alone reconciled God’s extraordinary application of the atoning merits of Christ’s sacrifice in advance. As such, it justified only one such circumstance and moment in human history – the case of Mary. The justification for Mary’s sinless flesh would stand or fail, depending upon whether Mary would ultimately fulfill her privileged purpose by saying “yes” to the angel. If Mary had said “no”, her exceptional condition would remain eternally unreconciled to its only purpose and thereby, to God’s perfect justice.
How so? Because no other woman had previously obtained the privilege of being “immaculately conceived”. Similarly, every future woman who would fail to bring forth a Divine Being in her womb might wonder why God couldn’t also have granted her an “immaculate” exception!
Would God just keep on endorsing the immaculate conception in a whole string of subsequently unwilling women over the course of future history until He finally got a “yes” from one of them? Unlikely. How could He justify granting this exception to any others while it remained unreconciled to its sole purpose by reason of Mary’s definitive “no”? God is perfect justice.
The breathtaking consequence of this logical exposition becomes apparent: God’s plan of salvation hung entirely upon a single dialogue between the Virgin and the Angel. The intersection of eternity into that brief moment of time defined a single opportunity that never would – never could – occur again without compromising God’s perfect justice. The stakes were extremely high for all involved: God, Mary, Jesus… and us. It was an all or nothing situation. The ante was eternity. God rolled His dice on Mary. We won.
Part II -The Immaculate Conception and Marriage
Guest Contributor: Mike White is a Catholic convert, a real estate investment banker, lawyer, Cursillista and father of four boys. Having navigated an Exodus from California, he now lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with Mary Jo, his wife of 36 years. Mike teaches RCIA at his parish and writes on contemporary faith and economics issues.