(This excerpt is taken from Dr. Tiel's book, "Why Did Adam Fall?" and other Unasked-for Sermons. To read more, you can get the book from our bookstore here.)
Text: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful” Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX.
Since not all of my readers are Roman Catholic Christians, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, may be less well known to some of you. It is different from the Virgin Birth of Jesus and different from the Incarnation of the Son of God. Let me start, then, with those two doctrines in order to set up the contrast clearly.
First, the Virgin Birth refers to the miraculous birth and conception of Jesus in Mary, his mother. She was a virgin when the Holy Spirit came upon her and impregnated one of her eggs with the person of the Son of God. This impregnation is called the Incarnation of the Son of God, the second of the two well-known doctrines. Prior to the Incarnation, the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were (and are eternally) three Persons in one Divine Substance. But in the Divine Providence, the Father sought someone to rescue mankind in a great redemption, and the Son of God answered the call. Thus, the Son chose to become a man, to clothe himself with flesh (in-carne) but not just by way of a costume (the way angels sometimes appear to us) but by way of nature. Hence, Jesus is both God and man, one person in two natures. His personhood is the Son of God. His natures are his divine and human natures. He really is both God and man, for his personhood (the Son) assumed the human form underlying the matter of the man, or more technically, assumed the soul for Jesus. Thus, Jesus is not schizophrenic as the Gnostics use to allege, when they erroneously claimed that the Incarnation was really a kind of divine possession in which two persons lay within one body. Jesus is the Son of God incarnated as man and eternally God. There aren’t two guys in there. Just one.
So, back to the Virgin Birth. Why was it important? Well, to be truly human, Jesus had to have human DNA. This required a source. Since the Son already had a Father who had eternally begotten him, that divine patronage could not be supplanted by a human father. Thus, God the Father provided miraculously through the Holy Spirit the divine means by which Mary’s egg was fertilized. So, the incarnation had to proceed through a woman for Jesus to be truly human. But a virgin? Well, yes, for several reasons. First, virgins cannot give birth because they cannot be pregnant, unless God performs a miracle. So, the virgin birth signals a miraculous sign that God was up to something. God had performed miraculous births before in the case of Sarah, wife of Abraham, for her son Isaac, in the case of Hannah, wife of Elkanah, for her son Samuel, and in the case of St. Elizabeth, wife of St. Zecharias, for her son St. John the Baptist (there is also the case of St. Anne which we’ll get to shortly). But in each of these cases, God blessed an already existing but infertile marital unity with the gift of human reproduction, signaling great importance for the three figures, Isaac the Patriarch, Samuel the Prophet, and St. John the Baptist the Forerunner to the Messiah. But Mary was something quite special, again, because the one who would be born through her was the Messiah himself. So, God pulled out all the stops in this miraculous birth. Second, the virgin birth protected Jesus against the suggestion that he was really the son of Mary’s husband. She had no husband. Nor had she been with any man. Thus, God was the Father. The baby was not only the Son of Man, but the Son of God. Third, the virginal and incarnate nature of Jesus’ birth protected Jesus’ humanity from the distortion of appetites that results from the fall of our species. Jesus was human, but not a fallen human. When we are born into the world, we find ourselves desiring things that are not good for us, because the fall distorts the connection between what is beautiful and what is good in our perceptions and appetites (St. Paul calls this disorder “the flesh.”) We experience as beautiful or desirable what is often most definitely not good for us. And we find what is good for us often laborious. This situation is not natural, because it does not tend toward the good of human beings (animals don’t seem to have this problem.) Adam and Eve would have been immune to this distortion prior to their fall. They would have found that their desires perfectly accorded with what their rational natures identified as good for them. Wouldn’t it be lovely if what was healthy always seemed best and most desirable? Until Eve’s choice to believe the Serpent’s lies about God’s real intentions regarding the command not to eat the fruit, beauty and goodness matched in her imagination. This same situation was critical for Jesus, because, as the Son of God, beauty and goodness had to match, for God is the Good and is the Beautiful, perfectly. So, there could not be within him a discord between his human nature and his divine nature.
There are other reasons for the significance of the Virgin Birth, such as the sacramental significance of Mary’s feminine humility and obedience through which God bore fruit, something that is universal in that we are all feminine to God’s divine masculinity. Thus, Mary stands as the image of human nature’s proper receptivity to the Divine. It is for this reason that the Church has always recognized her as the preeminent human being, the greatest purely human being who has ever lived. The Church follows the Angel Gabriel’s honoring her in classifying her not merely as a saint, but as “blessed,” the Blessed Virgin.
So, we now have a pretty good idea of what the Incarnation and Virgin Birth mean. All historical, creedal, and Biblical Christian groups including the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and a great many of the various Protestant denominations accept that these two doctrines are true dogmas (a dogma being something that Christians are supposed to believe).
What, then, is the Immaculate Conception, and why is it important? The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s birth, not Jesus’. Mary was born of a marital unity, and her mother’s name was St. Anne. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary means that just as Jesus was protected from the distortion effects of the Fall, so Mary was likewise protected. This means that she, like Adam, Eve, and Jesus, would all have found sin very unattractive. Not impossible (except for Jesus, of course), but difficult to find appealing. It took the Serpent some pretty crafty deception to trick Eve into thinking that a lie about God was true. It apparently took Eve’s fallen beauty and the potential of her eternal loss to convince Adam to share her fate rather than maintain his obedience to God and potentially become part of her salvation. Unlike Adam and Eve, when Mary was presented with the choice of faith, namely to accept mothering the Son, she did so humbly and obediently.
Now, why was this important? Why did Mary need this special protection? It wasn’t to automate her purity, because as a free creature, she had to have the ability to reject her divine Suitor, just as we all have. The Roman Church has offered many theological reasons to explain the rationale for this protection, and there’s no reason for me to re-invent the wheel here, so I’ll just suggest that if you have not already examined those reasons, you might wish to do so. Instead, I’d like to suggest a material reason for the Immaculate Conception, something that, once understood, might help non-Catholics better understand just how important this doctrine is, not only as dogma but as something that makes a good deal of sense.
Within the last century biologists have realized that a woman’s eggs are not manufactured in her body throughout her life, but rather are formed in utero during her own gestation within her mother. That means that half of your DNA, half of your material self in other words, is much older than the other half, because that part of you was grown in your grandmother, as your mother’s fetus was being formed. Think about what this means for Mary’s egg cell into which God incarnated his Son! That cell came into being during Mary’s fetal development within St. Anne. Thus, if Jesus was to be protected from the distortion effects of the Fall, it had to have occurred biologically as early as Mary’s own fetal development within her mother. In other words, Mary had that same protection herself, because part of Jesus was formed within her that early. Thus, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception makes sense biologically in light of the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth.
The Immaculate Conception is not a logical necessity, of course, since God might have extended protection to just that one cell within Mary, but the Church has always maintained that neither the Immaculate Conception nor the Virgin Birth are matters of logical necessity. On the contrary, they are proposed as fitting to the divine plan and appropriate to the grace that God showed Mary.
The relationship between St. Anne and Jesus—that part of what would become Jesus was already present in St. Anne once she became pregnant with the Blessed Virgin—shows a far wider truth, I suspect, namely that there is always a feminine arc that supersedes a single generation. The nurturing of a mother extends not just to her offspring, but necessarily to her grandchildren. Motherhood isn’t complete until the grandchildren are themselves nurtured. Grandmothering nurture differs from motherly nurture in a myriad of ways, many of them linked to distance; grandmothers (in the Western countries) rarely live in the same home as their grandchildren. Thus, part of a grandmother’s role is the nurture that comes despite distance: prayer. A grandmother is a kind of patron saint. We might even say that grandmothering is the final mortal step before sainthood, the final preparation, the schooling that prepares her to join the Blessed Virgin in her prayers for the whole Church.
With so much feminine loss in the United States, some of you probably suffer from the effects of bad mothers. It is comforting to think that you are connected to a larger network, to your grandmother for sure, but, also, via the prayers of saintly mothers and grandmothers, to the Blessed Mother herself. Motherhood was never supposed to be a lonely project. Women were always designed to care for one another across generations as well as within them. But where this or that woman fails in her role, extending suffering and destruction in every direction, the fingers of love from faithful wives, mothers, and grandmothers reach further than our natural families, ultimately, all the way to the Blessed Mother in Heaven who cares for every one of you. Though Mary was not fallen, she knows what it means to suffer, and she bears your sorrow to her Son in Heaven. You are never alone.