Chapter One: Grace and Devotion to Mary
Chapter Two: Mary, Holy Objects and God
Chapter Three: Primary Teachings - Mary the Virgin
Chapter Four: Mary and Jesus
Chapter Five: Deeper Teachings -
Chapter Six: Teachings Not Yet Declared Dogmas -
Jesus and Mary
A Mediator with our Mediator
Chapter Seven: Final Thoughts and Reflections
of the Holy Spirit
of Jesus Made Present
and Church Unity
Consecration to Mary Individual and
Litany of Mary's Faith Journey
© Copyright, J. Roy MacIntyre 2009
The Immaculate Conception of Mary
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is usually misunderstood by Protestants and often confused by Catholics. Some think this refers to Mary's conception of Jesus. In fact, this refers to Mary's being conceived by her mother, Anna and father, Joakim. It states that Mary was free from original sin from the moment of her conception. Therefore, unlike all other human beings, Mary was not prone to the enticement of the world, the flesh and the Devil.
This doctrine was considered for many years by Marian thinkers. However, there was a problem with the teaching of Mary's freedom from original sin since all human beings were in need of redemption because of the sin of Adam. As St. Paul put it, "All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God (Rm 3-23)."
It was not until the beginning of the 1300's that William of Ware and notably Duns Scotus cleared the way for the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception. They pointed out that Mary, too, was redeemed by Jesus' redemptive act, by a special grace, at the moment of her conception in anticipation of that redemptive act. Therefore, Mary was free from sin while all other Christians are freed from sin, by Jesus – the sacrificial Lamb of God. Mary's being the exception to St. Paul's "all have sinned" is because she is the one among all others who was chosen to be the uncorrupted vessel of the second person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ.
A consideration of Enoch, Moses and Elijah being with God will help to clarify the idea of anticipatory redemption. Anticipatory redemption means being redeemed in anticipation of Jesus' redemptive act. This is, in fact, what the teaching of the Immaculate Conception describes about Mary. In Gn 5:24 we read that Enoch did not die but was taken up to God. Elijah also avoided death by being taken up to heaven (2Kings 2:11 or 2Sm 2:11). The case of Moses is different since he died first (Jos 1:1-2). Yet, he too, appears with Elijah when Jesus was transfigured (Mk 9:4). So, all three of these holy men must have been redeemed by Jesus in order to be in heaven or to appear with Jesus at Mount Tabor.
Traditional Catholic teaching suggests all the people of God who died prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus were not permitted into Heaven but were in a place awaiting Jesus to open the gates of Heaven. Jesus refers to such a place when He says that Lazarus resided in the bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:23). However, Gn 5:24 clearly states that Enoch, for sure, was taken up to God indicating he had already been redeemed.
Now Saint Paul points out that "we have all sinned and are deprived of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). We are all in need of redemption and only by Jesus' sacrifice of Himself do we have redemption and not by any works or goodness of our own can we be saved. Therefore, certainly, Enoch, and probably Elijah and Moses must have been redeemed by Jesus in anticipation of His coming. Similarly, Mary, the mother of the Redeemer was redeemed by Jesus because of her role as bearer of the God-man and in anticipation of His redemptive life, death and resurrection. We were in fact all predestined before the world began through Jesus Christ to be adopted children of God (Eph 1: 4-5). Mary’s role was so significant that her predestination had to take root before the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus because she was to be His immaculately conceived mother.
This teaching of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, like all the teachings about Mary, gives testimony to the dignity of Jesus as God-man who is born of her and mothered by her. Any perception of Mary, His vessel, as impure or defiled in turn damages the dignity of Jesus. On the other hand, the more we understand how pure, how holy Mary is, the more the significance of the Divine Person of Jesus is magnified in our perceptions. This will also increase the likelihood that we will give Jesus the respect that is His due.
Let us consider the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary from another point of view drawing on a teaching in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 7:17 regarding true and false prophets Jesus said, "A sound tree produces good fruit but a rotten tree bears bad fruit." Mary is the tree that produced the Fruit, which was Jesus, Himself. Her bringing forth the second person of the Trinity makes Mary first among the prophets producing the actual incarnation of the Word of God. Since, Jesus is the Fruit par excellence, Mary must be the tree beyond all others. If she had the slightest sin in her she could contaminate the Fruit she produced. However, since we know Jesus is without sin or defilement, then Mary must have been without sin as well. In this backwards projection from Jesus we can see that Mary must be sinless and her sinlessness is for the glory of God. Mary is the Sound Tree that produces the Fruit, Who is the Grace for all those who would be saved.
Let me digress for a moment. Mary's role as prophet had not ceased with her earthly end. In fact, throughout the history of the Church she has personally intervened offering prophetic direction to the faithful. This has happened with increasing frequency over the last few centuries. Today there are several approved apparitions of Mary in the world and many under investigation. In her messages, Mary is calling all the faithful to Jesus. She does so by repeating and emphasizing the Gospel call to repentance, reconciliation, prayer, faith and peace.
I should mention that although there are apparition sites that are approved by Church authorities this does not mean that the faithful are obliged to believe them. Believers are only obliged to believe the Bible and Sacred Tradition. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to at least heed the messages of these approved apparitions.
Mary's appeal to pray for and to live in peace is both a call to act and a promise for the world. We must have peace in our hearts (freedom from sin), peace in our homes (non-violence, prayer and mutual respect), and peace with our neighbours and then we will have peace in the world. The former Yugoslavia is a prime example of the failure to live at peace with our neighbours where war ensued. So, it is clear, for the time being, that Mary will continue her role as prophet to bring Jesus to the world and the world to Jesus. I believe Mary will continue to do this with greater power until we are ready for Jesus to return. Yes, I believe that Mary, in union with her Spouse, the Holy Spirit, will bring together the scattered children of God into one flock, one fold. She will then present all people of the earth to her Son, our Lord, Jesus for Him to reign over us. This will conclude her prophetic role.
Let me return again to Mary being the tree that brings forth her Divine Son and therefore the necessity of her being immaculately conceived. Mary, herself, is the exception to the backwards projection from fruit to tree, that is from her to her parents. She did not have to be carried by a sinless mother since she is only human and did not require that dignity; Jesus did since He is God. Therefore the exception is made that Mary was conceived immaculately by a special grace of God even though her parents were sinners although very holy people.
The fact that Mary's parents were sinners yet produced an immaculate child can also be explained by acknowledging the special intervention of God to prepare for Himself an undefiled house. As we read in Proverbs (9) Wisdom has built herself a house. The reason for the Immaculate Conception should, therefore, not be seen as glorifying Mary but that this glory given to her by God is to give further witness and service to the Divinity of her Son, Jesus.
It should, nevertheless be pointed out, that this singular grace given Mary, by God, is altogether superior to any grace given to any other creature. For this reason Mary referred to herself as the "Immaculate Conception" when St. Bernadette asked the Lady at Lourdes who she was. Mary's saying, "I am the Immaculate Conception" brings to mind God's naming of Himself to Moses on Sinai when He said, "I Am Who Am" (Yahweh) and Jesus telling the Pharisees, ",before Abraham was I Am." Mary's whole being is reflected in this name, Immaculate Conception. This title points out that Mary is a superior creation of God but it also shows that being a creature she is infinitely below Him.
It seems that Bernadette did not understand the meaning of this title of Mary when she was told of it in the last apparition at Lourdes. However, others knew its meaning since it was proclaimed a dogma of the universal Church four years earlier at the first Vatican Ecumenical Council (1854 AD). It would seem that Heaven was giving affirmation to the teaching of the Immaculate Conception through the miraculous happenings at the garbage dump that would become the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. The ceaseless flow of graces coming to the people of God at the shrine of Our Lady in Lourdes continue to give testimony to this unfathomable teaching about Mary’s conception.
Many authors, notably Maximillian Kolbe, have written on the scope and depth of Mary's being the Immaculate Conception. This characteristic grace of Mary's sets her apart from all other creatures. The greatness, the power, the specialness of Mary that is reflected in this title represents an almost limitless source of grace for the people of God. It is as if in this way of being Mary encompasses the whole Church, the immaculate bride of Christ.
Nevertheless, when we have used all our abilities to contemplate the extent of Mary's greatness we can look beyond her to see God, Who is infinitely greater, infinitely more powerful, infinitely more special than her, His choicest creature. The reason the saints have said, "of Mary there can never be knowledge enough", or even "of Mary there is never enough", is because God is always infinitely beyond her. In this way she can magnify the Lord for us all. This is also why for the truly devout, for the truly humble, there is never a time in this life on Earth when they outgrow their need for Mary. She always magnifies the Lord for them. I wish to point out that the benefit of devotion to Mary is often missed by the learned and the wise because God has chosen to reveal it to the lowly and the poor in spirit. This is what it pleased Him to do.
The one scripture that indicates Mary was immaculately conceived occurs when the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Hail full of grace in Luke” 1:28. The Greek word used as noted above, kekaritomene speaks of grace and favour that was completed some time in the distant past. So a good English translation might run, “Hail, you who have been highly graced (or favoured).” Since, this is something that has been completed in the distant past it can be seen to refer to Mary having been immaculately conceived. With a human being you can’t get more distant in the past than her conception.
One last point concerning the contemplation of Mary's sublime sinlessness is that it helps us to recognize our own sinfulness before God. Those who are truly devoted to Mary's immaculate purity will naturally grow in their sensitivity to the evil of sin and in their desire to repent of any sin in their lives. In this way devotion to Mary inspires us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48) and thereby prepares us for our true home in Heaven.
Let me conclude this section by noting the Immaculate Conception of Mary can be seen by projecting backwards in time from Jesus who is the Fruit and Mary the tree. We can see Mary's almost limitless greatness, being the mother of the God-man, and in seeing Mary's greatness, it is as if we stand on a mountain, the highest among the mountains, to view the infinitely superior greatness of the Most Holy Trinity.