Before I explain how I came to understand the dogma of the Immaculate Conception better I should clarify what the dogma states. The Immaculate Conception is not the same thing as the Virginal Conception or the Virgin Birth. These doctrines have to do with the conception and birth of Jesus Christ. Very simply, Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Mary when she was still a virgin and the Virgin Birth means she also gave birth miraculously without her virginity being violated.
The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the truth that Mary herself was conceived in her mother’s womb without the stain of original sin. Her mother Anne conceived naturally, but at the moment of Mary’s conception God intervened and preserved her from the stain of original sin so that she might be the second Eve. This sinless perfection or wholeness was accomplished by God’s grace, by virtue of the redemption won for the world by her son the Savior. In this way Mary was “saved” from original sin by the blood of Christ just like everyone else, but in her case God’s saving grace worked this unique way.
The first stepping stone that helped me understand the Immaculate Conception better was through a book by an Anglican theologian called John MacQuarrie. The book is called Mary for All Christians, and in his chapter on the Immaculate Conception he answers the common objection the some Protestants have–“Why just Mary? Why didn’t God step in to preserve her parents from sin etc.?
MacQuarrie engages in some intriguing speculation. What if Mary’s immaculate conception was not only a direct action by God at that particular moment, but was also part of a larger plan? He suggests that the Hebrew people were growing in their understanding of God, growing in holiness, growing in their relationship with God and that Anna and Joachim–the Virgin’s parents may have been the tipping point of this growth, that they, through their ancestry were the summit of the Hebrew people and their daughter was therefore not only preserved from sin by God’s direct action, but she was also the product of generations of growth in holiness. This fits with the idea that we grow in grace both as individuals and as families, and also fits with the idea that Mary was the symbol and summit–the recapitulation of the Hebrew people.
This made sense to me and helped me to see that the Immaculate Conception was not just an arbitrary act of God, but woven into his whole plan for the Hebrew people and the whole human race.
The second truth which helped me understand and accept the Immaculate Conception was the realization that this dogma (like all the Marian dogmas) is essentially about Jesus Christ the Lord–and not about Mary herself. Jesus took his human flesh from Mary so it she could not share in sinful humanity or Jesus himself would not have been perfect Man. His mother had to give him the perfect humanity which she had been given by God’s grace.
The third truth was the realization that Mary’s immaculate conception, and therefore her freedom from original sin, enabled her to make the choice to say “yes” to God with complete freedom. It works like this: if you suffer from original sin, even though baptized, you still experience concupiscence. This is the tendency to choose wrongly. It is the weakness that remains as the result of original sin. Because of concupiscence your freedom of choice is not complete. There is a flaw in it. You will be biased towards selfishness and choosing sin. Without concupiscence, however the human will is truly unencumbered. It is truly free. Mary’s human will as therefore truly free will as Eve’s was. Therefore, when given the choice to accept God’s will or not she made a fully human and fully free choice.
Once I understood these deeper implications it was easier to understand how the Immaculate Conception was not only a pious opinion, but a necessary part of the unfolding understanding of God’s work of redemption in the world. I began to see that the Immaculate Conception was not an Immaculate Deception.
However that was all in my head. My heart also had to be convinced, and like most potential converts, understanding with the head was only one step. The longest journey is from the head to the heart, and I still needed to be converted to this dogma in my heart of hearts.
How that happened I will put in another blog post later this month of May–Mary’s Month.
UPDATE: Go here for my detailed debate with Evangelical (and former Bob Jones classmate David Gustafson) on the Immaculate Conception. This is a chapter from our book, Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate.