For some, one of the most difficult of all the ‘uniquely Catholic’ beliefs to accept is our dogmatic teaching on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. That the mother of our Lord was kept free from the stain of original sin is a belief that was long held, for centuries, within the heart of God’s People, yet not dogmatic taught by the Church until Blessed Pope Pius IX in his 1854 encyclical Ineffabilis Deus (The Immaculate Conception), saying:
“Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.”
Blessed Pope Pius IX goes on in his encyclical to artfully and carefully demonstrate how this teaching is not an innovation in the Catholic Church, but, rather, has always been with us and has, over the centuries, been defended, preserved, championed, and divinely confirmed.
Yet, for some, it remains easier to believe that bread and wine could become a Real Person, or that a Man could rise from the dead after three days, or that the man who rose is God, or that at the invocation of Three Divine names along with the pouring of water could, in that instant, make us holy, than it is to believe that the Eternal Father would will that His Son be conceived in the womb of a woman so “resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin” (ibid).
On the contrary, there is only one other option available for those who believe the central ontological teaching of Christianity, that the personal sin of Adam and Eve affected human nature itself and, from that point forward, the consequences of that original sin were “transfused into all by propagation” (Council of Trent, Session V – except Mary; Cf. Genesis 3) and that Jesus “appeared to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5; Cf. Hebrews 4:15, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:22), then it therefore follows that either Mary had to be somehow blocked from propagating the original sin to her child (i.e. conceived immaculately), or that Jesus Himself had to be conceived immaculately.
It is not enough to say that Jesus was both God and man, and through that, His divinity overcame His sinful humanity to make Him free of sin because that would contradict His hypostatic nature. That is, if Jesus is truly God and truly man, without contradiction, then it, therefore, follows that there was no conflict or tension between His human nature and His divine nature. Rather, either Jesus of Nazareth was conceived holy and never sinned or he was born with original sin and became holy by overcoming sin. The latter of these two positions creates innumerable irreconcilable problems in the theology of salvation (Soteriology), theology of the nature of the Church (Ecclesiology), and the theology of death, Heaven, and Hell (Eschatology).
In finding the former position to be true, through the dogmatic teaching on the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic Church says significantly more about the whole nature of Jesus Christ than about the human nature of the Virgin Mary. For it could not have been Jesus who was conceived immaculately because that would mean that He was born unlike us, and, therefore, unable to reconcile the human nature to the Divine nature.
For this reason we have the admirable exchange where, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church collects (Para. 460), the Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4); “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God”(St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 19, 1: PG 7/1, 939); “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (St. Athanasius, De inc. 54, 3: PG 25, 192B); “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc. 57, 1-4.).
The crux of the theology of the Immaculate Conception is revealed through the liturgy of the memorial sacrifice. Through the liturgy we witness that the mission of Christ Jesus necessitated that He be born naturally without the stain and blemish of sin, so that He could be made a victim for sin; that is, so that He could be made a sacrificial offering for our sins (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). As we sing in the Agnus Dei at the Holy Mass, Jesus is the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and just as God required that the Passover sacrificial lamb (born naturally) to be without stain and blemish (Cf. Exodus 12:5), so too was Christ.
Mary, the Mother of God, was chosen by the Eternal father to give birth to this Lamb because it was the only sacrifice that He could accept to pay the price for our sins. There was nothing we could offer to God to redeem us because everything we have belongs to Him. Rather, God had to give Himself to heal those He loves, and through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, He continues to offer us His spotless Lamb so that we might be made one with Him.
“You alone and your Mother
are more beautiful than any others;
For there is no blemish in you,
nor any stains upon your Mother.
Who of my children
can compare in beauty to these?”
The Nisibene Hymns (Circa 350 – 363 AD)