Today, December 8, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. To those of us who are Roman Catholic, this is a high point of Advent, as we are reminded that Mary, the humble servant of God and first “living temple” of our Lord Jesus Christ, was conceived sinlessly.
Ah, you say…that is proof that Catholicism is false!!! The smoking gun indeed. Romans 3:23 teaches clearly that “all have sinned.” To which we say, yes it does. As the theology of Mary developed over the centuries, this issue was bantered about numerous times. We know that Mary, a created human being like all of us, needed a Savior, and in fact calls God her “Savior” during her famous Magnificat in Luke 1:46-56. How or in what way does this seeming contradiction fit together then?
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 491, we are told, quoting from the solemn dogma of Pope Pius IX of 1854 (although the Church had more or less officially taught this for centuries by this time) the following words: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first 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.”
Mary’s salvation then was in the form of preservation from sin, but still accomplished by what Jesus her Son and Savior would one day accomplish on the Cross. She was saved by Him as we are. Without going deeply into the theology here, suffice it to say that, even in the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was built with painstakingly care, covered with ornate gold and designed with other costly materials and literally was the best that humans could make. Why? Because it signified and in a very real sense “carried” the presence of God. Yet Hebrews 9: 1-14 clearly teaches us that even this Ark was only a sign, a foreshadowing of the future presence of Jesus physically on this earth, and of His life, death, and resurrection.
Mary however, as the “New Ark of the Covenant,” carried within her womb the actual second person of the Trinity, clothed in human flesh, for 9 full months, and his earthly flesh was literally formed from her own body! If simply touching the Ark indiscriminately could cause death under the Old Law, and it did in some cases do so, then Mary indeed needed to be an absolutely pure vessel to carry our Lord as she did. We believe that God accomplished this purification within her at the moment of her conception. Hence we celebrate and honor (not worship!) this amazing woman of God, the very first Christian, the one called “full of grace” by the angel Gabriel (see Luke 1: 28), and the Theotokos (Greek for “God bearer“). To think that God could or did singularly preserve her from sin rather than saving her from it later is not such a leap when thought of in this way.
Jumping back to Romans 3:23 for just a moment, most Christians of all persuasions believe that children dying before the age of accountability go to heaven, as well as those with severe learning disabilities such that they cannot discern right from wrong. Catholics agree. Although not mysteriously preserved from the sin nature as Mary was, these have passed into eternity without ever having committed what we would call “actual sin,” that is they do not ever consciously disobey God by personal choice. We also believe that Adam and Eve were not created as sinners–they only became so after tasting of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, so they too were in a very real sense “immaculately formed” (in their case not conceived) and at least for a time were perfect in the sight of God. Even Romans 3:23 thus has a context.
Taylor Marshall has written a wonderful article on his “Canterbury Tales” page about this topic, and I would strongly suggest starting there for more information on this topic. The link is:
Even if you do not fully accept this teaching, you will at very least learn why we who are Roman and Eastern Catholic believe in it. And why, this day, we honor Jesus’ Mother and ours, Mary the Mother of God.
O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
- Story of the Miraculous Medal (catholichomeeducationnetwork.wordpress.com)