Thursday, December 08, 2005

Planning ahead, God’s way

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“I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall crush your head and you shall bruise his heel.” Genesis 3:15

A feast day celebrating the conception of Mary goes back to at least the seventh century. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is now commemorated exclusively as the feast of “the Immaculate Conception.” This is in reference to the dogmatic definition of Pope Pius IX on 8 December 1854, which reads: “From the first moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of all mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin.”

From the beginning of Christian tradition, Mary was taken to be full of grace and free from actual sin. Opinion about the beginning of Mary’s freedom from sin has not been universal. (Oddly, Thomas Aquinas did not believe in the Immaculate Conception, while Martin Luther professed the doctrine until his death.) But what is part of the universal tradition is that her “yes” to God goes down to the very root of her being. Mary’s total surrender to the divine will in the plan of salvation is made possible only by the prevenient grace of God.

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The conception of Mary marks the decisive step in God’s plan of redemption—the beginning of the Incarnation. It is from Mary’s pure humanity that the eternal Word of God would take flesh, the same flesh which becomes the sacrificial offering to atone for human sin on the cross.

As St. Paul made a contrast in 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 between the old Adam and the new Adam (Christ), the early church fathers carried it through to the contrast between the old Eve and the new Eve (Mary). The new woman’s “yes” begins to reverse the course of the first woman’s “no.” St. Irenaeus of Lyons put it this way: “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience. What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith.”

Collect for the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
[from the 1928 Proposed Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England]
O Merciful Father, hear the prayers of thy servants who commemorate the Conception of the Mother of the Lord; and grant that by the incarnation of thy dear Son we may indeed be made nigh unto him, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost; one God, world without end. Amen.


Fr Timothy Matkin said...

As an additional note of trivia, today is the patronal feast of the USA. Our Lady, under her title of "the Immaculate Conception" is the patron saint of the United States.

The National Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, is worth a visit sometime.

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

Here are some lovely details about Luther's doctrine from

Yet again the Immaculate Conception was a doctrine Luther defended to his death (as confirmed by Lutheran scholars like Arthur Piepkorn). Like Augustine, Luther saw an unbreakable link between Mary's divine maternity, perpetual virginity and Immaculate Conception. Although his formulation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was not clear-cut, he held that her soul was devoid of sin from the beginning:

"But the other conception, namely the infusion of the soul, it is piously and suitably believed, was without any sin, so that while the soul was being infused, she would at the same time be cleansed from original sin and adorned with the gifts of God to receive the holy soul thus infused. And thus, in the very moment in which she began to live, she was without all sin..."