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The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 71)

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 beforehand 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 unique vocation, the Church’s faith on this matter was officially promulgated in the pope's words above.
What the Church calls a “dogma” is not exactly an explanation. It is a profession of saving mystery, allowing our minds to see through faith into the Divine plan, even if we will never entirely comprehend. Let’s ponder this profession.  (1) Mary, like the rest of us, was redeemed by her Savior Jesus Christ. She was 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 “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 – 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? We think of sin in moral or ethical terms – sin as an immoral act. True enough. 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. “Perfection” 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” in the perfection of 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 she believes. In that moment, the Catechism says, the eternal word was conceived in her body and in her heart.
Does this mean that Mary’s perfection was “easy” or “automatic”? In fact, the gospels make clear that Mary’s vocation (like that of her Son’s) involved questioning (“How can this be?), spiritual struggle, temptation, and hardship. As Pope John Paul II taught (in his Encyclical 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 is not sin. Her 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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