27 December 2011

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

8 December

One of the things that attracts me to the Eastern Churches is the way they teach theology and doctrine through their prayers and hymnography. The Latin Church does this as well, but not as explicitly. This is not the case with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, particularly in the new translation of the Roman Missal. These prayers are pregnant with theology and doctrine, and so, I will present them with a little commentary for my Protestant brethren.

My commentary will be brief because these prayers are so rich and complete. The words are so well chosen that the complete doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is explained in them. The only thing I need to do is draw your attention to some of the words, as well as give a definition for a couple of them.

First I should give a definition of the term Immaculate Conception. The word immaculate means to be without the stain of original sin and personal sin. Original sin is the hereditary stain on our souls that permits us to commit personal sin. Baptism washes away this stain; however, the wounds of that fault remain, and we are still able to commit personal sin.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without this stain on her soul. Hence, she was kept free from this fault and the wounds it inflicts, which allowed her to live without committing personal sin. Therefore, her conception is call the Immaculate Conception.

The Immaculate Conception should not be confused with the conception of Jesus. True, Jesus was, or rather, is, also immaculate; however, he was not only immaculate from the time of his conception, but before his conception because he is the only man that existed before he was conceived. As well, unlike the conception of Mary, there was no human father involved in the conception of Jesus. Hence his conception is call the Miraculous Conception.


O God, who by the Immaculate Conception
of the Blessed Virgin
prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son,
grant, we pray,
that, as you preserved her from every stain
by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you for saw,
so, through her intercession,
we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
On God, for ever and ever.

Why was Mary conceived immaculately? Some protestants assume Catholics believe she was conceived immaculately so that Jesus could be conceived immaculately. Thus, the next step in this reasoning is that Mary's parent would also have to be conceived immaculately, and so on through all of history. Thus, they conclude that the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is illogical. This is not the reason why Mary was conceived immaculately, and therefore this reasoning does not prove this doctrine illogical.

The reason Mary was conceived immaculately is stated in the Collect: to "prepare a worthy dwelling for [God's] Son." It's as simple as that. Nothing more really needs to be said.

The Collect also states what "preserved her from every stain" of original sin and personal sin: it was "by virtue of the Death of [God's] Son, which [God] for saw." We hope to "be cleansed and admitted to [God's] presence" "by virtue of the Death of [God's] Son." We are cleansed by the death and resurrection of Mary's Son after the fact, whereas Mary was kept clean by the same death and resurrection of her son  before his death and resurrection took place. There is more on this in the next prayer.

Prayer Over the Offerings

Graciously accept the saving sacrifice
which we offer you, O Lord,
on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
and grant that, as we profess her
on account of your prevenient grace,
to be untouched by any stain of sin,
so, through her intercession,
we may be delivered from all our faults.

Through Christ our Lord.

The "saving sacrifice which we offer [God]" is the bread and wine that becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. We offer back to God the sacrifice he gave us: his Son. The sacrifice of the Mass is the same sacrifice of Calvary and the same sacrifice of Holy Thursday (the Last Supper). God here is working outside of time. The sacrifice of Calvary is the same sacrifice that happened before Calvary on Holy Thursday and after Calvary at every Mass. It is all the same sacrifice even though it takes place at different times.

This working outside of time is the exact way God's grace allowed Mary "to be untouched by any stain of sin." First, it must be emphasized that this act was entirely by God's grace. Second, this grace was "prevenient."

Prevenient is a word that may need defining. Prevenient simply means coming before, or in anticipation of. The grace gained by Calvary was applied to Mary before Calvary. Mary was redeeming by her Son's death and resurrection at the time of her conception. Mary's redemption at her conception is a preview, if you will, of the same redemption we hope for. This is possible because God is not confined by time as we are.

(It should be noted that the use of the term prevenient grace in Catholic theology is applied singularly to Mary and should not be confused with the doctrine with the same name held by some Protestants.)


It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.

For you preserved the most Blessed Virgin Mary
from all stain of original sin,
so that in her, endowed with the rich fullness of your grace,
you might prepare a worthy Mother for your Son
and signify the beginning of the Church,
his beautiful Bride without spot or wrinkle.

She, the most pure Virgin, was to bring forth a Son,
the innocent Lamb who would wipe away our offenses;
and placed her above all others
to be for your people an advocate of grace
and a model of holiness

And so, in company with the choirs of angels,
we praise you, and with joy we proclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts...

The Preface reiterates what we learned from the Collect and the Prayer Over the Offerings. It was God that "preserved the most Blessed Virgin Mary from all stain of original sin, so that in her, endowed with the rich fullness of [God's] grace, [God] might prepare a worthy Mother for [his] Son." This speaks not so much of Mary's glory, but of Jesus' glory. Jesus is too great to dwell in the womb of a sinful woman; therefore, God kept Mary free from sin.

This is also true of the Church, which Mary prefigures. In the end, the Church will be "[Christ's] beautiful Bride without spot or wrinkle." Until that time, Mary has a secondary role in addition to being a worthy dwelling place for God: she is "an advocate of grace and a model of holiness."

Mary is an advocate of grace because it was through Mary that God became man. And, it is though Jesus, the God-Man, that all graces come. The graces that come through Mary do not originate from Mary, but from her Son.

Additionally, Mary is a model of holiness. All the saints are models of holiness, which is the primary reason the Church take the time to discover that they are saints. Mary, however, is the model par excellence in imitation of her Son.

Prayer After Communion

May the Sacrament we have received,
O Lord our God,
heal in us the wounds of that fault
from which in a singular way
your preserved Blessed Mary in her Immaculate Conception.

Through Christ our Lord.

Finally, we are wounded by the fault of original sin "from which in a singular way [God] preserved Blessed Mary in her Immaculate Conception." We ask God to heal us from these wounds so that we may become as Mary is: immaculate. This is the state of our first parents before they fell, and it is the state we hope for ourselves. Mary, in a singular way, was given this state at the time of her conception; after the fall, but before our redemption.

The words of these prayers are direct and concise. I have only begun to unpack them. I hope what little explanation I've given will help you to understand the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.