Today, the Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. This is another of those inexplicable pinch-points between Catholics and Protestants, so let’s take a look at what we are really celebrating today and why.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is one of those things that is very much misunderstood by many non-Catholics (and even by many Catholics). It is not the belief that Jesus was conceived in Mary’s virginal womb—that’s the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ (it’s true, but it’s a different dogma). It’s also not some belief that Mary was conceived virginally like Jesus was; I’m not sure where that explanation comes from, but it’s completely false and yet depressingly common.
Mary was a human being—nothing more, nothing less. She had a mother and father who were married, had marital relations, and conceived her in the traditional way. Extra-Biblical writings from the early Church identify her parents as Anne and Joachim. The only thing that made Mary different was a grace (gift) from God: from the moment of her conception, she was protected from the stain of original sin. She was a pure vessel, spotless enough to carry God Himself in her womb.
This put her in very select company. Before her, only Adam and Eve had been born without sin . . . and they messed things up pretty good by giving-in to temptation and falling away from God. When Mary was tempted in her life, however, she didn’t go against God . . . which makes her unique even among this very exclusive company. Her assent to God’s will was a necessary part of God’s plan to bring redemption to the world; a fitting way for God to begin undoing the evils brought into the world through Adam and Eve’s sin.
Protestants often raise several issues with these and other Marian doctrines of the Church.
They say that we worship Mary though worship is something reserved only to God. If this were true, it would be a valid condemnation. Fortunately for us Catholics, it isn’t true at all. We adore Mary because she was chosen for special favor and responsibility by God, just the same as we adore the countless saints who have served God in the world. It’s not unlike how secular society venerates historical figures like Abraham Lincoln. The fact that we really like Abraham Lincoln, that we erect statues and monuments in his honor, that we study him and his life, and that we respect him does not mean that we worship him.
We pray to Mary just like we pray to other saints not because they should be worshiped or because we think they are gods . . . we do it because the saints are part of the communion of saints (professed by all Christians since antiquity in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds). The saints in the Church Triumphant (Heaven) can pray for us just like I can pray for you and you can pray for me. We don’t believe that the communion of believers breaks apart at death; on the contrary, that communion gets stronger as saints make it to heaven and are blessed to reside in the presence of God.
Many also criticize our focus on Mary because they think it takes something away from God—as if recognizing the greatness of certain worthy people could somehow diminish our recognition of the greatness of God. Does building a monument to Abraham Lincoln take something away from George Washington? No, of course not. Likewise, praising God’s servants in the world does not diminish our praise of God. If anything, our attention to God’s worthy servants in the world past and present—like Mary—can help point our own lives toward God. People, after all, learn best by example.
Lastly, and most troubling, we are criticized for aspects of our Marian dogmas (like the Immaculate Conception) on the basis that they ‘aren’t Scriptural.’ One of the central battle-cries of the Protestant reformation was ‘sola scriptura,’ or ‘by scripture alone.’ If it wasn’t spelled out in the the Bible, then it wasn’t thought to be a worthy part of the faith and it was rejected. This argument, however, is applied very unevenly.
While Protestantism quickly abandoned the Marian dogmas, apocryphal tales of Jesus not recorded in the four Gospel accounts (like Saint Veronica’s wiping his face with her veil on the way to his execution), and more, other ‘non-Scriptural’ doctrines remained. Almost all Protestant Christians still profess a belief in the Trinity—the mystery that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are three persons in one God—despite the doctrine being found nowhere in Holy Scripture. There are hints toward it, for sure, and it can be inferred from the Scripture, but it’s never clearly spelled out. The doctrine was defined in the Church’s early days and became a key part of our tradition. If we were to apply the doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ here consistent with how it is applied elsewhere, we would need to abandon our belief in the Trinity.
The unevenness doesn’t stop there. There are also many doctrines—most importantly the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and the necessity of receiving him in this way as his people—that actually are explicitly defined in Scripture and get rejected anyway by many ‘sola scriptura’ Christians. If you don’t believe that the Holy Eucharist is the presence of Jesus Christ—body, blood, soul, and divinity—you might want to read John 6, the four Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, etc. The whole doctrine is there, plain as day, even if we read from a ‘sola scriptura’ perspective.
Anyway, yes, the Immaculate Conception of Mary is not explicitly spelled out in Scripture . . . but we can infer it easily by the hints found throughout the New Testament, just like we can infer the mystery of the Trinity. Consider some of what we know of Mary from what is explicitly recorded in Scripture. . . .
She was a young woman, betrothed to Joseph, who was approached by the angel Gabriel. The angel’s greeting to her is traditionally rendered, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28; RSV). The angel of God refers to Mary, a woman, as being full of grace. Even Protestant translations that tend to tone-down potentially Mariological verses still call her “you who are highly favored” (NIV).
Gabriel presented her with God’s plan, that she would bear a child even though she was yet unmarried and a virgin: “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. . . . For with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:35 & 37; RSV). She had the opportunity here to accede to God’s will or reject it. She chose to submit herself entirely to God saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38; RSV).
When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, she was greeted: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:42-45; RSV). Blessed are you among women, she is called. The mother of my Lord. Blessed is she who believed. Yet again, Mary is singled out (in Scripture!) as uniquely and specially blessed.
Then Mary responds, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:46-49; RSV). Once again, all generations will call me blessed.
And all of this is just from one chapter of one Gospel account! There is much more.
Consider that Mary was Jesus’s sole human parent. Most likely, Christ’s humanity was almost completely shared with Mary’s. We can assume that Jesus’s DNA was basically identical to Mary’s, since there was no human father. She is the single direct source of Christ’s humanity (while God, of course, is the single source of his divinity). Would God permit his son to share his humanity with somebody who wasn’t spotless before him?
Never once in all Scripture did Jesus contradict his mother’s wishes, which implies that her desires were always in-tune with God’s (and, thus, without sin). At the Wedding at Cana—the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry—Mary came to her son and asked for his help because they had run out of wine. Jesus said that, “My hour has not yet come” (Luke 2:4; RSV) . . . but when his mother told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you” (Luke 2:5; RSV)—more unmitigated obedience to God—Jesus works his first recorded miracle and turns water into wine. Jesus Christ himself could not deny the pure wishes of His Immaculate mother.
So you see, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception—that Mary was set apart in a special way from everybody else in history—is, indeed, scriptural . . . at least as much as other doctrines like the Trinity that aren’t explicitly stated but rather implied by the Scripture, defined by the Church, and handed down through tradition.
If the traditions of the Church have no validity, then there is no Trinity. If we can’t trust the doctrines of the Church, then we don’t know if Jesus was God, man, both, or neither. In fact, if the traditions of the Church aren’t to be trusted, then there is no Scripture at all for ‘sola scriptura’ Christians to fall back on . . . after all, the various books and letters of the New Testament Canon were collected, translated, endorsed, and approved by authority of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) after Christianity had already been around for almost three centuries. Yes, it was the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church professed in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds that gave birth to the Scripture, not the other way around.
But if the traditions of the Church are to be trusted—and I believe they are—then we can trust the Scripture, trust the dogmas, and trust that Mary, the Mother of God (‘Theotokos’), was conceived without the stain of original sin by the grace of God. It is this grace of God that we celebrate today . . . a sign of the immense generosity and love that he bestowed on Mary, his worthy and obedient handmaid.
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc,
et in hora mortis nostrae.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.