The Logic of the Immaculate Conception
The doctrine that most bewilders and disturbs Christians outside the Catholic faith is the Immaculate Conception. It is surprising for many to come to see that it is profoundly Christological. Mary’s being conceived without sin has, as its ultimate reference, the birth of Jesus. Christ, to save us, had to truly assume our humanity. But to be organically connected to all men, Christ had to receive His humanity from another human person. All human beings receive their humanity from their parents.
The miracle of Jesus birth, which all Christians agree on, is that Jesus receives His humanity only from Mary. He is conceived by her through the Holy Spirit. The problem here is original sin. All human nature is stained by this first sin and so the only humanity for offer would seemingly be a fatally tainted one. Therefore, out of sheer logical necessity, God needed somehow to prepare a purified human nature that Christ could receive. This becomes the reason why Mary had to be conceived without sin.
But the mystery becomes even more profound. Remember that the only way in which human nature can be purified of all sin is through the Cross of Christ. To understand the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception properly, it is important to note Mary’s relationship to Jesus. When she accepts to bear God’s Son, Mary cries out to Elizabeth, “My spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.” (Luke 1:47) Here, Mary states that she has experienced the salvific power of God. Now if Mary has any sin, original or actual, she could not have given to Christ a spotless humanity. But, on the other hand, Christ was coming into the world to be that remedy for sin. This would seem to create a chronological impasse: Mary had to be sinless, but the one to remove sin was the coming Christ. Thus, there would seem to be no entry point for Jesus – all were tainted with sin.
Here we touch the mystery of time. We understand and experience time as linear. However, with God, all time is present to Him. Rev 13:8 speaks of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Humanly speaking this is not conceivable. How can Christ have died before the world was created? Now to God all times (past, present, and future) are eternally present to Him. Thus, what for us is a future reality is for God eternally present. In God, the grace of the Cross was applied to Mary so that she was conceived without sin. She too experienced the grace of Jesus, the Saviour. From our human perspective we would say this was done “in advance” (or proleptically). But from eternity’s perspective, it was a “present reality” – as are the Cross and Resurrection.
The logic of the Mary’s immaculate conception is clear: for Christ to have a real humanity untainted by sin, Mary had to be preserved from sin. She too is caught up in the salvific design of God, not by exclusion but by the application of the grace of the Cross in her very conception.