08 December 2003

The Greatest of the Saints

Today is the birthday of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, that most likeable of Roman poets, known to posterity simply as Horace.

It’s not only Horace Day, of course; far more importantly, today’s the day that the country-dwellers of Ireland traditionally infest the capital in order to do their Christmas shopping, taking advantage of it being a Holy Day of Obligation to attend mass – today’s the feast of the Immaculate Conception – and then get a train to Dublin.

If you don’t believe in Original Sin, then you do believe in the Immaculate Conception
Just over a year ago, I got into a rather heated argument with a Protestant friend of mine, who hopes some day to become a Minister, about the status of the Blessed Virgin, with particular reference to the ‘Immaculate Conception’. I found myself getting very angry in this discussion, proof, I suppose, of C.S. Lewis’s observation that
'The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not with the ordinary fervour that attaches to all sincerely held religious belief, but, (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake. It is so very difficult to dissent from them that you will not appear to them a cad as well as a heretic.'
After we’d argued, I sat down to write a long letter explaining the doctrine; I never got a reply, which you may interpret however you like…

The letter ran something like this:

The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, as distinct from that of the Virgin Birth, with which it is often confused, had been believed in one form or another since at the latest the second century. At times people took it too far, and such eminent theologians as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Saint Thomas Aquinas argued against perverse exaggerations of the doctrine. On 8 December 1954 Pope Pius X defined the doctrine as follows:
'The Blessed Virgin Mary in the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.'

What does this mean?
The doctrine basically says that Our Lady lived in a state of divine grace from the moment of her conception. It was not that the state of original sin was removed from her, as it is removed from others by baptism. On the contrary, a state of original sanctity and innocence was conferred upon her; all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities pertaining to original sin were excluded from her soul.

She lived in this state from the instant of her conception, by which is not meant her physical or generative conception, which took place in the usual fashion; rather the ‘first instant of her conception’ refers to the moment of her animation, when her soul was created and infused into her body. The divine grace was given to her before sin could take effect in her soul by virtue of the merits of the son she was to bear. As with all men, she was redeemed by Christ.

How did this doctrine arise?
Paul identified Jesus as the New Adam, but whereas the first Adam was from the Earth, the second was from Heaven (I Cor. 15.45, 47). One of the ways by which the early Church attempted to grapple with the mystery of the Incarnation and our redemption was to see it as a re-enactment of the scene in the Garden of Eden, with the scene recast, Jesus as the new Adam, and Mary as the new Eve.

It was thought appropriate that just as a woman had a share in the coming of death, so too did a woman have a share in the coming of life. Mary was hailed, in direct reference to Eve, as the Mother of the Living, and it was held that just as Eve’s disobedience brought death into the world, so too did Mary’s obedience bring life into the world.

One particularly important passage in the development of this notion was Genesis 3.15. There are two minor difficulties in the translation of the passage, but the earliest Christians were in agreement in believing that it referred to the Incarnation. Addressing the serpent, God says:
'And I will establish a feud between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he is to crush your head, while you lie in wait at his heels.'
This can hardly refer to all men, since not all men were to crush the serpent; Jesus is the offspring of the woman referred to here; he was to crush the devil which would lie at his feet. By the same token, it cannot refer to Eve, who was the mother of all men; rather it is best understood as a reference to Mary, mother of the one who would crush the serpent.

If Mary was the second Eve, she could hardly have been inferior to the first one. Yet the first Eve, like the first Adam, was created in a state of grace. It follows, therefore, that Mary herself must have been created in a state of grace, unique among the descendants of Adam and Eve in being free from original sin.

It makes sense then that Ronald Knox should have written:
'Our Lady, you see, is the consummation of the Old Testament; with her, the cycle of history begins anew. When God created the first Adam, he made his preparations beforehand; he fashioned a paradise ready for him to dwell in. And when he restored our nature in the second Adam, once more there was a preparation to be made beforehand. He fashioned a Paradise for the Second Adam to dwell in, and that Paradise was the body and soul of our blessed Lady, immune from the taint of sin which was the legacy of Adam’s curse.'
One important objection to this interpretation must be considered. Adam and Eve are nowadays rarely considered to have been historical personages; rather, they are generally seen as mythological archetypes, explaining in allegorical form the fallen state of the human race. It might seem, therefore, that the basis for the doctrine is no longer valid; if Eve did not exist the comparison with Mary is absurd.

This is not the case. While Adam and Eve were indeed long seen as genuinely historical figures, their true importance was always seen as being on a symbolic level. As Eve symbolised responsible co-operation in our Fall, so Mary symbolised responsible co-operation in our Restoration.

Recognition of the symbolic role of Mary in God’s New Covenant with Man does not deny her historical reality. Jesus himself has a multifaceted symbolic role in The New Covenant, after all, conveyed most compellingly by Saints John and Paul, but few people would deny completely his historical reality.

What other evidence is there for this doctrine?
In the first place, while it is true to say that nowhere in the Bible does it explicitly state that Mary was conceived without sin, it must be noted that there is nothing in scripture which either explicitly or implicitly contradicts the doctrine. This is not to be taken as proof of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, merely that reference to scripture can not refute it.

If this was not the case, ask yourself this: why was she a dwelling fit for God? Was she not a worthy bearer of the Redeemer? All generations were henceforth to call her blessed (Luke 1.42), and surely the fact that she was chosen is proof in itself of her sanctity; if any other virgin had been purer and holier than she, surely she would have been chosen as the Christ-bearer, the one to provide him with flesh.

It is useful to compare the conception of the Mother of God with that of his Precursor. Saint John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus, who heralded his coming. When but a child in his mother Elizabeth’s womb he was sanctified, being filled with the Holy Spirit, the Ruah or ‘Breath’ of God (Luke 1.15). This may have happened when Mary addressed his mother, as Luke records that when Mary greeted Elizabeth the child leapt in Elizabeth’s womb, and she herself was filled with the Holy Spirit (1.41, 68). Alternatively it may have happened earlier, though it would surely be going too far to say that John himself was immaculately conceived.

If John himself, whose special role was to prepare the way for Christ, was sanctified in this manner, how much greater must the sanctification have been of one whose very words could cause the unborn Prophet to leap with delight? How much greater must the sanctification have been of one who Elizabeth, herself filled with the Holy Spirit, called blessed (1.42), and whom all generations were henceforth to call blessed (1.48)?

The Devil has long been known as the Prince of the World. Dualists such as the Manicheans regarded the world as his property and all in it as damned. Such thinking clearly influenced Saint Augustine, a former Manichean, in his elaboration of the doctrine of Original Sin; he believed that all the just had known of sin, with the solitary exception of Mary.

It’s useful to pull in C.S. Lewis at this point, because he expresses things better than I ever could. In Mere Christianity he notes that:
'Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.
Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is.' (Book II, Chapter 2).
Saint John the Evangelist states that in the beginning was the Uttered Thought, or ‘Word,’ of God. This Logos or ‘Word’ was made flesh, and lived among us. (John 1.1, 1.14). The flesh from which this flesh was formed was the flesh of his earthly mother, Mary. It would seem incongruous if that flesh had ever, through being tainted with original sin, been part of the Devil’s domain. It would surely have been right for the mother of the Redeemer to have always been in a proper uncorrupted relationship with God; it was in the power of God to ensure this would be the case by freeing her from the taint of original sin, and as such he gave her this privilege.

Cardinal Newman put this well when he said that:
'Mary's redemption was determined in that special manner which we call the Immaculate Conception. It was decreed, not that she should be cleansed from sin, but that she should, from the first moment of her being, be preserved from sin; so that the Evil One never had any part in her.'
One final point is worth making. Indeed, I think this may be the most important point of all. What do you understand by the word ‘full’? Surely if something is full, it is complete? It lacks nothing. Indeed, nothing more can be added. If more can be added to something, that that something obviously wasn’t full. I presume you’re with me so far.

Well, consider the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel to Our Lady, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Khaire Kekharitomene, he announces, which was rendered in Latin as 'Ave, gratia plena' - 'Hail, Full of Grace' (1.28). This is a good translation, conveying the sense of the Greek, where kekhairitomene indicates completeness, so Mary was ‘completely graced’, or ‘completely favoured’. Now if the Lord was with Mary, and she was indeed full of Grace, how could there be room in her soul for anything else? How could there be room in her soul for sin? It is the fullness of her Grace that is striking here. She is not merely graced by God; she is wholly graced by him.

To sum up, at the Annunciation the Archangel Gabriel hailed Mary, and identified her as Full of Grace. As someone filled with Divine Grace, there was no room in Mary’s soul for the taint of Original Sin. This was fitting, as she was to be the bearer of the Logos; from her the Word would be made flesh. It would have been perverse for the Word to have taken on tainted flesh, or indeed for that flesh ever to have been tainted. To imply that he did so is to dishonour God.

The Redemption can be understood as a re-enactment of the scene in the Garden of Evil; the woman’s role in each is to precede the man’s. In Eden, Eve disobeyed God, and Man fell. In Nazareth, Mary obeyed God, accepting his wishes, and through her son, the new Adam, Man was redeemed. Mary could hardly have been a lesser figure than Eve, and so, must have, like her, been created Immaculate, unstained by original sin.

Is this doctrine essential to Christian Belief?
I’ve left this point until last, because I don’t think it impinges on the truth of the doctrine in any meaningful sense. Is the doctrine essential to Christian belief? Put more simply, does it matter? Well, yes and no.

It is obviously not at the absolute heart of the Christian message. If it were, it would surely have been spelled out more clearly in the Bible, the texts which the early Church assembled as their canon. It is hardly surprising that the doctrine is not spelled out, since the subject matter of the New Testament in particular is Jesus’ revelation of Man’s redemption. The sanctity of his mother was hardly crucial to this, although her sanctity serves to stress Our Lord’s own holiness. Indeed, we can get by with versions of Christianity that almost write her out of the story. Lewis as much as admits to doing this in Mere Christianity, since what he is concerned with is that which all Christians believe, and the status of Our Lady is one which invariably evokes strong feelings.

So we can get by with a version of Christianity that minimises the role of Our Lady. That, I think, is clear enough. It is striking, though, that Lewis makes an equal point of not denying her a special status among all God’s creatures. He recognises that for evangelical and indeed tactful reasons it is better not to speak of her than to categorically deny her the special status described and justified above. Not for him the iconoclasm of the early Protestants, smashing statues and defacing pictures of the Virgin.

But is it enough to simply not speak of Our Lady, to sideline her, to ignore her completely and simply pay attention to her son? Aside from the valid point that it would be blatantly insulting to enter a friend’s house and not speak with his mother, might such behaviour not impoverish our faith?

In his biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton envisages Francis as a ‘mirror of Christ,’ a medieval saint who so fully loved Christ and lived the Christian life that he can serve as a model, leading us to Christ along a direct and indeed joyful path. This is perhaps the greatest gift of the saints: they show us how many ways there are to God.

Mary is the greatest of the saints, and the uniqueness of the miracles which God associated with her is an effective sign of this. As such, she is the supreme template of the Christian life. Mary was the perfect disciple, wholly obedient to God, wholly devoted to her son. She is the template or pattern on which we should model ourselves. Devotion to her and reflection upon her life can bring the Gospel into clear focus, leading us directly to life in Christ.

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