When I was first beginning to look into Catholicism, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. The lady running the Catholic book store advised me to take one thing at a time – to take each new concept or doctrine or devotion and just sit with it. She encouraged me to just “chew on it a while” before I moved on to something else.
That was excellent advice. Many of the doctrines and practices I read about took a lot of prayer and study to grasp. One dogma I did not expect to have trouble with was the Immaculate Conception. After all, as a Protestant I fully believed that Jesus had been conceived immaculately – that is by the power of the Holy Spirit and born to a virgin. But much to my surprise, that’s not what the Immaculate Conception is. The Immaculate conception actually refers to…okay, don’t freak out…Mary’s conception. The Immaculate Conception is the belief that Mary was conceived free from original sin aaaaaaand that she remained free from sin throughout her life
This came as quite a shock to me. I mean I knew Catholics were big on Mary, but I didn’t know they thought she was sinless. It was at this point in my conversion process that I almost bolted. But I followed the bookstore lady’s advice and just sat with it for a while. And I read and read and read. Here’s what I learned
- Catholics do not believe that Mary is divine. I’d heard that Catholics worship Mary, and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception certainly seemed to confirm these rumors. But a belief in Mary’s sinlessness does not mean a belief that she is divine. In fact, she wasn’t even the first person God created sinless. Adam and Eve were also created in a state of sanctifying grace. Even though Mary’s Immaculate conception was a gift from God, she was actually just created to live in the same state that we were all created to live in before the fall of man. We tend to think of Mary as having some sort of superhuman gift, and the gift of her Immaculate Conception is no doubt incredible, but in reality, she was just created to be what all humans were meant to be.
- Mary needed a savior. In her Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55), Mary proclaims, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” So yes, Mary needed a savior. The difference between Mary and the rest of us is that God saved her before her fall. The rest of us were saved after our fall. The website Catholic Answers explains it something like this: If a man is walking through the woods falls into a pit, and I reach down and pull him out, I have saved the man from the pit. On the other hand, if a different man is walking through the woods, and I yell, “Hey! Look out for that pit.” I have also saved that man from the pit. I just saved him before he fell. God saved Mary. But he saved her before her fall.
- Mary was given this special grace because she is the Ark of the New Covenant. In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was God’s dwelling place. God came to the people of Israel in and through the Ark. When Jesus came into the world to be God With Us, He came through Mary. God prepared a special dwelling for himself when He came into the world. For a much more in depth look at this teaching go here.
- The Immaculate Conception is Biblical. When the Angel Gabriel greeted Mary as “full of grace,” he meant it. Catholic Answers explains it this way…The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning “to fill or endow with grace.” Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, Catholics hold, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.
The Immaculate Conception is indeed a challenging dogma, especially without all the facts and a full understanding of the teaching. But once I came to realize depth and beauty of the Immaculate Conception, it made perfect sense – just like all of God’s plans.
Immaculate Mary, pray for us.