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Part 10: The Bible on Mary's Immaculate Conception
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Aug 4, 2015)
The following is the tenth part of our Mary 101 series.
Our Evangelical brothers and sisters sometimes say to us:
It may be that the titles given to Mary by the early Church — New Eve, Mother of God, Ever Virgin — can be justified from Scripture. But the Bible also tells us that God's plan of salvation was to rescue the world by his grace alone, through his Son Jesus alone, and not through anyone's good works, not even those of his mother Mary!
Now, in a sense, Catholics do not really disagree with that. The Church has always taught that we need divine grace to preform good deeds and to lead us to salvation. The same holds true for Mary. She did not cooperate with God's plan of salvation for the world by some personal effort all her own; rather, she was prompted, assisted, and strengthened to surrender to God's will every step of the way by divine grace. In fact, Catholics believe that everything good in Mary's heart and everything good that she ever did was the result of God's grace working within her and through her from the first moment of her existence until the day she was enthroned at the side of her son as Queen of Heaven. This doctrine that Mary's heart was full of grace from the very beginning of her life is called the doctrine of her "Immaculate Conception."
What Does the Doctrine of the "Immaculate Conception" Really Mean?
According to the Catechism of The Catholic Church (entries 491-492):
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" through God, was redeemed from the first moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
"The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin."
The "splendor of an entirely unique holiness" by which Mary is "enriched from the first instant of her conception" comes wholly from Christ: she is "redeemed, in a more excellent fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son."
The "Immaculate Conception," therefore, means that from the first moment of her existence, Mary's soul was preserved from the effects of the fall of Adam and Eve. As a result, she was "full of grace" right from the start. This special gift was given to her on the basis of the merits of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since God exists beyond all time, and all times are present before Him, He can apply the graces of Christ's redemptive work to people living at any time in human history (see I Cor 10:4). It was on this basis that He poured out graces upon the patriarchs and prophets even before the coming of the Savior. He did so for Mary, too — but uniquely, in her case, right from the first moment of her existence.
Our Evangelical brothers and sisters often object that this Catholic doctrine implies that Mary was not redeemed from sin by Jesus Christ. In his book Know and Defend What You Love, however, Fr. Adolf Faroni shows that this is not the case at all:
"An objection to the Immaculate Conception of Mary claims that Mary cannot be immaculate, otherwise she would not have been redeemed by Jesus. This would detract from the universality of the redemption of Jesus, the only Mediator between God and men (I Tm 2:5), in whom alone there is salvation (cf. Acts 4:12). Mary herself calls God her "Savior" (Lk 1:47).
The objection shows a fundamental misconception that to be full of grace means absence of redemption. On the contrary, it implies redemption because Mary's fullness of grace is the fruit of the saving death of Christ. ... Mary has been redeemed like us, only in a more wonderful way, not by cure but by prevention. A doctor can save our life by curing sickness. But if He gives us a medicine that keeps us from getting sick, He saves us much better" (Faroni, p. 47).
That God has the power to preserve us from sin is clearly stated in the Bible. Saint Jude tells us that God has the power to preserve any baptized Christian from sin, if only we will surrender completely to his merciful love: "Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory (emphasis mine), to him the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen" (Jude 24-25).
In fact, God often gives extraordinary graces to those to whom he entrusts extraordinary responsibilities. Thus, Moses, who led was to lead the Jews out of slavery and into the Promised Land, encountered the Lord in a burning bush, and St. Paul, who was to become the great Apostle to the Gentiles, was struck blind and converted on the road to Damascus by a vision of the risen Christ. Mary was given a special grace too--the grace of an immaculate origin — in order to prepare her for her special vocation: the responsibility of being the Mother of God incarnate. As Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote:
By original sin we mean ... something negative, that is, the deprivation of that supernatural, unmerited grace which Adam and Eve had on their first formation — deprivation and the consequences of deprivation. Mary could not merit, any more than they, the restoration of that grace; but it was restored to her by God's free bounty, from the first moment of her existence, and thereby, in fact, she never came under the original curse, which consisted in the loss of it. And she had this special privilege in order to fit her to become the Mother of her and our Redeemer, to fit her ... spiritually for it. So that, by the aid of the first grace, she might grow in grace, that, when the angel came and her Lord was at hand, she might be "full of grace," prepared as far as a creature could be prepared to receive him into her bosom." (Newman, Mystical Rose, p. 13).
The Bible Says ...
The Catholic Church does not claim that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception can be proven from Scripture alone. This does not worry Catholics at all, however, because the Bible itself never says that Scripture is the only source of divinely revealed truth! Indeed, quite the opposite is the case (see, for example, II Thess 2:15 and I Tim 3:15). In order to see clearly what God has revealed to us through Christ and his apostles, therefore, we need to look with the eyes of both Scripture and Tradition, just as we see the world around us most clearly when we look through both of our physical eyes at once, rather than just one eye.
Although not explicitly taught by Scripture, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has its roots in the Bible. Several biblical passages point in this direction, and taken together, they provide us with a strong probability of its truth, even before we add to it the witness of apostolic Tradition.
Two passages in the Bible in particular contain the seeds of this wonderful doctrine. First, in Genesis 3:15, after the fall of Adam and Eve, the Lord says to the serpent who tempted them, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel."
This Old Testament passage is a prophecy of the Gospel, for the "seed" of the woman who will crush the "serpent's" head (that is, the Devil's head) can only be Jesus Christ, who is to crush Satan victoriously by His work of redemption. It follows that "the woman" prophesied in this same passage must be the Mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary (see Jn 2:4 and 19:26 where Jesus mysteriously calls her "woman"). In Genesis 3, both Jesus and Mary are said to be in a state of "enmity" against the serpent, which in the Hebrew original means "complete and radical opposition" to him. It is for this reason that it is not likely that God would have permitted Mary to inherit the condition of "original sin" from Adam and Eve. Any participation by her in the disorder and corruption of the soul that the rest of us inherit from Adam and Eve would place the Mother of Jesus at least partially under the sway of Satan and evil, and thereby contradict the complete "enmity" between Mary and Satan prophesied in Genesis 3.
The second Bible passage that points to the truth of the Immaculate Conception is Luke 1:28, the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation, "Hail, full of grace." In the original Greek of the New Testament, the phrase "full of grace" is comprised in the word kecharitomene. In this passage, "full of grace" is used as a name or title for Mary, and she is the only one addressed in this fashion in the entire Bible, so it must indicate something special and distinctive about her.
Some modern versions of the Bible translate this passage as "Hail, O favored one." But that is not an entirely accurate translation. The root word of kecharitomene is the Greek word charis, which is usually translated into English as "grace." The English word "favor" can refer merely to an external gift or honor of some kind, but God's highest "favors" are never merely external honors or gifts: an interior gracing of some kind is always involved. Thus, in this passage of Scripture Mary is said to have been "graced" in some interior, spiritual sense.
Some Bible commentators argue that by using the word kecharitomene, the angel only meant that Mary was being "graced" in the sense that at that very moment she was called to be the Mother of the Savior. However, the angel Gabriel went on to say in verse 30, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." This implies that she had already been graced in some special way in the past. It is on that basis alone — on the basis of that earlier divine gift of grace — that she had "found favor," and was now being called by God to her special vocation.
As a matter of fact, the word kecharitomene ("full of grace") that the angel used for Mary is neither in the present nor the future tense; it is a perfect passive participle. This verbal form signifies an action completed in the past, with ongoing effects in the present. In other words, the angel spoke of a gift that Mary had already received, in the past, and that was still in effect at that very moment. In short, the angel literally says to her: "Hail, graced-one."
The only other place in the entire New Testament where the same Greek verb form, charitoo, is used is in Ephesians 1:6. We know from the Greek-speaking Church Father, St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) that in that particular passage the verb charitoo means to be completely "transformed by grace," and he implies that this is the common meaning of the word. (Epistle to the Ephesians 1,1,3, in Patrologia Grecae, pp. 62, 13-14). Thus, the most accurate translation of the angel Gabriel's salutation to Mary would probably be: "Hail, transformed-by-grace-one, the Lord is with you!"
What could such a complete transformation by the grace of God consist in other than a plenitude of sanctifying grace, poured into Mary's heart from the Holy Spirit, right from the start of her personal existence? As the Catechism puts it, she was "enriched from the first instant of her conception" with "the splendor of an entirely unique holiness" (492). Saint John the Baptist was sanctified by the Holy Spirit in his mother's womb, according to Luke 1:15. Is it likely that Mary would receive a lesser grace to prepare her for her role as Mother of the Savior than John did in the preparation for his special ministry?
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.