The “yes” that Mary gave as representative of the whole human race was the necessary condition for her overshadowing by the Holy Spirit. But such an unqualified “yes” can be spoken only out of the utmost purity of soul. Hence the Immaculate Conception was the ultimate prerequisite for the Incarnation.
~ Hans Urs Von Balthasar~
This Monday we celebrate the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. As if Catholics weren’t already strange enough, Pope Pius IX came out in 1854 (yes, 1854) and formally defined as a matter of Catholic faith, that Mary was conceived without original sin, nor would she have any sin throughout her life. This is the point at which my non-Catholic friends (Christians) politely excuse themselves from the conversation and go in search of people who haven’t embraced insanity.
How can the Church justify saying that Mary was free from all sin? Doesn’t St. Paul say that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)? So many of us view the church’s life and teachings through secular or protestant lenses (which is natural to do since we live in a protestant and rapidly secularizing culture), where we have bought into basic assumptions about life and indeed of Christianity. Marian teachings often appear to us as competing with the supremacy of Christ or as being odd “extras” added onto the faith like the refried beans on your chile relleno plate.
The Immaculate Conception however is none of these things; rather the Church’s Marian dogmas and spirituality open us up to the mystery of Christian life and salvation. The fathers of the Church compared Mary to the burning bush of the Exodus where Moses first encountered God; they understood that God is an all-consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), and that only those free from sin could endure the encounter (cf. 1 Cor. 3:15, Isaiah 33:14, Habakkuk 1:13 etc.). The Fathers marveled to see that Mary, like the burning bush, contained within her very body the all-holy God, and yet was not consumed. In the old testament, the dwelling place of God (the temple) was carefully guarded from all impurities and anything unclean, The Holy of Holies (where God’s presence resided) was covered inside and out with pure gold. The New Testament however far exceeds the splendor of the Old Testament, it is a greater reality, not a lesser (cf. 2 Cor. 3:7-11). God’s presence in the Old Covenant was real, but only a shadow of the fullness he would give us in the incarnation (Hebrews 1:1-2, John 1:14). If the dwelling of God in the Old Covenant was so important, how much more the new temple, the place where God would reside not in a cloud but in flesh, this place was indeed the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All the trappings and ornamentation of the Temple were symbolic of a deeper reality – the beauty of holiness and God’s presence. Mary is the new temple, the new Ark of the Covenant, the place where God chose to “dwell among us”, and hence, had to be pure and free from all corruption of sin in order to bear within her womb the Eternal God.
There is (of course) more. The Greek word by which Gabriel greets Mary in Luke 1:28 is very important here, but let us conclude with something which should inspire hope for all of us. Mary is the perfect image of the Church!! She is the one who says fiat!! Who gives her deep and faith-filled consent to God, and because of this Christ is born within her, and the same pertains to us (Galatians 4:19). The deeper we give our “yes” to God, the deeper that Jesus is formed within us. Mary is a Christian, and her life was filled with hardship and suffering (Luke 2:34-35), despite her freedom from sin, the path of discipleship was not easier for her than it is for us. Mary is the perfect disciple, the one who goes all the way to the cross when everyone but John and a few other women abandon the Lord. She is the one who contemplates the word of God in the depths of her heart (Luke 2:19, 2:51). Finally, the mystery of the Immaculate Conception is one which foreshadows the hope that belongs to each of us: “that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:27). Mary’s liberation from all sin (which is not her own doing) is the hope which God gives to his church, it is the destiny of all those who love Him, and are obedient to His commandments. God doesn’t just want to “save” us – he wants us to be holy and without blemish, in other words, immaculate. Brothers and sisters, this is our hope, this is the great joy to which God has called each of us. Holy Mary, Mother of God – pray for us!!