The Immaculate Conception
The feast of the Immaculate Conception is a meditation on a key line in the Gospels’ presentation of Mary: “The angel Gabriel . . . coming to her, said, ‘Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
We too are called to ponder what sort of greeting this might be. It’s an unfortunate thing that sometimes Catholics think of the Hail Mary as a kind of mantra within the rosary, sort of a meaningless thing we repeat to keep time, like we might just as well say the ABC’s. We say that prayer over and over again because we want to ponder what sort of greeting it might be. We want to be troubled by it.
Mary highlights the two most “troubling” claims of Christianity. The first is that the Lord is with us, that Jesus is truly the most high God, and that he has truly become man. We call Mary “mother of God,” and repeat that over and over in our Hail Mary’s, too, because if you aren’t troubled by that claim, you don’t understand what Christianity claims. Mother of God is a ridiculous thing to say. God can’t have a human mother. And yet that is the very center of Christianity: not a mystery about Mary, first of all, but a mystery about Jesus. “Mother of God” is the best phrase we’ve found for making us really ponder just how much “the Lord is with us” in the person of Jesus Christ. If you’re not troubled, you haven’t heard what we’re saying.
The second troubling claim flows from the first: Mary is “full of grace.” The Greek is complicated: kecharitomene is something about grace (charis, in the middle), something about becoming (-o-), and something about completion (ke-). She has been totally graced. It’s not just extrinsic, it’s something about her. Grace has something to do with God’s free gift, and with his favor, with his liking her. He has freely given to her because he likes her—and he likes her because of what he has given to her, because he has made her likeable. That’s the claim of this Greek word, kecharitomene. Of course the angel spoke Hebrew (or Aramaic?) to Mary, and we don’t have the original, but if we believe in Scripture, we believe that Luke’s Greek gets to the substance of what the angel said.
That too is troubling: that we can be likeable to God—we, who know ourselves sinners, and who have some sense of God’s awesomeness. (It helps that Mary is a figure out of the Old Testament: they knew what sin was, and its prevalence, and what God was.) I find that Americans today, at least—and probably everyone always—is disturbed at the notion that God would do something to our interior, to somehow make us different. I teach my students, “grace does something.” And I find them, oddly, constantly trying to come up with ways that grace doesn’t have to do anything, because we do it all ourselves. They find the very notion of grace kinda disturbing. But here it is, right in the Gospel: God graces us. God makes us likeable.
In fact, this is another way he is “God is with us.” He is with us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. But he is also with us in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us. In Catholic theology, we use the word “grace” to name the way the presence of the Holy Spirit changes us. We are not the same. God is in Mary’s womb, in Jesus Christ—and God is in Mary’s heart, by grace. If you are not “troubled,” if those claims don’t startle you and confuse you and upset all your categories, then you need to ponder them a lot more. Say the rosary!
One little way the Church has meditated on these claims, this very heart of the Gospel, after decades and centuries of repeating the words of the Hail Mary, is with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
By conception, we mean, from the very first. It’s a sign of the radical gratuity of what God does in Mary. First, it’s a sign of the totality: she is so “full” of grace, so totally graced, that there is not a moment of her life without grace. And second, it’s a sign that God acts before we do: it’s not that Mary took a step towards God and earned his grace, it’s that God took this radical step towards Mary before she could earn anything. Grace is total gift. That’s what the Immaculate Conception means.
Immaculate is a funny choice of words. Macula is Latin for “stain.” It’s a metaphorical word, and actually, not that central to Scripture or theology. (I searched the ESV, one of my favorite translations, and found precisely one use of the word in the whole Bible.) “Unstained” appears in 1 Timothy, “keep the commandments unstained”; Hebrews, “a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners”; and James, “keep oneself unstained from the world.”
But where it comes from in the Latin tradition is our second reading for the feast of the Immaculate Conception: “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish,” immaculati.
Notice, first, that “immaculate” is the flipside of “holy.” Holy tells us what God gave us, and what he gave Mary. Immaculate tells us what he got rid of. In fact, metaphysically, theologically, “without blemish” is a double negative, a nothing. The deeper point if what God has done.
Second, notice that it is “in Christ.” Somehow, what happens in Christ, the way “God is with us” in Christ, is repeated in Mary. Because Jesus is holy, Mary can be holy. That’s the point. Jesus became man so that we could share in his divine life.
Third, notice that, in fact, this language about Mary, “immaculate,” is actually language about all of us. She was conceived immaculate; God has a plan to make us holy and immaculate. I still have a long way to go; in that sense, I am different Mary. But we are called to the same destiny. The grace that happens in Mary is the same grace that God wants to give to me.
In fact, in this same reading from Ephesians we also find our unity with Mary in grace. “In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, . . . for the praise of the glory of his grace.” In Jesus Christ, “the beloved,” is the fulness of grace, which he shares not only with Mary, but with us. We are meant to discover that grace, and to live forever in praise, “that we might exist for the praise of his glory.”
That’s what the great Carmelite saint Elizabeth of the Trinity called herself, “laudem gloriae,” the praise of his glory. That’s the work that God wants to work in us, to make us full of grace, immaculate, all caught up in the praise of glory, like Mary. That she received this grace from her conception only reminds us that it is truly grace, unearned, pure cause for praise and thanksgiving.
The Immaculate Conception is a celebration of what we are called to.