Question: I grew up believing that the feast of the Immaculate Conception was celebrated to remind us that Mary gave birth to Jesus and still remained a virgin. More recently, I was told that the feast was the result of the dogma that Mary herself had been born without original sin. Please clarify.
— Jose J. Arzola San Antonio, Texas
Answer: What you were told more recently is correct. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception holds that Mary was born free from original sin. This confuses many Catholics, but the doctrine enshrines a profound truth about Mary — and about all believers.
One of the best ways of understanding the meaning of this dogma is to see Mary as the Second Eve and to contrast Mary with the original Eve. In the narrative of the Fall in the Book of Genesis, Eve is presented as the one who opened the way for Adam’s act of disobedience. It was she who gave Adam the forbidden fruit, and thus it was Eve who made sin possible. Eve invited sin into the world; accordingly, she is seen as the servant and handmaid of evil.
The person of Mary, the mother of Jesus, stands in stark contrast to Eve. Mary prepared the way for Christ and the coming of redemption into the world. Mary invited divine goodness into the human arena. Mary was the servant of communion between God and humankind.
Eve prepared the way for Adam’s sin and for a history of human alienation, pain and misery. Eve received God’s curse. Mary, however, opened the way for Christ’s redemption and for a whole history of reconciliation, grace and joy. The contrast between Eve and Mary provides the framework within which to understand the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine celebrates the unique role of Mary in history as the bringer and servant of goodness. To say that Mary was immaculately conceived is to say that from her mother’s womb, from the moment of conception, she was given the vocation of bringing Christ, the holy one, the immaculate one, into the world.
The concept of Mary’s freedom from original sin has about it considerable complexity, and a short column like this cannot do full justice to it. But to say that Mary was free from original sin is another way of saying that she was to the very core of her being radically oriented to Christ. Her role in the history of salvation is unique; there is no one else like Mary. If Eve had a unique role in bringing sin into the world, then Mary had the unique role of opening the door to redemption.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception does not separate Mary from us and make her unreachable. In her role as the immaculate one, she stands as a model for the Church and for every believer. Christians are called to be servants of Christ, not servants of Adam, to act like Mary, not like Eve. Mary is the model of the Church’s following of Christ and a sign of the Church’s vocation.
This is why the preface of the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception declares: “Full of grace, Mary was to be a worthy mother of your Son, your sign of favor to the Church at its beginning, and a promise of its perfection as the bride of Christ, radiant in beauty.” Fundamentally, the Immaculate Conception is a statement about vocation — the unique and unrepeatable vocation of Mary to bring Christ into the world. Her whole being was radically oriented away from the sin of Eve and oriented toward Christ.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.