Today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary – “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin” – provides an excellent opportunity to review the central points of the Gospel as Catholics understand it.
1. It is possible to be without sin. Mary never sinned. Her heart never wavered.
Here’s a corollary that might help us take this doctrine seriously. Recently, popular piety has focused a lot on Mary’s “yes” at the Annunciation. Often this turns into drama about God wondering whether she would say no.
But the doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness means – among others things – simply that there was no chance of Mary saying no. That’s not who she was. Mary was as likely to say no as – less likely than – say, Pope Benedict is to break into a Lady Gaga song. That’s just not who she is.
And that’s our destiny: we too are called to be without sin. Heaven, in fact, is the place where there will no longer be any chance of our saying no: not because we don’t have the chance, or don’t have the freedom, but because that won’t be the kind of people we are.
2. “Without sin” really means “close to Jesus.” Why Mary? Well, we believe this doctrine because Scripture tells us she was “full of grace.” Not because we think it had to be so – God did not need to make Mary full of grace – but because God tells us that in fact he did it.
Nonetheless, why did he do it this way? To show that sinlessness is not really emptiness of sin, but fullness of grace. And fullness of grace is really fullness of love: love of Jesus. God made Mary the preeminent saint because Mary shows us that it’s all about loving Jesus.
3. It is human to be without sin. Jesus was “like us in all things but sin.” Often in our self-understanding that means “not like us at all.” But the importance of his sinlessness is to show that sin is not what makes us human. In fact, sin makes us less human.
And the reason for Jesus’s coming is precisely to redeem our humanity, to let us be full of grace. Mary’s sinlessness shows the true face of redeemed humanity.
4. God wants us to be without sin. He wants us to be full of love, set free from the bondage of sin. That’s the point. That’s why Jesus came. Any idea of Jesus or of the Gospel that isn’t laser-focused on liberation from sin simply misses the whole point.
Mary is central to the Gospel – in a way, Mary is the Gospel – because the whole point is that Jesus actually does something for us, and what he does is to fill us with grace, fill us with love, and thus completely drive out our sin. To talk about the Gospel without talking about this liberation is not to talk about the Gospel at all.
5. Jesus is the way. But again, why Mary? The wonderful long prayer “the breastplate of St. Patrick” says, “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me.” Jesus is above all with Mary (“the Lord is with you”) and within her, both in her heart and in her womb.
But notice too: he is behind her and before her. “Before her” (or, in front of her) in the sense that grace causes her to gaze on him and love him. But “behind her” in the sense that it is he who gives her that grace. It is Christ who causes us to love him, Christ’s grace, the outpouring of Christ’s Spirit, that is the cause of our love: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).
6. Jesus is the beginning. And that grace is the beginning. God’s grace is given to us at Baptism – but God’s grace draws us to Baptism. God’s grace is given to us when we profess faith – but God’s grace causes us to profess the faith in the first place. Grace comes from touching Jesus – but it is grace that leads us to reach out to him in the first place.
We call this “prevenient” grace: the grace that “comes” (veniens) “before” (pre-) our choices. Mary does not earn the grace of Christ. She is given it at the first moment of our conception, before she does anything at all.
This is the Gospel. Let us celebrate it with joy today!
Are you ever tempted to ways of thinking about your faith that are inconsistent with Mary’s Immaculate Conception?