December 8th is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a major feast in the Roman Catholic calendar* -- it ranks with the commemorations like that of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, the Ascension of Christ into heaven, and the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary. Only Christmas and Easter itself are of decisively greater magnitude.
A lot of Christians, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike, don't have a clear understanding of the Immaculate Conception as a piece of theology, or of why it is important to the Catholic faith. I'd like to do a quick run-down of the doctrine.
Bartolome Murillo, The Most Pure Immaculate Conception, 1678
A lot of people think that the Immaculate Conception is the same thing as the Virgin Birth, but this is a mix-up. The Virgin Birth is a doctrine about how Jesus came to be born; the Immaculate Conception is a doctrine that deals with Mary's conception. Unlike Jesus, Mary was conceived in the normal way, with a mother and a father (known traditionally as St Anne and St Joachim). Also unlike Jesus, Mary was simply a human being: she had no divine nature, she was a human woman and nothing else.
But she was also (Catholics believe) unlike most human beings. Normally, when we are conceived, we are conceived in a state of what the Church calls original sin: i.e., not that we are wicked little demoniacs from the crib (or the, uh, twinkle in our father's eye, as it were), but that our souls are basically self-focused, turned inward, instead of towards God and our neighbor. Along with this, we believe that original sin deprives us of gifts that were bestowed on the human race before our fall into sin: immortality, complete internal harmony, and communion with God. All this doesn't mean that God hates us, but it is a problem that needs fixing. That is what we believe Baptism does -- it washes away the stain of original sin, and restores us to the state of communion with God that would have been ours, had we not inherited a bad moral outfit from our forefather Adam.**
Since Christianity didn't exist yet, Baptism as Christians understand it didn't exist either when the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived. Nor can you baptize a child in the womb anyway, because ... you know what, we don't need to explain that one. Man. This is coming out terribly. I need an editor.
The Catholic Church teaches that, as He applies this grace of washing away original sin in Baptism, so He freely chose to apply this grace to Mary, not through the sacrament, but by a pure miracle, from the very moment of her conception. Thus she was conceived immaculately; the word coming from a Latin term that means "without stain." Note that this doesn't mean she didn't need a savior; she did need one, and had the same one we all do: He just worked differently and more impressively with her. As a human being, Mary, like everyone else, would have been conceived with sin -- she didn't earn this as some sort of right -- but God chose out of His free goodness to apply the effects of Christ's victory to her in advance. (Which, if you think of it, gets you into some cool sci-fi time-travel paradox stuff. Sadly, most academic theologians are not willing to sound quite that kickass.)
Why would He do this? Isn't it sort of, you know, made-up-sounding? I mean, it's not like Catholics don't clearly have a thing about the Mother of God.
It's not like I wasn't going to spend a long time in Purgatory anyway ...
Well, let's not be hasty. Consider the fact that Catholic Mariology pales in comparison to Eastern Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God, yet the Orthodox, on the whole, dismiss the idea of the Immaculate Conception. So this isn't simply an inevitable manifestation of preoccupation with the Virgin.
One explanation is that this was a signal honor for a woman who was, after all, the Mother of God.*** Only one Man was the Word Made Flesh, the Creator who became His own creature; likewise, the woman selected to be His Mother was set apart from the mass of humanity, preserved spotless for her exalted destiny. And, when once you accept Christian beliefs about who Jesus was, it is pretty hard to see a role in the created universe (aside from His own) that is or could be higher than that of being the Mother of God.
Another is that, in forging a new human race, a new Adam was necessary, and that we had in Christ; but a new Eve was also necessary, and that we had in the Virgin. To forge between them, in their distinct ways and degrees (Jesus as Redeemer, Mary as the greatest of those who helped Him in His work, mostly by getting Him born and all), a new mankind that was free of the stain of original sin, they both had to be free of it themselves -- and hey presto. This may sound like a startlingly extreme example of how far Catholics are willing to push their view of Mary, in contrast to the age of the Apostles and their immediate successors; but in fact, St Irenaeus of Lyons, a pupil of one of St John the Apostle's own disciples, speaks of Mary as the new Eve as early as the second century.
It's quite clear in all the whatever is going on here.
I also have a sort of pet theory, although frankly it's so unsupportable that even calling it a "theory" is a little strong. It's more like an imaginative idea. I find curiously attractive the possibility that, among the elect, someone has been redeemed from every possible moment in the human life cycle, from the first moment of conception to the last moment on the brink of death. Obviously, the Catholic Church posits the former of the Virgin Mary; and the thief on the cross (traditionally called "St Dismas") seems like an instance of the latter. It seems to me extremely poetic to suppose that, at the scene of the Crucifixion, where the redemption was actually accomplished, the human representatives of the whole realm of human life over which that redemption may take effect -- the one freed from sin at the very first moment of her earthly life, the other at the very last moment of his -- were both present. Like I said, there is no proof for any part of that whatsoever, but I can't help liking the idea.
You'll notice, though, that in all of the reasons set forth, they all finally lead back to one person, and it isn't Mary. It's Jesus. He is what makes her so special; it is to honor Him that this was done for her, on any showing. Her highest glory -- like that of every human being -- is found precisely in the special way in which she has been put into relationship with God, in every sense of that phrase.
But even with all that being said, it isn't laid out unambiguously in Scripture; you can be a Christian without the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Why accept it? Well, it does seem, based on my study of history, to be the clear logical outworking of what the Church has always maintained about the Mother of God and her freedom from sin. But that in itself really shifts the grounds of the discussion: in that case, it isn't so much about whether this or that doctrine about Mary is true, but about how much we trust the tradition of the Church, and what with, and why. All important questions, which cannot detain us here.
In the meantime, don't forget to go to Mass tomorrow, papists.
And no, buying one of those gaudy Safeway candles and humming a verse of "Immaculate Mary" does not count.
*So major, in fact, that it is one of the days other than Sunday on which Catholics are obliged to attend Mass if they're able to. For some holy days, this duty is dispensed with if they fall on a Saturday or a Monday, so that you don't have to make sure to attend two days in a row; the Immaculate Conception, however, is a holy day of obligation no matter what -- partly, I think, because the Catholic Church in the United States took Mary Immaculate as its patroness. If you are in the Baltimore area and looking for a liturgy, my own parish of Mount Calvary (816 North Eutaw Street) will be having a Low Mass, according to the rubrics of the Anglican Use, at 7 pm.
**Whether Adam is here understood as a concrete historical figure, or as a mythic-literary representation of humanity in some other way, is for our present purpose a question of no importance.
***This title bothers some Protestant Christians. Its origins lie in the fifth century and earlier. When exactly popular devotion had begun referring to Mary as the Mother of God is probably indeterminable; but two councils, in opposition to certain religious leaders who were defining Christ's nature such that He was merely in close intimacy with God, rather than actually being God Incarnate, specifically defined the title as a dogma of the universal Church. The reasoning is straightforward enough: Mary is the Mother of Jesus; Jesus is God; therefore, Mary is the Mother of God. Some Protestants fear that the title is misleading, creating the impression that she in some fashioned produced the Deity, or that It in some way depends on her. I feel these worries to be groundless, since the problem can be laid to rest by the very simplest explanations of basic Christian truths.