Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Blessed Virgin Mary, sinner: Thoughts on the Immaculate Conception

In the debates surrounding the Blessed Virgin Mary, Protestants often react to the Catholic Christian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (which states that by God's grace, Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin from the moment of her conception in her own mother's womb) by claiming that the Bible says that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."  Ergo, Mary sinned.

The intention is understandable, since they often argue that Jesus's sinlessness was a proof of His divinity.  Thus, the claim that anyone else lived a sinless life smacks of idolatry, since it seems to claim that, in this case, Mary is also a god.

It should be stated straight-away that this argument falls to pieces when we recognize two things:
1.  Romans uses the word "all" in a figurative, not absolute sense, to mean the vast majority of humans.  In fact, if we read the verse in context and look at the psalm from which it is taken, the psalmist himself is drawing a distinction between those who are "not righteous" (the "all" who have sinned) and God's chosen people, whom God has rescued from the bondages of sin and death.  Thus, there is even room in the Bible to draw a distinction between the sinful proclivities of man apart from God and the special grace God gives to Christians to live a holy life, not by their power but by His.  All the same, I, a Christian, am still a sinner, though I look forward to the day where I (like Mary was from her conception) made by God's grace a spotless member of Christ's mystical body.
2.  More practically, even the most strident anti-Catholic would admit that certain people on this planet die without ever committing a personal sin a day of their lives.  Young children die all the time before reaching an age where they can choose to sin.  People with severe mental handicaps also die as perfect souls.  Angels are creatures like we are, but they do not sin.  Adam and Eve were created sinless as well. Yet, babies, people with mental disabilities, angels, Adam, and Eve were not gods because of a sinlessness they each attained.  Two points follow:  the claim that Mary was conceived without sin and lived a sinless life in no way is tantamount to claiming Mary was divine.  In fact, it gives greater glory to God to acknowledge how effectively he revealed his saving plan (which is to free everyone one of us 100% from sin) in his own mother.  Secondly, the word "all" simply can not be taken consistently to literally mean "every other human being besides Jesus."

Yet, the word "all" is often taken this way as the basis for an argument that Mary sinned.

I'd like to turn the tables on this argument by challenging my Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ to prayerfully consider the implications of making this argument as a way of refuting the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

First, this argument is founded on a specific claim:  Mary sinned.  Every Protestant who makes this argument does so by publicly (or perhaps privately before God) casting a specific accusation at a specific person, the accusation being that at some point in her life, Mary intentionally acted against God's will.  All of our sins are small moments of atheism; they are actions that say I want to be God in my life at this moment, and I don't want the true God's desire for my life at this moment to be realized.  Sin - even the smallest sin - is a very serious, very malignant spiritual cancer, and we should hope to contract the worst possible physical cancer before ever choosing to sin even in the smallest way.  Thus, the assertion that Mary sinned is a very strong claim to make.  It is an accusation, and it is an accusation of sin that dances with the favorite activity of the great accuser himself, Satan.  Thus, let us be spiritually wary of the stones we are throwing at our spiritual mother in Christ.

Second, we are claiming that Mary sinned without a single shred of documentary evidence that she did.  We are making a claim that we would never be able to prove in a court of law.  (But judge, the Bible says that "all have sinned," doesn't it?...see above.)  Yet, certain people make this claim about Mary seemingly oblivious that every word we utter and every thought we think will be tried in God's courtroom at our deaths.  Do we really think that God will chalk these accusations of sin up as religious rhetoric, no harm no foul?  These arguments presume greatly on the mercy of God and completely ignore God's divine justice.  Indeed, most human beings do sin.  This blog author sins every day, and I throw myself on God's mercy for my salvation (as did Mary).  But is it spiritually safe or wise to be accusing another Christian--especially the Theotokos, the God-bearer--of sinning when we have absolutely no evidence of such a sin whatsoever?

Third, the two arguments above would hold true in accusing any person of sin.  But the person we are talking about here is THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY!!  We are talking about the one person in salvation history whom God chose to bear the Second Person of the Trinity in her womb, to be a tabernacle for God Himself, to be the Mother of God by giving birth to Jesus, who was fully God and fully Man.  Mary is considered the New Eve, because it was through her obedience that the disobedience of the first Eve could be undone.  Mary was full of grace; the Hebrew word here not only describes Mary, but is actually used by God through the angel Gabriele to name Mary.  Further, the Hebrew word provides a temporal dimension, such that it says that Mary was specially graced by God from the beginning of her existence through the time that word was spoken by Gabriele.  Mary is considered the New Ark.  The Old Testament Ark, which bore the manna, Aaron's rod, and the Ten Commandments, was built at God's instruction our of perfect gold, and any person who touched the Ark was immediately killed by God himself.  The OT ark was "overshadowed" by two angels.  Where is the next time we see the word "overshadowed" in the Bible?  When Gabriele says that the spirit of the Lord will "overshadow" Mary.  Luke also points out how the "mother of my Lord" visits the hillside of Judah, just like the "ark of the Lord" did during its visit to David in 1 Samuel.  When David came before the ark, he danced.  When Mary came to Elizabeth, John the Baptist "danced" in his mother's womb.  If Mary is the ark of the New Covenant (which the Bible clearly evidences) who bears the New Manna, the New Rod, and the New Commandments (Jesus is our Bread of Life as our High Priest, our Prophet, and our King), HOW MUCH MORE would God smite the hand of Satan who would try to touch Mary to cause her to sin?  Jesus is God and Mary is Jesus's mother.  Jesus loved his mother more than any human ever loved their mothers.  Jesus, out of love for His mother, lavished out the more graces on her than he did on any one else.  Contrary to the health and wealth preachers, these graces weren't to come in the form of large mansions and expensive botox treatments.  Rather, Jesus gave Mary the grace to live a sinless life, a life completely in union with God.  Mary's fiat--her yes to God--was a yes she lived every moment of her existence.  Moreover, Mary received a special grace from God to be free of the stain of original sin (exactly like the first Eve) from the moment of her conception.  Was immaculate conception necessary for Jesus to conceived in her womb?  No, the church emphatically declares.  The immaculate conception is not necessary, but it is fitting, and it is consistent with the scriptural evidence with implicitly, if not explicitly, teaches the doctrine.

Ironically, the doctrine of the immaculate conception says way more about Jesus than it does about Mary.  After all, Jesus's plan is for all of us to be immaculate some day, hopefully sooner than later by His grace.  The only thing special about Mary was that he allowed her--and chose her--to be conceived immaculately.  Whereas God needed to wash us all of original sin when we became Christians, God saved Mary from the muck of this sin before she fell into it.  Just like I can say that God has saved me from drugs, adultery, idolatry, etc. because he has given me the grace to avoid these sins, Mary can (and did) rejoice in "God my savior," who saved her from original sin by preventing her from contracting it.  Thus, the immaculate conception is the working of God's grace, not Mary's, and thus to God alone goes the Glory.  All Mary's soul can do, being so perfectly united with God, is "to magnify the Lord."  And, it was because of her perfect union with Him that "all generations shall call me blessed."  That was not an act of pride on Mary's part, but an act of humility.  As Christians, we are the greatest when we are the smallest, humble "handmaid of the Lord."  Mary is the greatest creature of God precisely because she is the lowliest.  Satan, the mighty angel, couldn't accept that God would take his lowliest creatures and raise them up higher than the angels.  But as Mary understood, God "casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly.  Holy is His Name!"  (Can you imagine the breathless excitement with which Mary proclaimed this most beautiful prayer, known as the Magnificat?)

Not only does the immaculate conception say more about how powerful Jesus's love is for us (and especially His mother) than it does about who Mary herself, but it is also a doctrine that is meant for our own edification.  Through the immaculate conception, Jesus shows us exhibit A of what he has promised for us in our own lives, should we also choose to become humble "handmaids of the Lord." Of course, many of us do not really choose to be saints.  We could, but we just don't will it.  Willing to be a saint means saying a radical "yes" to Jesus and a radical "no" to everything that would keep us from Him, and there are many things that compete for our affection in this life.  How much easier it is to open ourselves to God's grace having seen in Mary the fruits of God's promises for all who love and serve Him completely.

Sadly, to deny the immaculate conception is not just to deny all the Biblical evidence for the doctrine.  Mary is God's greatest masterpiece, and she is a masterpiece wrought by the fire of God's love.  She was anticipated as far back as the first Eve, and the protoevengelium in Gen. 3:15 that prophecies that the God will place "enmity" between the serpent and the "woman," and the "woman" will strike at the head of the serpent.  "Enmity" means complete separation, or being completely and actively opposed to something.  Mary is that women; Mary is God's masterpiece.  To deny this quality is not to insult Mary, it is to deny God, and thus it is to diminish the full glory of God's work in salvation history.  To deny the immaculate conception is to throw dung on God's work of art by saying that Mary sinned, and that God could not protect his greatest masterpiece from being successfully attacked by Satan.

This is why I pray fervently for my dear brothers and sisters in Christ who (often through no fault of their own) remain separated from the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  I trust in God's mercy that he will not hold them accountable for casting stones at Mary with good intentions and in a state of invincible ignorance.  At the same time, I am sad that these same brothers and sisters may one day find themselves before Jesus having to face the reality that they calumniated Jesus's mother without a shred of evidence of her wrong doing, and did so in opposition to the very Church that Jesus established so that He could teach all generations His saving truths.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if you have been raised to think of the doctrine of the immaculate conception as a wedge of division to separate you from Catholics, please pray fervently about whether or not this is a good reason to believe (or deny) a doctrine.  Jesus loves His mystical body, the Church, and wants her to be completely united.  Jesus also loves His mother, and gave Mary to us from the cross to be our mother.  Rather than hold Mary at a distance as the icon of false doctrines, get to know her.  Love her; you won't outdo Christ's love for her, and will actually be imitating Christ who loves her more profoundly than words can describe.  Ask Mary to pray for you.   Mary is not God; she can not answer your prayers.  But through the sole mediatorship of Christ, we the members of his Body can mediate and pray for one another.  So, I ask you to pray for me (and in doing so, I'm not worshiping you).  And we can both ask Mary, who resides so closely to her Son in Heaven, to pray for us without worshiping her.  We can call her blessed and give her great honor without ever surpassing the honor God himself has shown Mary.  We can say "I love you, Mother Mary" many times without once mistaking Mary for God.  Our God is not a God who wants all the love for himself.  Rather, our God has shared his love with us precisely so that we can be enabled to share that love with each other, including Mary.  The more we love Mary and each other, the more we are loving God and obeying his commandments.  There is no opposition between loving Mary and loving God.  Love itself does not allow such false divisions and silly dichotomies.

Let us join our heart's with God's voice, who once sent the following love letter to Mary:
Hail, full of Grace,
the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

And, let us ask her to pray for us:
Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
Pray for us Sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death.