Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Last year, I gave an 8 minute podcast talking about this solemnity. It’s one of the biggies in the church, and for a good reason. As St. Anselm teaches us from across the centuries in today’s Office of Readings:

God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. WIthout God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.

Or, as St. John Vianney taught:

“The Father takes pleasure in looking upon the heart of the most holy Virgin Mary, as the masterpiece of his hands…The Son takes pleasure in it as the heart of his Mother, the source from which he drew the blood that has ransomed us.”

Salvation and Incarnation are mysteries that cannot be pondered too often, and the greatest of mysteries involve Mary. Sin entered the world through a woman’s assistance to the Destructor; Redemption and Salvation enter the world through a woman’s assistance to the Creator. Woman was created out of Adam; Christ entered out of Mary, the New Eve. All humanity is raised to wholeness by the God who promised in the very first book of scripture, that the end was pre-ordained.

God chose us in him
before the world began,
to be holy
and blameless in his sight.
– Ephesians

Thinking along these lines, I have just read a very interesting book that has nothing at all to do with Mary, except, really, it does. The author simply does not realize it because -like many Protestants- he hasn’t given much thought to Mary. At one point in fact, he works rather hard at not thinking about Mary, when she is literally right before his eyes, making his case of beginnings and endings for him.

The book is Bill Cloud’s Enmity Between the Seeds, and it is a provocative read; Cloud maintains that the “end times” were fully revealed to us in the Beginning. Having studied with prominent rabbinical scholars, Cloud uses the Torah to connect the New Testament to the promises of the old, most specifically to discuss the paradox of the seeds which bear the fruit which produce the seeds -just like the God who creates, who is created within his creation- and the notion that a seed is what a thing is, and it cannot be anything else; the genuineness and authenticity of wheat seeds and weeds are what they are. While they may grow together, neither are changed in essentials. What is righteous is righteous; what is corrupt is corrupt.

I liked parts of the book very much, other parts rather less so; nor did I agree with all of it, but I still found much to ponder. There were times I wished he’d had an editor to tell him, “stop repeating, you’ve made your point,” but I can be verbose, sometimes, so I did sympathize.

I’ll talk more about Enmity Between the Seeds another time; we’ll explore -among other things- some of the Marian themes that Cloud seemed to work very hard at missing. For now, though, since we are talking about the Immaculate Conception of Mary, let’s examine one of Cloud’s musings that -for me- makes the case for the Catholic dogma that Mary -the Ark of the New Covenant- was born free of stain of sin wrought by Adam and Eve.

Cloud writes:

Where did [Righteous] Abel [who sacrificed not just meal but flesh, as well] learn of this need for redemption, considering there was no written Torah to read? I believe the Bible, in veiled fashion, points to his father Adam who learned it directly from the Heavenly Father. In order to comprehend the basis for this hypothesis, we must once again call upon the methods of study addressed earlier.

When Adam and Eve hid from the presence of the Lord, they attempted to conceal their newly discovered nakedness with fig leaves. Adam knew that their indiscretion would result in severe consequences, so he and the woman hid among the trees of the garden. Perhaps by hiding he was trying to delay the inevitable death sure to come. Had not the Lord said, “For in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2:17?)

When God found them, He judged them for their actions. He expelled them and separated them from His presence as a consequence, and he cursed the ground so Adam would remember on a daily basis what his disobedience had cost him . . .yet on that day, God did not destroy him and the woman. To the contrary, He displayed true justice -stern judgment tempered with unmerited mercy. Where is the evidence of his mercy? It is found in the promise of a Redeemer (Gen. 3:15)

I was struck that God “separated them from his presence,” and why? Because as Cloud says elsewhere, Adam and Eve were now stained with their sin, and unable to remain in the presence of the One who is all Good, all Holiness. Their corruption makes them unfit to reside with the absolute purity of his Being; like wheat and chaff, they must be differentiated. In a manner of speaking, “like with like; kind with kind.”

This reinforced for me, the notion that Mary -as the singular vessel, full of grace, by which God would Incarnate- could only have been without stain of sin, from the very moment of her conception; otherwise the All-Good, All-Holy could not have resided and grown within her. If what was stained with sin could not reside in Eden with God, that God could not reside in Mary, were she similarly stained. In “veiled fashion” we see the theme Cloud returns to repeatedly: “Like with like, kind with kind;” the purity of the Christ could not have enfleshed within what was corrupt, or less than pure.

Cloud’s thesis spoke to me because I’d come to a similar recognition of Genesis’ New Testament mirrors a few years ago:

If we think back to those lines from Genesis, and John, we can almost consider Mary-in-utero to be a sort of mirror of the quiescent “nothing” that existed before Creation. A created creature, loved into being and marked by grace, lies waiting to be born. She lives and grows obscurely, still this model of quiescence.

Then there is movement. God stirs, but this time, instead of saying, “Let there be…(light, etc)” it is the created creature who says the Word as she utters her Fiat. “Yes,” she says, “let it be…”

The words of Creation, of positive assent, affirmation, words that permit life rather than refuse. Thus creature co-operates with creator and there comes a second, more muted, but not discreet “big bang” (what’s discreet about angels, shepherds and kings?) and the world is made anew. New Creation. New Creatures.

From the stillpoint “nothing” of Mary’s physical and spiritual blank sheet, comes the rest of the story. Salvation. Return. The Way back to where we started.

This has relevance with regards to the Assumption of Mary, another Dogma which causes difficulty for many Protestants (and I’m sure, some Catholics). But it makes sense that -rather like Elijah- Mary would be assumed into heaven when her dormition came. (“For you will not leave my soul among the dead/nor let your beloved know decay.” -Psalm 16:10) Would the Ark of the Covenant have been left to corruption, or would it be taken to a worthy place?

Mary was only human, and her son was also her savior. But being outside of time, Christ saved her first. The firstborn of all creation, he preceded Mary, and she -the greatest of his human creation- delivered him unto us. Christ needed his vessel pristine, and grace-filled. The seed can only enflesh to what it is -an apple cannot grow within the rind of an orange- and within its flesh, lies the seed of creation.

St. Anselm, again:

Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God, and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God.

This God of paradoxes and mirrors – He is a most intriguing God, at once intimate and unknowable.

Delicious mystery of faith.

Advent Pictures of Christ
O Eve; Reconciled!
Lent: Who Told You that You Were Naked?

Also writing:
Was Christ her Savior?
Danielle Bean
Mary’s Immaculate Conception Points the Way
Deacon Greg
Passionists: A nice Advent idea

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • saveliberty

    Thank you for posting this.

  • Jim Hicks

    Normally, I am using the Anglican Breviary at this time of year. But this morning I choose the LOTH and like you, I was struck by the words of St. Anselm.

    God created all that is, including Mary, yet Mary gave human flesh to God. Quite a concept!

  • Jen

    Oh Thank You! Delicious mystery of faith, indeed!

    The drawing “Eve and Mary” by Sr. Grace Remington causes my heart to burst each time I see it. Such profound beauty, mercy, and love within its humble crayon construction. Truly, it overtakes me with the urge to fall to my knees and cry, from my broken and grateful woman’s heart.

    By God’s grace, your message reinforces an understanding I have only recently gained as I struggle to understand the nature of our relationship with God. As someone who wondered for many years why God seemed so distant, untouchable to us, I finally came to see that it is not God per se, but only the different in his nature and our natures. We are simply incompatible with his being in our fallen state. Our fallen nature is incompatible with his perfect goodness, like oil is physically incompatible with water. The two cannot truly ever combine and will always remain distinctly separate; their chemical “natures” are profoundly different. Greatfully, it is Christ, through that most holy vessel, Mary, who changes our nature. No longer oil, but now pure water.

    I truly needed to read your message today, as I was not raised catholic, and have questioned the immaculate conception. But the answer was so simple and, as you mention for the protestent author, right in front of my eyes. Of course Mary was unstained. Water to hold Water. Like for Like.

    Thank you.

  • Mimsy

    Thanks be to God! I’m so glad that I read this before going to mass today. I have sent it around to my family and friends.

  • Beth

    A question from a Protestant on basic Catholic belief:

    If Mary had to have had an immaculate conception so that she herself was without sin in order to bear the Savior, then did that mean Mary’s mother was also immaculately conceived? And her grandmother? Or was Mary created an adult as Adam and Eve were?

    Sorry to ask such a simplistic question, but your post got me wondering.

  • craig

    Beth, no. Mary had to be immaculate so that she could carry the Presence of God within her. Mary’s mother (whom Tradition remembers as St. Anne) was “only” carrying Mary, who is, after all, only human.

  • Ella Montgomery


    Your testimony to Mary today has brightened my day with wisdom. I have always sensed a special place for Mary when it comes to us Christians, one that comes only from the Heart to the heart. I also realized suddenly as I read your message, the thing that separates my dearest friend who left Catholicism a long time ago to become a fully devout Protestant, was her rebellion against her own mother and thus she took it out against Mary, who is such a significant part of the Catholic faith. I will begin to pray to Mother Mary accordingly for her to be brought back to the fullness of the Christian faith.

  • Klaire

    Just what I needed on this most beautiful feastday! Thank you Anchoress, woke up hoping to find a prayful read to ponder today, and this will certainly do it for me.

    Can never get “Too much Mary.”

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  • Charlie

    Both Mary and Elizabeth are much overlooked by we Protestants, and I agree that there is something quite amazing about Mary’s youthful faith that let her say to God, “I am your servant. Let it be as you have said.” Surely that must be one of the greatest statements of faith.

    I don’t agree with the dogma of Mary’s sinlessness for several reasons, not the least that Jesus, very God and very man, had a reputation for associating with sinners and lowlifes. His humanity clearly permitted him to immerse himself in a sinful world and even to become sin for our sakes, yet retaining his holiness in the process. That is a great mystery, and a wonderful one — that in Christ, sinners and a holy God are reconciled.

  • Bender

    “He expelled them and separated them from His presence as a consequence” . . . I was struck that God “separated them from his presence,” and why?

    There is a MAJOR problem with this statement. God DID NOT separate them from His presence. Just as God does not separate US from His presence. It was the man and the woman who did the separating. It is us who sever the loving bond between man and God. God isn’t the one who does that. God does the joining, we do the separating.

    We do the separating by the very act of our sinning. Sin is, by its very nature, an act of separation. In choosing themselves and choosing in opposition to God, the man and the woman necessarily withdrew themselves from His presence. We see this when they vainly try to run and hide. It is we who separate, we who send ourselves to Hell, not a ticked-off, retaliatory, petulant God. By our sins, it is not so much that we are no longer worthy to remain in His presence, it is that, by our sins, we have run away from Him. We can no longer remain in His presence because we are no longer in His presence. We can no longer remain in His purity because we have made ourselves unpure.

    All God does is acknowledge the separation. Being Truth, God merely recognizes what it is that we ourselves have done and, being Love, who will not force Himself on anyone, He merely allows us to leave.

    We threw ourselves out of the Garden.

  • Sally Thomas

    But Charlie, He takes what is human about Himself from Mary. He could, and did, immerse Himself in the world of sinners, which is why He came, of course, but He could not have taken on a fallen human body and nature for Himself.

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  • Victor

    When i was in my late teens, I worked on a farm with a Protestant Christian family and on occasions I even went to their church service.

    We never ever spoke about The Virgin Mary but I always knew that there a kind thought in their heart for Her because after all She was The Mother of God.

    I’ll close by saying that we need not panic while educating the public when “IT” comes to The Mother of Jesus cause most respect their own mother and Jesus and I don’t think that we’ll get more points in Heaven cause we Catholic Love Mother Mary or will we? :)


  • Bender

    I don’t know that we will get “more points” for loving Mary, but I’m sure that we will lose points for disrespecting her.

  • Klaire

    Mother Mary reflects Christ like the moon does the sun.

    There is no faster way to holiness or to Christ than via Mary. God will refuse her nothing.

  • Elaine

    If someone praises me, it makes my mother happy, and if someone compliments my mother, it makes ME happy.

    So I would assume that Mary is pleased whenever her Son is honored, and Jesus is pleased whenever His Mother is honored… it’s a win-win situation!

  • Gregory

    Okay, and there we see where at least one of our problems lie.

    “There is no faster way to holiness or to Christ than via Mary. God will refuse her nothing.”

    Ahem. The fastest way to Christ is through Christ’s Holy Spirit. No one will speed your way, although many will seek to hinder.

    And Christ did point out at one point that He will not compromise His ministry even if it’s His
    own family wanting to speak to Him.

    I respect the Virgin Mary; she is my cathedral’s patron saint, after all. But the doctrine of Immaculate Conception bothers me. Are we saying that Christ only abhors the sin nature, but can tolerate actual sin? If not, then we are saying that Mary was completely sinless at least until Christ was born.

    Which would seem to contradict what Paul said, in that all mankind is fallen. For if Mary was without sin, then she could herself have become sin for the whole world, and Christ’s sacrifice would have been unnecessary.

    In other words, if God will still create humans without sin nature, then why bother hanging on the cross?

    But we know that it’s not exactly that God cannot tolerate our sinfulness (that was not why He tossed us out of the Garden; He didn’t want us to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Eternal Life and then permanently separate ourselves from Him), it’s that we cannot tolerate God’s holiness. If He shows Himself full of His glory, we die.

    God can and does dwell in sinful man; witness His Holy Spirit dwelling in Saul, and in David. He can and does work *on earth* through imperfect human beings. But He cannot allow us into His presence *in Heaven* soaked in sin as we are. His holiness and righteousness will not permit that. So Jesus came and became the Mediator between God and Man.

  • Bender

    In other words, if God will still create humans without sin nature, then why bother hanging on the cross?

    It is only because Mary’s Son did hang on the Cross that she was herself preserved from sin.

    The Immaculate Conception is not an exception to the Cross and Resurrection, but is an application of it.