Immaculate Conception

mary cushing serpentToday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception: Jesus worked beforehand to prepare his mother, so that when she was conceived in her mother’s womb, she would be preserved from all stain of original sin. It is truly a feast of grace.

So that we can fully appreciate it, we should clear up some confusions.


First, it was not necessary. God did not have to do this. Certainly it is not the case that God was unable to take flesh from a sinful mother. He could have done it otherwise.

We believe it, not because we think it was necessary, but because we think God has told us he did it. There are two key Biblical passages in which the Church has always considered the sinlessness of Mary. First, the “proto-evangelium,” the first announcement of the Gospel, to Adam and Eve, as part of the curse of the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” God tells the serpent, “between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15)

The central battle is between Jesus and the Devil: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Jesus comes out way ahead, with only a bruised heel!) But just as Eve had a role in the Fall, so too does “the woman” have a role in the victory of Jesus. There is a perpetual battle between the woman and the serpent, and the ultimate Victor is described as the woman’s seed, so that she somehow participates in that victory. For this reason, the Fathers of the Church, from the earliest time, delighted in exploring parallels between Mary and Eve. Note that the Immaculate Conception asserts nothing else than that Mary is in Eve’s place: before Original Sin.

The other key Scriptural passage is the name Gabriel gives to Mary: kecharitomene, “full of grace,” or more literally “she who has been completely transformed by grace.” This actually says a good deal more than just freedom from Original Sin. But as the Church has meditated on this strange title, we have considered all that it means to be completely transformed by the grace of Christ. It means victory in all directions, including over original sin. Indeed, in one sense that is the ultimate victory of grace: to make one completely free from original sin. It is the victory to which we look forward, but which is anticipated in Mary.

We believe in the Immaculate Conception not because it is necessary, but because the Bible reveals it, upon the careful reflection of the ages of saints.


But even if it is not necessary, it is very good. It makes sense. It makes sense because it allows Jesus to enter fully into human life, to be even “subordinate” or “obedient” to his parents (Luke 2:51).

Childhood is a fundamental part of human life; obedience to parents merits one of the Ten Commandments. The holiness of Mary allows Jesus to enter fully into that. (Incidentally, the Assumption of Mary is also part of the reverence Jesus shows his mother, his fulfillment of the Fourth Commandment.) The holiness of Mary is a sanctification of family life.

In the other direction, it allows Mary to attend fully to the Cross. Peter ran away, but Mary entered fully in. Her compassion for Jesus, the perfect compassion of a sinless mother, is the beachhead of salvation, the exemplar of how we relate to Jesus. Mary becomes the perfect model of how we should act – and, even deeper, the perfect model of what Jesus does for us. He gives us the freedom to love him.


Finally, the Immaculate Conception does not give Mary a different nature from ours. Original Sin is not our nature, not what we most fundamentally are. It is a bondage, a slavery, that prevents us from fulfilling what we are.

The wedding feast at Cana is beautiful in more ways than we imagine. One that we sometimes miss is the perfect humanity of Mary. What the Immaculate Conception allows her to do is to think of other people: to attend a wedding, enjoy the wine, and be solicitous for the good of the young couple. Again, Mary role models Christianity – including in her complete reliance on the power of Jesus.

Original sin means that we are caught in the bonds of self-worship. The Immaculate Conception does nothing more or less than free Mary to live human life to its fullest.


Do we put too much distance between ourselves and Mary? Do we fail to see how her grace is a model for us? Do we expect to participate in the victory of Christ over sin?


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