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The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion(no. 26)

The Immaculate Conception: Faith's Perfection
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace
and privilege of almighty God, and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human
race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus).
The mystery of the Immaculate Conception is about how God prepared the way before hand for the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, making ready a human “vessel” to be the mother of the Son of God. After many generations in which Christians pondered the mystery of Mary's uniqueness, what the Church believed was officially promulgated in the Pope's words above.
A dogma is not an explanation but a profession of faith. Let's ponder this profession. (1) Mary, like the rest of us, was redeemed by her Savior Jesus Christ, saved by grace. But she was redeemed ahead of time, at the moment she was conceived. (2) This “singular grace and privilege” was for the sake of her singular vocation: only one among all the human race is the mother of the Savior of the world, the Mother of God. After all, how could the Eternal Word come into the world through a human vessel tarnished by sin? How could Mary help to form the human life of the Eternal Word-made-flesh if she were not uniquely, as the angel addressed her, “full of grace”? (3) Christ alone is perfect with the perfection of his eternal procession from the Father. Mary was made perfect by “the merits of Jesus Christ,” her Savior, with the perfection of the human creature perfectly redeemed. You and I will one day, by God's infinite mercy, be “perfectly redeemed” from sin. But our redemption is a process of repentance and conversion, starting with our baptism. Mary was redeemed in the first moment of her being.
We have no experience of sinlessness, so we do not yet know what perfection is. Holy Scripture tells us that, in sharing our humanity, Jesus knew severe temptation. Yet he remained sinless (Hebrews 4:15). But what does that mean? Our problem is that we tend to think of “sin” entirely in moral or ethical terms – sin as a morally wrong action. True enough. But Jesus spoke harshly to people, even acted violently (John 2:15ff). Jesus at age twelve caused his parents great worry (Luke 2:41ff). In any of us would not such actions be sinful? But in Holy Scripture, sin is first of all a relational concept. Sin is whatever distances us from God. Sin is a sign of failure in our love of God. While “perfection” in a biblical sense means, first of all, right relationship with God. The source of the perfection of Jesus is his personal union with his eternal Father – his complete abandonment to the Father's will (Mark 14:36). The opposite of sin is faith, utter trust in God (Romans 14:23).
This thought opens the door to contemplating Mary's “perfection”. The first word we hear her speak is her fiat: “Here am I, the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). She hears the promise and in the moment of hearing believes. She abandons herself to the promise of God. In that moment, the Catechism says, the eternal word was conceived in her body and in her heart. The Scriptures are almost entirely silent about Mary's good works (which were, no doubt, many). Moreover, the gospels bear witness that Mary's life was not free of spiritual struggle and hardship. As John Paul II taught (in his Mother of the Redeemer) Mary had to slowly grow into her vocation, finally giving up her natural maternal claims in order to receive the fullness of her spiritual motherhood. But spiritual struggle, the need to grow into one's mission from God, is not a sin. The struggle was but the unfolding of her perfect act of faith: “Let it be done to me according to your Word.”

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