Conception Misconception

Ahhh, Christmas is approaching!  I guess with Christmas coming up, engaging in Christian conversations is not all out of the ordinary considering that ultimately…Christmas is about Christ, right?  Particularly, His birth!

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Bartolomé Murillo, Fine Art America
I think it’s fairly common to hear that Jesus was “immaculately conceived,” and we all nod our heads in agreement.  I hear it every now and then through second-hand conversations, the radio, and wherever.  But what does this even mean?  Yet, the terms get thrown around as if asserting something that is commonly understood.  Can I even explain what it is?
You see, if you were to ask me what Jesus being immaculately conceived is…I’d probably say that it would refer to Jesus being born without a biological father.  And I’d leave it at that.  And oh yeah, I can throw in that Jesus is sinless so there’s something truly exceptional and …immaculate about that.
And how wrong I would be… x_x   Truly, I totes used to think that the Immaculate Conception referred to Jesus’ conception without a bio dad.

The cool thing about diving deeper into my Catholic faith is learning vocab, doctrines, dogmas, and sometimes finding out that my initial notion of something the Catholic Church teaches is way off the mark.
You see…the Immaculate Conception doesn’t refer to Jesus–it actually refers to Mary, His Mom.

I had one of those “whoa, mind blown” moments when I learned what the Immaculate Conception really is
So, what is the Immaculate Conception?
The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception brought about through the normal marital union between her parents, Anne and Joachim.  What makes Mary’s conception immaculate is that she was conceived without the stain of original sin, which is something that all of us humans are born into thanks to the Fall of our First Parents, Adam and Eve.  The word “immaculate” means free from stain or flaw.  So why is original sin an important consideration?  Because, as we know, original sin deprives us from God’s sanctifying grace leaving us with a corrupt nature, and hence our need to wash that away through Baptism so we can remove the stain of original sin.
But Mary was preserved from that stain.  We see an indication of that with the angel Gabriel in Luke 1: 28 (RSV), “And he came to her and said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!’ ”  Different English translations will render “full of grace” to “highly favoured” or similar wording.  But to really get to what St. Luke is talking about, you must consider his original writing in Greek.  He uses kecharitomene which “is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning ‘to fill or endow with grace.’ ”  This suggests that Mary was filled with grace in the past but her being filled with grace continues in the present.  Pretty cool.  How often do I consider Greek tenses when reading Scripture? #ItsAllGreekToMe

If you’re filled with God’s grace, there’s no room for sin!

But wait! Mary Needs A Savior!
Now that’s all fine and dandy about what exactly the Immaculate Conception is, but how does that reconcile with what Mary said during her song of praise when she was visiting her cousin Elizabeth after she found out she would bear God’s Son?  She says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46-47 RSV, emphasis mine), thus indicating that she needed to be saved.

Now, only sinners need saviors, right?

And you know what?  Mary was, indeed, saved!  She was saved from the effects of original sin preventatively, whereas us normal people have to be saved curatively.  In other words, it’s like God grabbed Mary before she fell into a deep pit, whereas someone else does fall into the pit and God has to lend a helping hand (ie. the rest of us).  And the nice thing for Mary is that she didn’t get her garments dirty from the mud!

If you think about it…and consider Sacred Scripture…we see confession of sins and repentance and having faith.  These are ways to get clean and receive God’s grace for salvation.  And God do what He do!  As powerful as we assert that He is and as powerful as He has revealed Himself to be…it’s not surprising that He would preventatively save the one who would bear His only begotten Son, who also saves her.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

492 The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched fromt he first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son” (Lumen Gentium 53, 56).  The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love” (cf Eph 1:3-4).

Hey, but “all have sinned” so Mary can’t be immaculate (Romans 3:23)
So, according to St. Paul and considering the rest of the passage (Romans 3:21-31), all have sinned and their righteousness can only be justified through Jesus Christ with faith.  Putting this against what we know from Luke 1, it would seem contradictory that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” yet here Mary is without sin.

Is it possible that all have sinned?  What about kids below the age of reason, say, a 1-year old?  Have they sinned?  Sinning requires the ability to reason and intent to sin, which the 1-year old would have neither.  How about a little later in Romans when St. Paul talked about Jacob and Esau, “…though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad…” (Romans 9:6-13 RSV).  Does “all have sinned” fit with them, when they’re babies?  It’s not til they grow up when Jacob cunningly convinces Esau to sell his inheritance to him (Genesis 25:19-34).

So what about Jesus?  Did He sin?  Gosh, I hope not because that would complicate things as a Christian.  x_x  Anyway, so we know that there can be exceptions to “all have sinned.”

Perhaps St. Paul was exaggerating because his life is Hebrew and exaggeration is a literary form of emphasis for them.  He likes using “all” when in reality, whatever he’s talking about isn’t really applicable to “all” (see Romans 11:26, Romans 15:14, 1 Corinthians 15:22 for a few examples).

Is it reasonable to think that Mary was immaculately conceived?
Yes, yes it is.  Think about it.  God becomes the Word made flesh by sending his only begotten Son, born of the Virgin Mary!  Kind of a big deal.  Consider the Ark of the Covenant back in Exodus 25.  It contained the Ten Commandments, or the Law (Deuteronomy 10:2).  We know that Jesus is fulfillment of that law (Matthew 5:17).  So in a way, Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant because she had within her womb the Law.  In fact, that’s one of her titles! 🙂

My family lacks one of these, but I know people who keep their nice dinnerware in a china cabinet.  You keep your precious dinnerware in a china cabinet so that they are kept safe and clean.  But you wouldn’t want to place your dinnerware in a dilapidated or dirty cabinet because that would mess up the dinnerware.  Yeah, at my house we use a simple, stock kitchen cabinet but dust collects in there a little bit.  In a way, Mary is like a china cabinet for Jesus.  She’s pristine so that Jesus is “without stain or blemish” Himself while chillin’ in Mary’s womb, and He would have to be squeaky clean because He’s God (again, it would be problematic if Jesus was sinful).

The other day I read an interesting blog post regarding an article that reports how scientific research has shown how fetal cells can be restorative for the mother during pregnancy.  Regardless of the scientific validity of the information, it did made me think about how mother and child are mutually connected.  Through the umbilical cord, the exchange of blood occurs.  How cool is that to think (a little more reflectively) how Mary had to share her human blood, her body with the God of the Universe within her womb!  She needs to be immaculate because otherwise she would have transferred her tainted self to Jesus, and again, that would be problematic.

From WebMD

Lastly, another Catechism of the Catholic Church reference:

491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the 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 moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. (Pope Pius IX Ineffabillis Deus)

This understanding has been with the Church through her history and her understanding grows clearer.  My understanding of the Church’s understanding of the Immaculate Conception has been with me for just over a year now.  And writing this blog post allowed me to look at it more closely and hopefully clear up the misconception (even my own) that the Immaculate Conception isn’t about Jesus’ lack of a bio father.

So there you have it–Mary is the Immaculate Conception.  Not Jesus (we call His conception the Incarnation).  But!!!! Don’t get me wrong, she was immaculately conceived not for her sake, but for her Son.  And that’s the cool thing about Mary–everything about her ultimately points towards Jesus.  

The Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8.

Ave Maria, gratia plena
– JD

“We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honor to the Lord; for from Him we know that abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.” – St. Augustine