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Part 12: The Immaculate Conception Proclaims Divine Mercy
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 4, 2015)
The following is the twelfth part of our Mary 101 series.
Some Protestant Evangelicals object to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception on the grounds that Scripture teaches, in several places, the universal "falleness" of humanity. The Bible says, "There is no one righteous, no not one" (Ps 14:1-3; 53); "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23); and "through one man's offence, judgment came to all men" (Rom 5:18).
However, the Bible often uses broad language, even hyperbole, in order to make a point. For example, when the Bible says "all have sinned" or "all we like sheep have gone astray," it obviously does not intend to include children, who have never committed any personal sins (and if they die before attaining the age of reason, never will). Again, when the Bible says "as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (I Cor 15:22) it evidently does not mean to tell us that the whole human race will be saved through Christ. Clearly, some souls will be eternally lost. The passages in Scripture that speak of the universal sinfulness of the human race, therefore, may be said to refer to the mass of mankind in general, without excluding special cases such as the Blessed Virgin Mary (preserved from the wound of original sin) and little children (not yet guilty of actual sin).
Perhaps a more serious objection is that Mary seems to proclaim herself a sinner when she brings the Christ Child to the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Jewish Law, she offered for her son, with St. Joseph "a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons" — a sacrifice that the Old Testament tells us was a sacrifice for sin, a "sin-offering"( Lk 2:22-24; cf. Lev 12:7-8). If Mary offered a sin-offering in the Temple, doesn't that mean that she knew herself to be a sinner?
Here we have to be careful to put ourselves in the mind-set of the ancient world. The dividing line between sin as a breaking of God's moral commandments, and a simple falling short of ritual purity was never entirely clarified in the Old Testament Law. Thus, the reason why a woman had to offer a sacrifice for sin in the Temple after child-birth, according to Leviticus 12:7, was because she was considered "unclean" due to "the flow of blood" involved in giving birth, not because of any personal sin she had committed. Moreover, the fact that Mary willingly offered this sacrifice no more implies that she is a sinner (or even that she had a flow of blood during the miraculous birth of her son!) than the fact that Jesus accepted baptism for repentance at the hands of St. John the Baptist necessarily implied that He believed himself to be a sinner. The baptism was simply part of His identification with his people Israel in their longing for a fresh start in their relationship with God. As Jesus said, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3:15). In a similar way, it must be that Mary wanted to identify with the heightened longings of her people for the coming of the Messiah at the birth of every male child, and so she offered for herself and her son a sacrifice, though they did not need to be redeemed.
This brings us to one final point here: the sacrifice, according to the Law, was for the purification of both the mother and the child, not the mother alone. That is why Luke 2:22 starts off this story with the words, "When the time came for their purification." As Tim Staples has pointed out: "If one is going to argue that Mary had sin because she had to go through this "purification" rite of Leviticus 12, then Jesus had sin as well. The sacrifice being offered, according to the text, was for both of them. (Behold Your Mother, p.120)
The Doctrine Proclaims Divine Mercy
Following in the footsteps of St. Paul, Protestant Evangelicals traditionally have sought to show how every mystery of the faith expresses the saving mercy of God. "To know Christ is to know His benefits," the early Lutheran theologians liked to say. In other words, speculative theology is of little value if its conclusions fail to glorify God's free grace and mercy. And yet, properly understood, that is precisely what Mary's Immaculate Conception magnifies most of all!
After all, what is Divine Mercy? It is God's undeserved, unmerited, often even unsought for divine grace — the grace that our compassionate God pours out upon us to help us overcome our miseries and meet our true needs.
Theologians call one form of that mercy God's "prevenient" grace, from the Latin prae-venire, which means to "come before." In other words, even before we ask for it, and quite apart from the fact that we do not deserve it and have not earned it in the least, God graciously takes the initiative and comes to our aid. Prevenient grace is this completely free gift of God's Mercy. We see a faint reflection of it in a parent's love for a child. A child is loved by its parents not because the child has earned it, or even asked for it in any way. Rather, the parent's love comes right from the start, a completely free gift, just because the child is the parent's own child. That is human mercy, "par excellence," and it is a mirror image of the divine.
When you think about it, that is exactly what is on display in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Immaculate Conception is really the supreme manifestation of God's prevenient, unmerited mercy. After all, Mary did not "merit" her Immaculate Conception. Nor could she ask for it. It was something done in her and for her by the Father of Mercy, and solely on the basis of the foreseen merits of his Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Saint John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy, section 9): "Mary is the one who experienced mercy in an exceptional way — as no one else." Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, once explained the matter this way:
The mystery of the Immaculate Conception ... is the expression of the first act of the heavenly Father's mercy in Mary's regard — an act of absolute gratuity. This is why we can see in it the Father's mercy in its pure state. The first act is the Father's prevenient mercy for this very tiny child that is to be born.
In fact, we can go further and say that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was the great divine act of grace that lay at the foundation of God's whole work of salvation through Christ. The Father of Mercy took the initiative with sinful mankind, fashioning Mary's soul from the moment of conception, preserving it from the effects of original sin, making her soul the very masterpiece of his mercy, and it was this unique and extraordinary foundation of grace in Mary's soul that enabled her, years later, to respond to the angel Gabriel's message with total, trustful surrender: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to Thy word."
By God's prevenient grace, therefore, she was made the masterpiece of the Father's mercy. And in the fullness of time, this special grace enabled her to receive our Savior into the world. In short, the whole world's salvation began with a foundational act of unmerited, unprompted, freely given Divine Mercy. That act of mercy was Mary's Immaculate Conception.
For this reason, it is hardly surprising that God chose the American branch of the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception to be the principal agents in the worldwide spread of the great message and devotion to the Divine Mercy that springs from the life and witness of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938). Her own religious congregation, the Sisters of our Lady of Mercy, was trapped behind the "Iron Curtain" in Poland during the era of Communist rule of eastern Europe, and therefore could not spread the message and devotion themselves.
A Gift For All
In his book, Mary's Journey, Fr. Louis Cameli explains how the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception tells us something about our own Christian journey:
We can speak of a combined celebration taking place on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. We celebrate who Mary is through a unique gift of God, and who we are by reason of a similar gift ...
We are saved or redeemed from original sin when we are baptized and make our profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Mary was saved or redeemed by being preserved from original sin from the first moment of her conception....The way God moved in Mary's life from the very moment of her conception is similar to the way he moves in our lives. The Church's journey of faith with Mary brings us to a deeper understanding of the way God works in our lives. (Louis Cameli, Mary's Journey. Notre Dame: Christian Classics, 2003, pp. 98 and 132)
Father Cameli is reminding us here that if we were baptized as infants, then we experienced God's "prevenient grace" in way that is somewhat similar to Mary's original grace at the moment of her conception. In each case, God reaches out and touches our lives without any prior merit or deserving or effort on our part.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, however, also tells us something about Mary that is unique to her. On the great Feast Day of Dec. 8 each year, Catholics celebrate the fact that by her Immaculate Conception, Mary was prepared for her special vocation as the Mother of our Savior. Her Immaculate Conception is, thereby, a sign of God's free grace, making her the true dawn of salvation for the world, and the cause of our joy. All of us are called to "honor your mother and father," according to the Ten Commandments. The divine Son of God honored his earthly mother in a special way by pouring his grace into her heart from the first moment of her life.
As disciples of Jesus, called to follow him in everything, let us also honor his Mother by celebrating God's special gift to her, Mary's "original grace." After all, it was given to her not just for herself, but for the good of the whole world, for with the aid of this grace Mary welcomed the Christ Child into the world for the salvation of us all!
Father, You prepared the Virgin Mary to be the worthy Mother of Your Son. You made it possible for her to share beforehand in the salvation Your Son Jesus Christ would bring by His death, and kept her without sin from the first moment of her conception. Give us the grace by her prayers to live in Your presence without sin. We ask this through the same Christ our Lord. Amen. (Fr. Lawrence Lovasik, S.V.D.)
Questions for Discussion for Parts 10, 11, and 12
1. Why did God give to Mary the special grace of the Immaculate Conception?
2. What is the connection between the teaching of the early Christians that Mary is the New Eve, and the doctrine that Mary began her earthly life "full of grace"?
3. Mary's "original grace" was a free gift given to her right from the start of her life. What are some of the free and unmerited gifts that God has given you, from your childhood until the present?
Suggestions for Further Reading
• Catechism of the Catholic Church, entries 487-493.
• The opening section of Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC's book Under the Mantle, entitled "The Woman of Our Dreams" pp. 15-21, in which he discusses the plenitude of gifts and graces that the Blessed Trinity poured out upon Mary.
Follow the entire Mary 101 series.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.