Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR
The Most Holy Virgin is that blessed woman who was to crush with her heel the head of the infernal serpent. God in creating Mary immaculate, scores His great victory over the devil; He reestablishes His sovereignty over the earth, God reenters creation as Master!
~St. Peter Julian Eymard, Founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, 1868
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is one of the most difficult teachings of the Church to understand, both for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Yet, it holds within it an essential truth about Mary and Jesus which deepens our devotion to both. First, however, there is a need to clarify something that has often been confused by the faithful; namely, that the term “Immaculate Conception” describes the conception of Mary, not that of Jesus. Mary was and is a member of the sinful human race, and so it took a special intervention of God at the very moment of her own conception in the womb of her mother, St. Ann, to keep her free from any taint of Original Sin. This is the Immaculate Conception, a privilege that no other person in history could claim except Adam and Eve—before the Fall! When you reflect for a moment on that extraordinary privilege, I think you will see what an astounding event that was.
Yet, when we talk about Mary being conceived without Original Sin we are also saying something essential about Jesus too—let us never forget that all church teachings about Mary directly or indirectly teach us about her Son. Since God was His Father, it was Mary who gave Jesus His humanity, His human nature, His biological reality, but because Mary was sinless from the moment of conception it was impossible for Him to inherit the sin of Adam from her. It wasn’t strictly necessary for Mary to be sinless in order to give birth to Jesus (in fact, the Protestants think she had sin) but the Church teaches that it was fitting, appropriate, and perfect for her to have been a totally clean vessel in which He could enter our world. That is the substance of the doctrine.
That being said, let us dwell for a few moments on the power of Mary’s sinlessness which complements the technical definition of it.
“Sinlessness” (that is, purity) is kind of a foreign concept to our modern culture, isn’t it? We have a hard time getting our minds around the notion of a person who never experienced sin, never committed sin, and never even wanted to sin. Yet, Mary has a sort of mystical power over sin that bears great authority and can strengthen those who are weak or faltering in any area of faith or morality. We need her power and example as our guide in a very impure world.
First of all, purity has the effect of drawing men to all that is good, innocent, and holy. Mary’s sinless life reminds us of the goodness of God in much the same way that a child reminds us of the beauty of innocence. Believe me, when you come from Jersey City and have lived in New York City all your life like I have, you need to be reminded of goodness and innocence once in awhile. Yet, in the long run, purity is more attractive than sin and the human heart cannot stand a life of impurity for long. Even hardened criminals sometimes pay tribute to the value of purity when they tattoo images of Our Lady on their bodies or pay deference to the religious habit that I wear which reminds them of the religious instruction the may have received in their childhood. Purity has that effect: it is powerfully attractive and always draws people to the good.
Purity also protects us from evil. Mary was literally untouchable by the evil one in her lifetime because the devil can only do his work when he has human cooperation, and Mary is the only human being outside of Jesus who he could not seduce into sin. During the apparitions at Lourdes (1858) when St. Bernadette was experiencing a vision of Our Lady, she heard a clamor of demonic voices coming from the nearby river yelling at Mary, “Begone! Begone!” In the midst of the clamor, the Immaculate Mary cast a sidelong glance in the direction of the voices, and Bernadette heard the demons run screaming away from the scene, following which great peace was restored. What an astounding wonder of nature and grace is Mary’s perfect purity: demons are put to flight by a single glance of hers!
We call Mary the “Queen Conceived Without Original Sin” because she was perfectly pure in her earthly life and now exercises an immense power over baptized souls to keep us pure from the power of sin and evil. But of course she will never impose herself up on us. We must place ourselves under the great authority of her purity and recommit ourselves daily to remaining free of sin. Mary will help us because it is her greatest joy to see us free from sin and full of grace; that is, becoming more and more like her Son every day.
Dearest Mother of unsurpassable purity, create within us clean and pure hearts that desire only what is of God. Teach us to reject all sin and evil, and transform the world through the power of sinlessness working in the hearts of Christians. We ask this in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[Excerpted from: Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Jesus and Mary: In Praise of their Glorious Names, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.: Huntington, Indiana, 2012.]