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The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception

In Brief

Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of the Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, St Anne. This conception is called "immaculate" because Mary, in anticipation of the merits of Christ and in preparation for becoming the Mother of God, was preserved from the stain of original sin. She was also preserved by an abundance of God's grace from all personal sins throughout her life.

In Detail

Original Justice

Adam and Eve were created with special gifts from God. Not only did they have natural life, but they also had supernatural life, a share in God's own divine life (sanctifying grace). This allowed them to have a friendship with God. If Adam and Eve maintained this state of original justice and happiness by obeying God's commands, they would eventually be taken up to Heaven without suffering death. All their descendants would live in the garden as well, having the same blessings.

Original Sin

After Adam and Eve sin, they become afraid of God (Gen 3:8). They lose their share in God's own divine life (sanctifying grace) by committing a mortal sin. Thus, they "die" (Gen 2:17). Since Adam was the head of the human race, he lost the gift of sanctifying grace not only for himself but also for all his descendants. Thus, Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden. Their descendants will be born in a fallen world. Their descendants are now conceived and born without sanctifying grace, lacking friendship with God. We call this lack "original sin," not because it is a personal sin but because it results from sin and causes separation from God.

The Promise of a Redeemer

After Adam and Eve commit the original sin, depriving themselves and their descendants of supernatural life and of friendship with God, God promises that he will one day send a Redeemer:

"I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel." (Gen 3:15)

God speaks these words to the devil, who has tempted Adam and Eve to sin. In this promise, God says that one day, the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent.

The Mother of the Redeemer

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we saw God's promise that there would be a Redeemer, the seed of "the woman." This Redeemer would crush the head of the serpent. In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, we also find a reference to this promise:

"And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars;
she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.
And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon." (Rev 12:1-3)

Again, we have a woman, the woman's offspring, and the serpent (in Hebrew, the word for "serpent" can also mean "dragon"). We know who the woman's offspring, the Redeemer, is since the Bible says: "she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron" (Rev 12:5). Elsewhere in Revelation it is clear that Jesus Christ is the one who rules all nations with a rod of iron (see Rev 2:18, 27; 19:15-16).

The "great red dragon" of Revelation is the devil, the same "serpent" mentioned in Genesis: "And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan" (Rev 12:9). So, Jesus is the Redeemer that God promised in Genesis 3:15. Who, then, is "the woman" of Genesis 3:15?

Right away, we should notice something a little unusual. The Bible does not very often speak of "the seed" of a woman. This is especially strange since Adam is standing right there when God makes the promise in Genesis 3:15. Why did God not say that "Adam's seed" would crush the head of the serpent? The answer is clear when we remember that the promised Redeemer is Jesus: He has no earthly father. By saying that he is "the seed" of "the woman," God is already hinting that Jesus will be born of a woman without the cooperation of a man (the Virgin Birth). If Jesus is "the seed," then "the woman" is his mother, Mary.

In the promise that God made in Genesis 3:15, he says that there will be "enmity" between the woman (Mary) and the serpent (the devil). "Enmity" means hostility or opposition. Someone who is a sinner does not have enmity with the devil, since, as Jesus tells us, "Every one who commits sin is a slave to sin" (Jn 8:34). The implication is that Mary, as prophesied, will not be a sinner but will be without sin. Her freedom from sin will not be something that she has on her own but will be a gift from God to prepare her to be a worthy mother for his divine Son, to be a worthy ark of the New Covenant.

"Full of Grace"

When Gabriel greets Mary, he calls her "full of grace," using a Greek verb tense that indicates that Mary received grace in the past as a stable gift whose effects continue to the present. The effect of the grace that Gabriel talks about is explained by St Paul in Ephesians 1:7 (Paul had used the same Greek verb as Gabriel in the preceding verse) as "redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses." So, Gabriel refers to Mary as "full of grace," meaning that she has already received redemption through the blood of Christ and been preserved from sin. Thus, Christ has redeemed Mary in a more perfect way, by saving her from sin beforehand rather than afterward. We call this preservation of Mary from original sin from the first moment of her conception the Immaculate Conception.