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Part 11: Mary Immaculate and the Ancient Fathers of the Church
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Aug 20, 2015)
The following is the eleventh part of our Mary 101 series.
As we discussed earlier in this course (in part three), many of the early Fathers of the Church taught that Mary is the Second Eve. Just as Jesus is called by St. Paul the New Adam, the Head of redeemed humanity, so the Blessed Virgin Mary must be the New Eve. There was no disagreement among the Fathers on this point. As Eve, the Mother of all the living, had ushered in the age of sin by succumbing to the temptation of the fallen angel (the serpent), so Mary, the Mother of all the redeemed, reversed Eve's sin by her obedience to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, and thereby ushered in the dawn of our salvation.
We should notice what this doctrine of the ancient Fathers of the Church implies. Eve began her life and vocation as "Mother of all living" (Gen 3:20) in a state of innocence and grace, without any wound or corruption in her soul of original sin. Can we imagine that the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose vocation was to be the Mother of the Redeemer and of all the redeemed, received a lesser degree of grace in preparation for her singular vocation? As Bl. John Henry Newman once wrote:
I ask, was not Mary as fully endowed [with grace] as Eve? Is it any violent inference that she, who was to cooperate in the redemption of the world, at least was not less endowed with power from on high than she who, given as helpmate to her husband, did in the event but cooperate with him for its ruin? If Eve was raised above human nature by that indwelling moral gift we call grace, is it rash to say that Mary had a greater grace? And this consideration gives significance to the angel's salutation to her as "full of grace" — an interpretation of the original word which is undoubtedly the right one as soon as we resist the common Protestant assumption that grace is mere external approbation and acceptance, answering to the word "favor," whereas it is, as the Father's teach, a real inward condition or super-added quality of soul. And if Eve had this supernatural inward gift given her from the first moment of her personal existence, is it possible to deny too that Mary had this gift from the very first moment of her personal existence? I do not know how to resist this inference — well, this is simply and literally the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I say the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is in substance this, and nothing more or less than this ... and it really does seem to me to be bound up in that doctrine of the Fathers, that Mary is the Second Eve. (Newman, Mystical Rose, pp. 10-11)
Saint Ephrem the Syrian, writing in the fourth century (ca 350 A.D.), summed up this great mystery for us:
These two innocent ... women, Mary and Eve, had been [created] utterly equal, but afterwards one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life. ...You [Jesus] and your Mother are the only ones who are immune from all stain; for there is no spot in You, O Lord, nor any taint in Your Mother. (Cited in Miravalle, Introduction to Mary, p. 67)
From the earliest centuries, the Eastern liturgies hailed the Blessed Virgin as Panagia (all-holy one), Achranatos (the one without even the slightest stain), and Hypereulogoumene (the one blessed beyond all others). How could Mary be called all-holy, without any stain if, from the first moment of her existence, her soul lacked a complete outpouring of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace, and she thereby carried within her soul that disorder, corruption, and inclination to sin that is passed down to all of the rest of us from Adam and Eve?
Scholars of the early Church have discovered the text of a fourth century homily, On the Annunciation to the Mother of God and Against the Impious Arius, attributed to a monk and disciple of St. Basil of Caesarea around the year 370 A.D. This document contains a most remarkable testimony to early Christian belief in the unique holiness of Mary:
And so the angel arrived at the Virgin Mary's home, and having entered said to her: Rejoice, full of grace! He greeted her, his fellow servant, as if she were a great lady...you who have been made worthy to provide a dwelling for such a lord...you have become the most pure workshop of the divine economy; you have appeared as the worthy chariot for our king's entrance into life; you have been proclaimed the treasure, the spiritual pearl. Blessed are you among women....
Do not fear, Mary, for you have found favor with God. You have been made the most beautiful part of creation, more luminous than the heavens, more resplendent than the sun, higher than the angels. You were not lifted up into heaven, and yet, remaining on earth, you have drawn down into yourself the heavenly Lord and King of all. (Cited in Staples, Behold your Mother, pp. 64-65)
Implicit in the teachings of the early Fathers and early Liturgies of the Church, therefore, is the doctrine of Mary's fullness of grace, as the New Eve, right from the start of her personal existence: in other words, her Immaculate Conception.
Oddly enough, the doctrine of Mary's unique grace and holiness from the moment of conception even has roots in early Protestant tradition! The great reformer Martin Luther, for example, had this to say about our Lady's original grace in his Personal Prayer Book of 1522:
[Mary] is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin... God's grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil... God is with her, meaning all she did or left undone is divine and the action of God in her. Moreover, God protected her from all that might be hurtful to her.
While the Protestant reformers of the 16th century were quick to abandon some Catholic doctrines, such as the authority of the pope and the sacrifice of the Mass, it is interesting that they clung to the Catholic tradition about Mary a lot longer before finally letting go of it altogether. In our next installment of this course, we will see why. ...
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.