Thou art all fair, O Mary, and there is not spot of original sin in thee.
(from the Canticle of Canticles, 4.7)
The Privilege of the Immaculate Conception
by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
The definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, made by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854, reads as follows:
“We declare, announce, and define that the doctrine which states that the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved, in the first instant of Her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of God Omnipotent and because of the merits of Jesus Christ the Savior of the human race, free from all stain of original sin, is revealed by God and must therefore be believed firmly and with constancy by all the faithful” (Papal Bull, Ineffabilis Deus).
This definition contains three especially important points. First, it affirms that the Blessed Virgin was preserved from all stain of original sin from the first instant of Her conception. The conception meant is that known as passive or consummated – that in which Her soul was created and united to Her body – for it is then only that one can speak of a human person, whereas the definition bears on a privilege granted to the person of Mary.The definition states also that the Immaculate Conception is a special privilege an altogether singular grace, the work of divine omnipotence.
What are we to understand by original sin from which Mary has been preserved? The Church has not defined its intrinsic nature, but she has taught us something about it by telling us its effects: the divine hatred or malediction, a stain on the soul, a state on non-justice or spiritual death, servitude under the empire of Satan, subjection to the law of concupiscence, subjection to suffering and to bodily death in so far as they are the penalty of the common sin (cf. Second Council of Orange, in Denz. 174, 175, and the Sacred Council of Trent, in Denz 788, 789). These effects presuppose the loss of the sanctifying grace which, along with integrity of nature, Adam had received for us and for himself, and which he lost by sin, also for us and for himself (cf., the Sacred Council of Trent, in Denz 789).
It follows therefore that Mary was not preserved free from every stain of original sin otherwise than by receiving sanctifying grace into Her soul from the first instant of Her conception. Thus She was conceived in the state of justice and holiness which is the effect of divine friendship as opposed to divine malediction, and in consequence She was withdrawn from the slavery of the devil and subjection to the law of concupiscence. She was withdrawn too from subjection to the law of suffering and death, considered as penalties of the sin of our nature, even though both Jesus and Mary knew suffering and death in so far as they are consequences of our nature and endured them for our salvation.
Second, it is affirmed in the definition, as it was already affirmed in 1661 by Pope Alexander VIII that it was through the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, that Mary was preserved from original sin. Hence the opinion held by some 13th century theologians – that Mary was immaculate in the sense of not needing to be redeemed, and that Her first grace was independent of the future merits of Her Son – may no longer be admitted. According to the Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus, Mary was redeemed by the merits of Her Son in a most perfect way, by a redemption which did not free Her from a stain already contracted, but which preserved Her from contracting one. Even in human affairs we look on one as more a savior if he wards off a blow than if he merely heals the wound it inflicts.
The idea of preservative redemption reminds us that Mary, being child of Adam and proceeding from him by way of natural generation, should have incurred the hereditary taint, and would have incurred it in fact had not God decided from all eternity to grant Her the unique privilege of an immaculate conception in dependence on the future merits of Her Son.
The Sacred Liturgy had already made this point in the prayer proper to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which was approved by Pope Sixtus IV (1476): “Thou hast preserved Her from all stain through the foreseen death of this same Son.” The Blessed Virgin was preserved from original sin by the future death of Her Son, that is to say, by the merits of Christ dying for us on the Cross.
It is therefore clear that Mary’s preservation from original sin differs essentially from the that of Our Savior. Jesus was not redeemed by the merits of another, not even by His own. He was preserved from original sin and from all sin for two reasons: first, because of the personal union of His humanity to the Divine Word in the very instant in which His sacred soul was created [in theology, this union is called the “hypostatic union”], since it could not be that sin should ever be attributed to the Word made flesh; secondly, since His conception was virginal and due to the operation of the Holy Ghost [and not by man], so that Jesus did not descend from Adam by way of natural generation. These two reasons are peculiar to Jesus alone.
Third, the definition proposes the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as revealed, that is, as contained at least implicitly in the deposit of Revelation – in the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition [as we have already shown in the three previous posts on the Immaculate Conception through the treatises of St. Alphonsus], or in one at least of those two sources.
The Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus quotes actually only two texts of the Sacred Writ, Genesis III, 15 and St. Luke I,28,42.
The privilege of the Immaculate Conception is revealed as it were implicitly or confusedly in the book of Genesis in the words spoken by God to the serpent, and thereby to Satan: I will put enmity between thee and the Woman, and thy seed and Her seed: She shall crush thy head… The pronoun we translate as She is masculine in the Hebrew text; this is true also of the Greek Septuagint and the Syriac versions. St. Jerome’s Sacred Latin Vulgate Bible – the official Latin translation of the Church of the Sacred Scriptures – however has the feminine Ipsa, referring the prophecy directly to the Woman Herself and for this reason: “We do not find in Eve the principle of that enmity which God will put between the race of the Woman and the race of the serpent; for Eve, like Adam, is herself fallen a victim to the [devil]. It is only between Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, that enmity ultimately exists… ” (Fr. F.X. le Bachelet in Fr. Garrigou-Langrage, O.P.). God did not speak only of this enmity between Mary and Satan and their respective seed but also the outcome of this enmity between Mary and Satan: the victory of Our Blessed Mother: She shall crush thy head.
Taken by themselves these words are certainly not sufficient to prove that the Immaculate Conception is revealed. But the Fathers of the Church, in their comparison of Eve and Mary, have seen in them an allusion to it, and it is on this account that the text is cited by Pope Pius IX.
The promise of Genesis speaks of a victory that will be complete: She shall crush thy head. And since the victory over Satan will be complete, so also the victory over sin which makes the soul slave and devil master. But as Pope Pius IX teaches in his Bull, the victory over Satan would not be complete if Mary had not been preserved from original sin by the merits of Her Son.
The Immaculate Conception is contained therefore in the promise of Genesis as the oak is contained in the acorn. A person who had never seen an oak could never guess the value of the acorn, nor its final stage of development. But we who have seen the oak know for what the acorn is destined, and that it does not yield an elm nor a poplar. The same law of evolution obtains in the order of progressive divine revelation.
The Bull quotes also the salutation addressed by the Archangel to Mary: Ave, gratia plena (Lk. 1.28). The habitual grace which the Blessed Virgin Mary received at the instant of the creation of Her holy soul was fulness or plenitude to which the words of the Archangel on the day of the Annunciation might have been applied. Pope Pius IX even says that, from the first instant, Mary “was loved by God more than all creatures [prae creaturis universis], that He found most extreme pleasure in Her, and that He loaded Her in a wonderful way with His graces, more than all the angels and saints.”
St. Thomas Aquinas explains the reason of this plenitude of grace: “The nearer one approaches to a principle (of truth and life) the more one participates in its effects. That is why St.Denis affirms that the angels, who are nearer to God than man is, participate more in His favors. But Christ is the principle of the life of grace; as God He is its principal cause and as Man (having first His humanity is, as it were, an instrument always united to the Divinity: grace and truth came by Jesus Christ – Jn. 1.17). The Blessed Virgin Mary, being nearer to Christ than any other human being, since it is from Her that He received His humanity, receives from Him therefore a fulness of grace, surpassing that of all other creatures.”
Furthermore, the same Angelic Doctor explains that though the angels do not manifest special respect men, being their superiors by nature and living in holy intimacy with God, yet the Archangel Gabriel when saluting Mary, showed himself full of veneration for Her. He understood that She was far above him through Her fulness of grace, Her intimacy with God, and Her perfect purity.
She surpassed the angels in Her holy familiarity with the Most High. On that account, the Archangel Gabriel saluted Her saying: Dominus tecum (The Lord is with thee). It was as if he said: “You are more intimate with God than I. He is about to become Your Son, whereas I am but His servant.” In truth, Mary, as Mother of God, is more intimate with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, than are the angels.
On the contrary, the Blessed Virgin would not have received complete fulness of grace had Her soul been even for an instant in the condition of spiritual death which follows on original sin, had She been even for an instant deprived of grace, turned away from God, a daughter of wrath, in slavery to the devil.
“O Mary, Mother of God and my Mother,
what light and strength Your sweet image brings me!
The most beautiful, the holiest, the purest of all creatures,
so ‘full of grace’ that You were worthy to bear within You
the Author and Source of all grace, truth, and life,
You do not disdain to give Yurself to me – a poor creature,
conscious of my sin and misery – as a model of purity, love, and holiness.
The privileges of Your Immaculate Conception and divine maternity are inimitable,
but You have hidden them within such a simple, humble life
that I am not afraid to approach You, and ask You
to take me by the hand and help me
to ascend the mountain of perfection with You.
Yes, You are Queen of heaven and earth;
but because you are more Mother than Queen,
You encourage me to have recourse to You saying,
O my child, hear me; blessed are they who keep my ways…
He who finds me, finds life, and
will obtain salvation from the Lord
(Pr. 8.32, 35)
And I answer You in the words of the Church,
‘Draw me, O Immaculate Virgin,
I will run after you in the odor of Your ointments‘
(pre-Vatican II ‘Roman Breviary,” cf. Cant. 1.3)
Yes, draw me, Immaculate Mother, above all by the luminous charm
of Your spotless purity!
I feel so impure and stained by the things of earth compared with You,
the all-pure, so detached from everything,
so forgetful of Yourself that nothing moves You to act
apart from the divine desires, pleasures, and impulses,
apart from the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
If I see You always docile and ready to respond
to every least invitation, even though it be hidden under
the most human, ordinary circumstances;
if I hear You gently repeating Your ‘Yes,’ Ecce ancilla Domini… fiat…
(Behold the handmaid of the Lord… let it be done…),
in all happenings of Your life, big and little, agreeable and disagreeable,
it is because You are the Immaculate.
No shadow of creatures or purely human interests or affections
touches Your heart; and therefore, nothing
can delay Your most rapid course toward God.
Illumine my mind then with the light which emanates
from Your resplendent purity,
so that no attachment, no earthly affection may remain hidden in me
to prevent my leading a life truly [and fully] consecrated to my God.
With Your help, O Immaculate Mother, I am ready to renounce
any affection, even if slight, which could still bind me to creatures.
I want my heart to belong wholly to God, for Whom
I would keep its every throb in a spirit of perfect chastity,
so that I will never refuse anything to the Lord,
and will always be able to repeat with You my prompt fiat. Amen.
A blessed Feast to all!