[This painting by Flemish artist Jean Bellegambe (1480 -1535 ) shows St Anne pregnant with Mary.]
There seems to be a lot of confusion over the descriptive title “The Immaculate Conception.” The first misconception is that Jesus is the one conceived immaculately. Well, I suppose He was sort of. But as He was conceived via the Holy Spirit with two sinless natures (human and Divine) and having no sin in His person, it’s not the obvious place to put the title.
It is Mary who carries the title The Immaculate Conception. For some this suggests that she too was conceived in some miraculous fashion. As far as I can tell there is no early tradition of this. Her parents SS Anne and Joachim had a normal marriage and loved each other.
I tend to be suspicious of those who try to say Mary was conceived miraculously, as there has been more than one heresy especially among the gnostic groups, that made marriage and sexual relations within marriage sinful.
So, as far as we know Anne and Joachim conceived Mary in the usual way. It is therefore, not the manner of her conception that makes her immaculate – it is what God did for her at the time.
[As a side note; Mary's marriage to Joseph was not of the usual kind as she had made a Temple vow to virginity. I don't want to explain all that now, but her perpetual virginity is based partly in that vow].
Thanks to the Fall, Mankind has lost the fullness of Grace and what we don’t have, we can’t give. Therefore our children are conceived with the missing Grace – the stain of Original Sin. As the Psalmist says, “Behold I was conceived in sin, in sin my mother conceived me.”
Thankfully we now have Baptism to undo most of that damage, leaving only the scar of concupiscence.
Mary receiced the fullness of Grace as a gift from God at her conception. She was therefore immaculately conceived. She still had free will though, so the fact she remained without sin is her choice aided by all that Grace.
But why did God do this? Did Jesus need His mother to be pure?
The best answer I have heard on this was from Jimmy Akin (unsurprisingly) who said while it might not have been necessary, it is fitting. He and others also piont out that God has a special love for the woman He chose to be His mother and therefore specially gifted her with Grace. I like that.
The other part of the answer to “why?” lies in her role as the new Ark of the Covenant. You may remember that the old Ark was built with a gold interior and in it was placed the Law (Word of God) the Manna(bread from heaven) and the rod of Moses (prophet and priest). Then when Israel’s sin meant the Assyrians got the upper hand Jeremiah hid the ark and it was apparently never seen again; unless it is true that the Ethiopian Copts have it.
Mary is described as the Ark by John (Rev 12 if I remember rightly) where he turns to see the Ark and describes a woman shining like the sun and giving birth to a Son that the dragon wants to destroy but can’t. She is the pure golden Ark in which the Bread of Life-Word of God-prophet/priest/king became incarnate.
So it is fitting that God saved her and made her full of Grace.
The next question I have heard asked is how can she have been saved before the Incarnation and saving acts of Christ?
The answer is God isn’t bound by time. He can pour out His Grace where ever He wills and so He did, and Mary knew this when she samg the Magnificat; “My soul rejoices in God my saviour…”
When did the Church start believing Mary was without sin?
Luke starts us off telling us that Gabriel declared her “full of Grace,” which apparently is the closest translation from the Greek. The early Church Fathers recognised her as Immaculate, understanding that as Jesus is the Second Adam so Mary is the second Eve.
Some of the understanding of the nature of Original Sin got confused by the height of the Middle Ages and even St Thomas Aquinas wrote against the Immaculate Conception. It seems that at the time Original Sin was seen as an addition, rather than a losing of the fullnbess of Grace. There was also a sense – not a full heresy apparently, but something off – about sexual relations in marriage being sinful but forgiven.
It was the lowlands Scot Johns Duns Scotus who turned the tide back to the Fathers and pointing out that it was appropriate and therefore God did it.
The Church began to speak more plainly of Mary being without sin both original and personal and at the Council of Trent the idea of Mary having Original Sin was condemned.
So it continued unti 1854 when Pius IX finally declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. In 1858 Our Lady appeared to the 14 year old peasant girl Bernadette in Lourdes and confirmed that she was indeed The Immaculate Conception.
I know there are people who have difficulty with this doctrine; but to me it all seems reasonable. While I have heard people ask questions about it, I haven’t heard any refutation- other than some people trying to rehash Thomas Aquinas. Listening to those who do this leaves me questioning whether they had actually read a word he wrote. I have more problems with the fact that baptism doesn’t remove concupisence. But that’s another story.