The document that declared the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a “doctrine revealed by God” is aptly titled Ineffabilis Deus, that is, “ineffable God.” When something is “ineffable” it is too great or extreme to be expressed in words. Certainly God himself is ineffable, but the mystery of Mary, a human person like all of us, being immaculately conceived is also truly ineffable. How can a human person be born without the stain of original sin? What has Mary done to deserve this? Is not the teaching on original sin also a revealed truth of our faith? How can original sin and the Immaculate Conception, both certain doctrines, co-exist?
In seeking answers, we turn to the Scriptures, starting with today’s second reading. In the opening lines of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, we read an awesome declaration of faith: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.” Paul expresses our faith in a God whose Perfect Wisdom has a Perfect Plan for humanity. He tells us that God created us to be immaculate, “holy and without blemish,” from the very beginning. And he places this beginning “before the foundation of the world,” that is, in the mind of our Eternal God. What the Church celebrates today is actually a grateful recognition of God’s Perfect Plan for the creation of human persons. Mary’s Immaculate Conception is a sign that points us toward this Plan. Today’s liturgical celebration means to make us all more open and docile, so that we may align ourselves and our every thought and action with what God has had in mind for us from the beginning.
Sadly, Adam and Eve deviated from God’s Perfect Plan. Through the instigation of the enemy, they were moved to doubt God rather than trust him. As the Catechism tells us, “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command” (CCC 397). The Genesis story is the basis of the Church’s teaching on original sin. Today’s first reading takes up the account from the moment after our first parents had eaten of the tree. It reveals the rapid deterioration of the human condition due to sin. Human bodies, which were made holy and without blemish, have now become objects of shame, and Adam and Eve hide from God. Then, they fall into the blame game: Adam blaming Eve, Eve blaming the serpent.
Despite this tragedy at the beginning of human history, God immediately displays his ineffable love. He gives a sign that he will reverse the impact of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Addressing the serpent, God declares, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” The offspring of Eve, “the mother of all the living,” will be in permanent conflict with the devil. Ultimately, a descendant of Eve will deal the devil a decisive blow. This passage is what scholars call the proto-Gospel, a prophecy of the coming of a Savior who will finally crush the head of mankind’s enemy.
The Savior, of course, is Jesus Christ, the ultimate manifestation of God’s ineffable love and the realization of his Perfect Plan. All the Church’s dogmas about Mary always point us to Jesus Christ. By his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, he has restored humanity to God’s original design, holy and without blemish. Mary’s Immaculate Conception shows the power of Christ’s mission, from which she benefitted in anticipation. Mary is the exemplar and the pride of the human race; she shows us who we are meant to be and are destined to become.
The Gospel narrates this clearly for us. When faced with an ineffable mystery and an unimaginable task, Mary simply declares who she truly is: “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” And she accepts God’s intervention in her life: “May it be done to me according to your word.” With her response, humble and docile, Mary shows us what it truly means to be a human person according to God’s Perfect Plan.
Mary has received a unique grace, but it does not separate her from the rest of the human family, stained by sin. Rather, she stands as an exemplar for us all. By showing us the right use of freedom, Mary opens a space in humanity for the arrival of the Kingdom. The Eternal Word of the Father became flesh, and Mary bore him in her womb. So even if human persons continue to die, we are ultimately no longer under the domain of sin and death. The Immaculate Conception is a sign of hope that Christ’s sacrifice has the power to restore us to eternal glory with him.
In what ways do I deviate from God’s Perfect Plan? Why do I act like Adam and Eve and not take responsibility for my actions and blame others? Why do I hesitate to have recourse to Mary in grief and temptation, in joy and pain?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.