Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Immaculate Conception

A brief article on the Immaculate Conception followed by a poem narrating upon this mystery of faith; drawing from Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

 Why the Immaculate Conception?...Why Not?

Detail of Mary as the Immaculate Conception, stained glass, late 1800's.
The Immaculate Conception is the mystery of faith that states that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin, because the Blood of Christ redeemed Her preveniently at the instant of Her conception. Hence for our Lady Her conception and Her sanctification were one single event; and this preservation from sin is the Fruit of Christ’s Redemption, and all other fruits of Christ’s saving Passion are blossoms extending forth from this most supple first fruit - since although Christ is the "first fruit" of Redemption, Mary in Christ is also a "first fruit" (see footnote).* Now that which is inferior depends on that which is superior, thus truly the inferior effect of Christ’s Passion of saving humanity from sin incurred, is dependent upon the superior effect of Christ’s Passion which saved Mary from incurring sin altogether. We might ask ourselves: ‘Why would God do this? Why would God preserve Mary from contracting original sin?’ Employing the argument of Blessed Duns Scotus we would reply: God could have brought about (1) that she was never in original sin; (2) that she was in original sin for only an instant, and (3) that she was in sin for a period of time, being purged at the last instant. The most excellent of these possibilities –that she was never in original sin – God would have wrought for Mary. For although God could have restrained the grace He worked on Mary, would He? Certainly not, because She was chosen from the beginning to be the Mother of the Word, and thus of God; and it was Her very own flesh, and Her flesh alone that formed the very flesh of the Word Incarnate; and so how could God allow that such flesh should be stained by original sin? How could God allow the very flesh which would form the human body of Christ to be tainted in any way? He could not, and perhaps there could have been a different way of God's becoming flesh but He chose the way of Mary; and thus by the merits of Christ’s Passion – not yet occurring in time but manifesting through eternity - God redeemed and sanctified Mary from the instant of Her conception – hence the Immaculate Conception.
Icon of the Visitation
Furthermore we consider John the Baptist who was sanctified in the womb of Elizabeth when Mary who was visiting greeted her (Lk 1:39-56). This John was the holiest among all those who belonged to the Old Covenant, but his dignity by grace is by no means superior to those who live in the Kingdom of God in New Covenant of the Holy Eucharist: since the Lord says: “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Lk 7:28). Then we consider Jeremiah the Prophet who was likewise miraculously sanctified in the womb, long before the time of John the Baptist. Wherefore in Scripture we read: “Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee, and made thee a prophet unto the nations.” (Jer 1:5). Now if these men were sanctified, that is cleansed of original sin (always and only by the merits of Christ) prior to their birth, and prior to their rational competency, what then shall we say of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Shall she have been merely sanctified in the womb after having contracted original sin like these other holy men? Or would God not have worked an even greater wonder for the woman chosen to give human flesh to the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity? Certainly, and that He did; hence the Church in 1854 declared this truth of Mary’s Immaculate Conception a dogma of the faith.[1]

The Immaculate Conception in the Writings of the Early Fathers

Yet the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not a novel teaching, it has always been a mystery of faith, but it was for some time a somewhat hidden one. The dogma is hidden in Scripture and traces its roots right back to the early Church, such as in the writings of the Early Fathers. For example St. Gregory of Nazianzen (329-390 A.D.) speaks of Mary as Prokathartheisa, which means ‘Prepurified One’, writing: “In every way He [Christ] became a man, save sin; for He has been conceived from a virgin, after she had been prepurified with respect to soul and body through the Holy Spirit (for it was necessary that His birth be honoured, and virginity prior to that)”.[2] St. Sophronius the Hagiopolite (560-638 A.D.) developed this handed down Patristic teaching by referring to Mary as being already “stainless” prior to Incarnation-event. He writes: “The Holy Spirit comes down upon you, the stainless woman; It is going to make you more pure…”[3] In a most wonderful manner St. John Damascene (676-749 A.D.) writes concerning the conception of Mary as follows:

And I have another theme higher and more divine; for nature is conquered by grace…so that the Theotokos virgin was about to be born from Anne. Nature didn’t dare to anticipate grace’s offspring, but remained fruitless, until grace [itself] produced fruit…O all-blessed loins of Joachim, from which the all-pure seed was sown.[4]

Here John Damascene refers to Mary’s conception as an occasion in which grace conquered nature, and in which grace worked before nature; whilst calling the very seed who was Mary - all-pure. It is clear that the Immaculate Conception is by no means a novel teaching, but a truth that has been hidden in the deposit of faith like an artifact in the sand, which across the ages has been slowly revealed by theological brushings.

The Immaculate Conception in Sacred Scripture

The truth of the Immaculate Conception is implicitly contained in Sacred Scripture. Citing the interpretations of the Early Church Fathers and ecclesiastical writers Pope Pius IX in the Apostolic Constitution ‘Ineffabilis Deus’ – in which  the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was officially proclaimed – writes:


This sublime and singular privilege of the Blessed Virgin, together with her most excellent innocence, purity, holiness and freedom from every stain of sin, as well as the unspeakable abundance and greatness of all heavenly graces, virtues and privileges -- these the Fathers beheld in that ark of Noah, which was built by divine command and escaped entirely safe and sound from the common shipwreck of the whole world; in the ladder which Jacob saw reaching from the earth to heaven, by whose rungs the angels of God ascended and descended, and on whose top the Lord himself leaned' [and] in that bush which Moses saw in the holy place burning on all sides, which was not consumed or injured in any way but grew green and blossomed beautifully…

Created Wisdom, a Spotless Mirror, and a Garden Enclosed
The Virgin and Child (in 'Hortus Conclusus'), Stefano da Verona, 1410.
Another Scriptural allusion to Mary’s Immaculate Conception is the verse from the Book of Wisdom that describes Mary as the created Wisdom – the Sophia – of God. On one level the Hebraic personification of Wisdom as a woman is an allegorical way of referring to the Holy Spirit – the Uncreated Wisdom of God, yet on another level it refers to Mary as the created Wisdom of God who is the Seat of Eternal Wisdom.[5] “For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wis 7:25-26). Mary is indeed “a spotless mirror” for no sin – neither original sin nor personal sin – has sullied her, since “nothing defiled gains entrance into her” so that as “a spotless mirror” she reflects perfectly the Eternal Light. This notion of Mary being immaculate – so that “nothing defiled” can gain “entrance into her” is emphasised in the Church Father's interpretation of the following verse from the Song of Songs as referring to Mary’s virginity and moral purity: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed.” (4:12). This notion of Mary being ‘locked’ and ‘sealed’ refers not only to Her Perpetual Virginity, but to Her immaculacy from all sin. Since Mary not only never opened Her human will to allow the defilement of sin to enter into her soul; but Her soul - by the grace of God - was never opened to original sin at all, and hence Mary in Her Immaculate Conception is “a garden locked” and “a fountain sealed”. In fact the Hebrew word used for “locked” or “sealed” in this verse (לוענ) is the only instance where this version of the word is used in the Scriptures; having the same numerical (absolute: 156) value as the word meaning 'the tent' or 'tabernacle' (דעומ להא). Thus why was Mary “sealed” and “locked” up? In other words, why did God cause Mary to be Immaculately Conceived? Because She was destined to be the Mother of God, that is, the Tabernacle and Tent for the Divine Presence of the Word.

The Pure Vessel Filled with Grace

A similar notion of purity being associated with ‘being sealed’ is alluded elsewhere in the Scriptures: “And every open vessel, which has no cover fastened upon it, is unclean.” (Num 19:15). Yet Mary is the Immaculate Vessel of God which had the cover of God’s Light – His Will and His grace – over Her from the very instant of Her conception which shielded Her from the uncleanliness of sin. Not only this, but Mary was the Sacred Vessel which was ‘full of grace’ – that is, filled with God without ‘room’ or ‘space’ for the slightest trace of sin. “Hail full of grace” (Lk 1:28) said the Archangel Gabriel, so that it is as if he said: “Hail, Immaculate Conception, O Spotless Vessel in which all grace is found as though in a treasury!”

The Red Heifer

Inspection of the Red Heifer
A final Scriptural allusion to Mary and the Her Immaculate Conception that we will consider is the mystery of the red heifer – a female cow. In the Old Testament Law one was deemed ritually unclean when someone died in one’s tent or when one came into contact with a corpse. The prescribed custom to become ritually pure involved the slaughtering, and then burning of a red heifer, with its ashes mixed in clean spring water in a vessel. This mixture was then sprinkled on the subject by a ritually clean priest in order to make the defiled subject clean again. However the ritual would be void if the red heifer was blemished, since the requirements of the red heifer were as follows: “Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and upon which a yoke has never come.” (Num 19:2). “According to a rabbinic tradition, Solomon sought to fathom the precise explanation of the law of the red heifer (Numbers 19) but finally had to admit: I said, ‘I will become wise’ – but it is beyond me. [Ecc 7:23]”[6] So that even Solomon failed to grasp the meaning of this decree. The famous twelfth century rabbi Maimonides (1135-1204 A.D.) wrote: “Nine red heifers have been sacrificed between the delivering of this precept and the desolation of the Second Temple…the tenth King Messiah himself shall sacrifice.” One level of interpretation, which certain Christians have enunciated, is that the law of the red heifer alludes to Jesus the sinless One, who by His sacrificial death on the Cross makes those who have come into contact with the death of sin and are thus morally impure – spiritually clean. Hence Christ as Priest and Victim is this tenth red heifer which He sacrificed on Calvary by sacrificing Himself. This is a true interpretation, however another level of interpretation, which addresses the reality of the red heifer being a female, is that the tenth red heifer and the mystery of the red heifer in general, is the Virgin Mary; who Christ as Priest spiritually sacrificed on the Altar of the Cross in a crucifixion of fire – of love. Since Salvation is Christ and comes from Christ who is the Redeemer, but it comes through Mary the Mystical Red Heifer, as Co-Redemptrix, who sacrificed Herself on Calvary -as a burnt offering of love -  with, in and through Christ.

The law of the red heifer refers also to the Immaculate Conception of Mary – since the red heifer had to “be without defect, in which there is no blemish, and upon which a yoke has never come”. “Without defect” refers to how Mary was complete, immaculate or perfect, since the corresponding Hebrew word (המָימִתְּ֭) is used elsewhere to mean ‘is perfect’ (Ps 19:7).  “No blemish” refers to how Mary was free from all sin, since sin detracts from one’s wholeness and integrity, as is garnered from the use of the corresponding Hebrew word which refers to blemishes such as being blind, mutilated, lame etc. (i.e. Lev 21:17). “Upon which a yoke has never come” specifically refers to how Mary was free from original sin, since the yoke is a symbol of labour and toil, which in a literal and metaphorical manner is the curse of original sin placed upon Adam and Eve at the Fall (Gen 3:16-19, the yoke of labour pains for the woman, and the yoke of physical labour for the man). Thus the fact that the red heifer had to never have had a yoked placed upon it, alludes to Mary being the one who was conceived without having the yoke of original sin placed upon Her. The Jewish tradition allows no more than one black or white hair to be found on the red heifer, which must be completely red, even its hoofs. Through this literal red heifer comes physical redemption from ritual uncleanliness. However the mystical Red Heifer who is Mary, was without a single hair – by which it is meant a single blemish – and this perfection was necessary because through this mystical Red Heifer  spiritual redemption comes. In fact the Jewish people await a literal red heifer that meets the prescribed requirements, and deem the red heifer as a necessary means to the physical redemption of ritual cleanness. In the same manner the spiritual Redemption won by Christ Jesus could only take place and be effected because the Red Heifer of the Virgin Mary met the requirement of being immaculate from the instant of her conception. Without this Red Heifer Jesus would not have been able to enter the world as a man and thus bring about the promised  Redemption – of course He could have, but He willed to come to earth in this fashion through a spotless woman - or rather, through the spotless woman. The fact that the red heifer had to be red all over alludes to how and why Mary was Immaculately Conceived: because She was redeemed and sanctified by the Blood of Christ through eternity, which completely covered and filled Her, from the first instance of Her creation in the womb of Anne.[7]

'I am the Immaculate Conception'

Our Lady appearing to St. Bernadette
Last of all we come to consider the words our Lady spoke to St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in France, in 1858 (four years after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception). Asking the mysterious Lady for her name, Bernadette received the response: “I am the Immaculate Conception”. By this title our Lady does not say “I was immaculately conceived” but “I am the Immaculate Conception”. Thus not only was Mary immaculatey conceived, but She is the Immaculate Conception; and more specifically as St. Maximillian Kolbe came to understand: She is the created Immaculate Conception, whilst the Holy Spirit is the Uncreated Immaculate Conception. This is because the Holy Spirit is the uncreated fruit or the uncreated conception of the love between God the Father and God the Son. Whilst Mary is the created fruit and created conception of love between God the Father and God the Son; and between St. Joseph and Jesus in His humanity. Not only this, but Mary – and Jesus in His humanity (since the two cannot be divorced) or the Incarnation – is considered the first thought conceived by God outside of the Godhead; and God’s ‘thoughts’ being Purity itself thus renders it appropriate to say Mary is the Immaculate Conception. In the same manner of expression Jesus says of Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25). Conception is the beginning of life or the gateway of life, but it is not life itself or the origin of life per say.[8] Thus Mary as the Immaculate Conception is rightly the portal, doorway and gateway to Jesus who is the source and origin of Life, and is indeed Life itself. Thus when the Lord says: “Enter through the narrow gate” (Mt 7:13), He is really inviting us to enter into the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and into She who is the Immaculate Conception itself.


        In Eden’s garden

Where soil was moist from dew,

God did plant single crystal seed,

        Five and forty spans[i]

Deep, as spittle sacred;         

From which Adam’s gleaming face grew.

        Then from inside He

God took rib that was pearl,

From which Eve’s curves were created.

        Yet crystal and pearl                                                  10

Both lost their silky shine,

When around fruit, lip-clams did curl

        To taste sensual juice.

And enticed was her bite,

Since Eve, snake first deceived to dine.

        For that envious

Fiend who lost his silk glow

Wanted also man’s lamp of light

        To fall, crash and die.

Thus by swaying sweet Eve,                                      20

Adam swayed. Therefore both did blow

        Out that spark of life

Divine; which though was lost

By Eve – who first did dear God grieve –

       ‘Twas when Adam ceased

Stoking vigil fire

That love’s heat cooled to fiend’s dark frost;

        Which bit first Eve, who

First bit fruit; and then bit

He; so that all men in mire                                         30

        Did fall and did freeze

In four thousand year long

Winter; during which none could knit

        Warm silky-wool gown.

Thus all Adam’s tainted

Seed, that to soil black did belong, 

        Did shiver in cold,

For conceived mere rags wore.

Yet unwound was untainted

        Silken-wool -which was                                            40

Stored away since man’s fall-

When Adam New his thread let tore.

        For us wolves He let

Us shear from Him fleece pure;

When our sins His manhood did maul,

        With iron sharp teeth.

Thus what Adam’s fall lost,

New Adam’s rising did secure;

        And this pure silk wool

Is meant for all who’ll cast                                        50

Off their fig leaf of shame, for soft

        Smooth cloud of Holy

Ram, whose lofty raiment

Doth clothe those who drink from His flask

        Of blood sweet wine which

Cleanses stains and makes warm.

And this chosen flock did ferment

        Through their baptism

Of water then fire.

Yet all these redeemed were reborn                           60

        Not first, since nature

Doth require offspring

To spawn from parent’s love prior.

        And as in flesh all came

From first two human beings,

So from New Eve and Adam spring

        All children of God

Who are conceived and born

Anew in spirit. And She weans

        This Supernal Eve                                                     70

From breast, those whom are fit

To chew on heaven’s bread and corn.

        But from whence did She

This lovely Eve arise?

In blessed Anne’s womb She was knit,

        As sacred white pearl

Without first Adam’s stain,

Thus Her planting was true sunrise

        For a darkened world.

And what spared Her from grime                              80

Was the bubble of light that came

        To clad this Ewe when

At once She was conceived,

So that not at all was there time

        For pearl to be touched

By Adam’s sinful dross,

Which was tree of life’s ancient seed.

        And this ancient seed

Was also New Adam’s

Mystic rib plucked from side on cross.                                90

        With this fair dame named

‘Mother of all living’;

For through Ram She birthed blessed lambs,

        Since She is Pure Ewe[ii]

Whose fleece was doused with dew[iii]

Of the Eternal Thanksgiving

        Of Father and Son.

Indeed She was destined

To be Dew that wrapped Manna New.[iv]

        Since as this fine Dew                                                    100

She acts as bubble-shield

Which wraps each lamb predestined

        For Passover’s flame

Of God’s essence, as fine

Joseph’s wool coat that him concealed.

        ‘Twas Her role as Mum

Of all things that prompted

Her spotless entrance in time.

       Yet because the first

Thought God conceived in mind                               110

Outside of Himself resulted

          In the beauteous
Form and shape of Mary –

Which God then used for human kind

        And all creation,

As motive to create

And as blue print guide – it’s very

        True to say that She

The New Eve although called

‘Mother of all living’, also                                         120

        Goes by other name:

Which lips of creation

Venerate in refrain of laud:

        “Who is She the Dawn,

Whose beauty dazzles all?

Immaculate Conception.”


* First Fruit: Jesus is the first fruit of Redemption whence we read: "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." (1 Cor 15:20). Note the fact that the term uses is "first fruits" in the plural, not the singular "first fruit". Indeed the Greek word used is  'aparchē' which is sometimes translated in the plural (i.e. 1 Cor 15:16; Rev 14:4). The plural aspect alludes to the fact that although Christ is the First Fruits, Mary by effect of Her Immaculate Conception is a first fruit in, with and through Christ.

[1] There is a tradition that asserts that Saint Joseph was sanctified prenatally immediately after the moment of his conception; hence he contracted original sin but only for the briefest of moments according to this position. I strongly adhere to this position, for it is in accord with the dignity of Joseph who was chosen to be the Virginal Father of Jesus, a dignity surpassed by no other creature except that of the Blessed Virgin Mary the Mother of God.

[2] Gregory Nazianzen, In Theophania: Oration, 38 (PG, 325B 41-42).

[3] Sophronius, In Sacntissimae Deiparae Annuntiationem (PG 87.3, 3273D 43).

[4] Bonifatius Kotter 5, p. 170; (John Damascene, Oratio in nativitatem sanctae…, 2, II. 1-17).

[5] A Christological understanding of the feminine Wisdom mentioned in the Wisdom texts is one level of valid and necessary interpretation; yet to narrow one’s interpretation to this – to the exclusion of the Marian dimension – undercuts the literal fact that this allegory of Wisdom is feminine for a reason. Indeed it speaks of the Holy Spirit, but also of Mary in synergy or in union with the Holy Spirit – since concerning this Wisdom the author writes: “For in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted…” etc. (Wis 7:22) This indicates that this is speaking of someone who is created or else instead of saying “in her is a spirit that is…” it would say “She is a Spirit that is….”

[6] The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Trans. & Comm. Daniel C. Matt, Footnote 305.

[7] In fact this redness also alludes to the ruddiness of hair possessed by Jesus and Mary, since such redness is a sign and symbol of the House and Davidic Line of Judah to which both belonged.

[8] In Genesis the opening word is Berishit (תישׂארב) which is translated as ‘In the beginning’ but literally means ‘In Beginning’. We can interpret this word to mean ‘In Immaculate Conception God created the heavens and the earth.’ Which would also mean: ‘In Mary God created the heavens and the earth.’ Since conception is the beginning of life, and the first letter of the word Berishit is Bet, which serves as a symbol for a house, House of God, or mother – ultimately, the Mother of God who is the House in whom the Most High dwells. The notion of God’s first thought outside of Himself being Mary and Her Immaculate Conception is supported by this very fact, that the first thought recorded in Scripture is ‘In Immaculate Conception’. The fact that Jesus says “I am the beginning and the end” derives from the fact of His human nature, concerning which it is written: “the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth… all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:15b-16). Yet seeming as Jesus obtained His human nature in Mary, at once we can say Mary is the first-born of all creation in whom and for whom all things were created; since the first-born son and first born daughter cannot be separated – since concerning Jesus and Mary it is truly the case like no other, for they literally share the same flesh: that “they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19:6).

[i] Five and forty spans: Alluding to the numerical value (ordinal value) of the name ‘Adam’ in Hebrew ( ם א ד ) which bears further theological significance.

[ii] Pure Ewe: Mary is the Mother of the Lamb of God, hence we may allegorically refer to Mary the Ewe. Such an interpretation has explicit undercurrents with Rachel who is a type of our Lady, and Rachel’s name contains the same letters in the same order as the Hebrew word for ewe –a female sheep: לחֵרָ. This interpretation has long been held in the Church, for example the bishop Melito of Sardis around 170 A.D. refers to Mary in an apology to Marcus Aurelius, in the form of an Easter Homily, as “Mary, the fair ewe”. Within this poem although the concept of Mary being the Ewe in the sense of being the Mother of Christ is implicitly referenced; the mystery of Mary being the New Eve and thus the spouse of the New Adam is the main motif of this poem; hence Mary is referred to as the Ewe and Christ the Ram –which has strong biblical allusions (i.e. when Abraham sacrifices the ram with its horns caught in the bushes in the stead of Isaac (Gen 22:13); an allusion to the sacrifice of Christ the Ram on the Cross, who wore a crown of thorns).

[iii] Whose fleece was doused with dew: In Judges we read: “Then Gideon said to God, "If thou wilt deliver Israel by my hand, as thou hast said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that thou wilt deliver Israel by my hand, as thou hast said." And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water.” (Jud 6:36-38). Gideon doesn’t trust God and so he asks for a further sign of having the fleece dry and only the ground all around it dry (Jud 6:39-40). The first instance of the sign of the fleece represents our Lady whose flesh was wet with the dew of God’s Purity; and this alludes to Her Immaculate Conception which was when this dew moistened Mary’s flesh –an occasion which was the Dawn of sanctity and redemption, hence the reference to “morning” in regards to the first fleece. The Immaculate Conception was truly the sign that God would deliver Israel from sin and death, and from the servility of the Law into the grace of adoption as ‘sons of God’. However the second instance of the sign of the fleece refers to us who are ‘dry’ and conceived in original sin, because we are only moistened with the sanctifying dew of the Holy Spirit in Baptism. Hence the reference to “night” in regards to this second sign, without the mention of morning.

[iv] To be Dew that wrapped Manna New: In Exodus we read how “in the morning dew lay round about the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground” (Ex 16:14) –that is manna. Hence the manna was coated and hidden beneath the veil of the dew, just as Christ Jesus the Bread of Life, the New Manna, was hidden and veiled by the dew of Mary, by the dew of Her Immaculate Womb.