Hail Mary, Full of Grace: The Immaculate Conception Explained

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By Elizabeth Zahorick, Notre Dame

The words are recited millions of times a day by Catholics all over the world: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” We are so accustomed to this phrase in our daily prayers that we lose sight of the significance of what is being said. What does it mean for someone to be full of grace?

This question becomes particularly pertinent when examining the basis for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, commemorated annually on December 8th by Catholics around the world. This dogma holds that Mary was free from original sin from the first moment of her conception and did not suffer from the consequences of the Fall as did every other descendant of Adam and Eve (except, of course, her son Jesus) [1]. This doctrine has been a part of Church teaching since the days of the Church Fathers, when Augustine explicitly stated that Mary was completely free from sin [2]. The feast of the Immaculate Conception was celebrated throughout the Middle Ages [3], but the teaching was not defined as dogma until 1854, when Pope Pius IX proclaimed it ex cathedra as an infallible Church teaching.

Although widely accepted by Catholics, this dogma was highly controversial at the time. A small minority of Catholics rejected the authority of Pius IX to define dogma infallibly in 1870 and broke away from the Church, calling themselves the “Old Catholics” [4]. Opposition from Protestants was based on the claim that the Immaculate Conception has no basis in Scripture [5]. It never says explicitly in the Bible that Mary was conceived without original sin, so how can the Church affirm it as true?

Pius IX, in the apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus, provides examples of Scripture verses that point the way to the Immaculate Conception. One of these is the fact that Mary was greeted by the angel Gabriel with the salutation “Hail, full of grace” [6]:

When the Fathers and writers of the Church meditated on the fact that the most Blessed Virgin was, in the name and by order of God himself, proclaimed full of grace by the Angel Gabriel when he announced her most sublime dignity of Mother of God, they thought that this singular and solemn salutation, never heard before, showed that the Mother of God is the seat of all divine graces and is adorned with all gifts of the Holy Spirit. To them Mary is an almost infinite treasury, an inexhaustible abyss of these gifts, to such an extent that she was never subject to the curse and was, together with her Son, the only partaker of perpetual benediction [7].

It is worth noting that nowhere else in the Bible is someone declared to be “full of grace” [8]. This alone helps us to understand that there is something different about Mary, something that separates her from the rest of us poor sinners. The Greek word translated as “full of grace” is kekaritomene, which is translated literally as “she who has been graced.” The use of this particular verb tense, the perfect passive tense, to describe Mary indicates that something has been completed in her that is reflected in her current state of being [9]. In Mary, grace has been brought to perfection and completion. There is nothing lacking in her, no way in which she could be improved.

This raises an obvious question: if Mary is truly “full of grace” and free from all sin, including original sin, how did she get that way? Mary’s conception occurred before Christ took on human flesh and began His earthly mission of redemption for mankind. This seems to imply that Mary’s preservation from original sin took place in some way that is separate from the redemption brought to all mankind through Christ. One could easily take the dogma of the Immaculate Conception to mean that Catholics believe Mary did not need Christ, and that she was somehow made perfect without Him.

This conclusion only logically follows from a conception of God as bound by time in the same way that humans are. It is true that people who died before the Incarnation and Resurrection were only brought to heaven by Christ after His death. However, God is eternal and exists outside of time, which means He is not limited by time in any way. Blessed John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan theologian of the Scholastic period, applied this principle of the eternal nature of God to solve the problem of Mary’s redemption [10]. Like all other human beings, Mary was redeemed through the merits won for the human race by Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Because God desired that Mary be a pure and perfect vessel for the Word Incarnate, He willed that she should be preserved from all sin in a special way that no other person would be. Christ’s Resurrection preserved her even though, from her point of view, it had not happened yet.

If we examine this from our limited, time-constrained human perspective, this means that God foresaw the Resurrection at the time of Mary’s conception and retroactively applied the redeeming grace of Christ to Mary in a special way that preserved her from all sin. However, God is eternally present in the moment of the Immaculate Conception and the moment of the Resurrection in the same way that He is present in all moments in time. He does not see them as “past” or “future” events the same way we do. This means that although the idea of Christ redeeming Mary “before” the Incarnation seems strange to us, it is entirely possible for our eternal and omnipotent God.

By being made “full of grace” from the first moment of her conception, Mary is a powerful sign of hope for all Christians. She is living proof that humanity can be brought to perfection through Christ. Although we still suffer from the effects of original sin, we see in Mary what the future holds for us if we remain faithful to Christ. Through our cooperation with God’s grace, we can hope that one day our corruptible nature will “put on” incorruptibility and our mortal bodies will become immortal bodies [11]. When our bodies are glorified, we will be as freed from sin and perfected in grace as Mary has been from the first moment of her existence. Mary’s Immaculate Conception shows us not only the awe-inspiring power of what God can do, but the full realization of what God wants to do for us and will do for us if we let Him.

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, pray for us!

Citations

[1] “Ineffabilis Deus.” Papal Encyclicals, www.papalencyclicals.net/pius09/p9ineff.htm.

[2] Augustine, On Nature and Grace.

[3] “History of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: EWTN.” EWTN Global Catholic Television Network, www.ewtn.com/catholicism/teachings/history-of-the-doctrine-of-the-immaculate-conception-117.

[4] “Immaculate Conception.” Immaculate Conception – New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Immaculate_Conception.

[5] Herringer, Carol Engelhardt. “Mary as Cultural Symbol in the Nineteenth Century”. In Maunder, Chris (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Mary. Oxford University Press 2019. Print.

[6] Challoner, Richard, and Michael Tweedale. The Holy Bible: Douay-rheims Version : the Old Testament First Published by the English College at Douay, A.d. 1609, and the New Testament First Published by the English College at Rheims, A.d. 1582. London: Baronius Press, 2008. Print.

[7] “Ineffabilis Deus.”

[8] Staples, Tim. “The Immaculate Conception in Scripture.” Catholic Answers, Catholic Answers, 20 Feb. 2019, www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/the-immaculate-conception-in-scripture.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “History of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: EWTN.”

[11] Challoner, Richard, and Michael Tweedale. The Holy Bible: Douay-rheims Version.

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