One of the more difficult Catholic dogmas to understand or explain is the “Immaculate Conception.” Sometimes this has also caused division among Christians. Let me offer this short reflection on this feast today hoping it may clarify a little bit.
First, Mary is not a demi-god. She is not a co-redemptrix. She is human like us. She is one of us. Vatican II tells us that she is the “first believer,” a pre-eminent member of the Church, an “outstanding model of a life of faith and charity” (LG 53).
There were stirrings in Catholic theology to “deify” her. Sometimes, our exaggerated devotion give that impression. Sometimes the gold that we crown her statues with or the diamonds we place on her vestments point to that direction. We make her a goddess.
But the Church has consistently refused it theologically. Vatican II did not write a single document on Mary despite the significant pressure from some bishops at that time. The reflection about her was integrated with the discussion on the nature of the Church (Lumen Gentium, Ch8). This simply means that Mary is part of the Church, human not a goddess.
Second, because she is not a demi-god, Mary also needed to be redeemed like the rest of us. She is not a “co-redemptrix,” as some would like to call her today. There is only one redeemer — Christ. Being immaculately conceived does not mean she does not need redemption. Vatican II says that Mary was “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son and united to him by a close and indissoluble tie” (LG 53).
Third, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception precisely points to the unique way with which God has redeemed Mary. The great theologian of our century, Karl Rahner, writes about the Immaculate Conception: “Mary is someone who has been redeemed radically…. Mary is…the highest and most radical instance of the realization of salvation…” (Foundations of Christian Faith, 387).
What separates her from us is that she is possessed by God from the beginning of her existence. While we can receive this life of divine intimacy in baptism, she enjoys God’s intimacy from the start. She was truly “full of grace” as the biblical tradition hands it down to us (Lk 1: 26-38), from early Christianity to the great medieval reflections.
Some people today are fond of the expression “I’m so blessed.” Mary was so blessed from the beginning.
If you want to use a theologically loaded term, she enjoys “sanctifying grace” from the moment of her conception, thus, she never knew the state called original sin, the lack of grace brought about by human sinfulness. She was “enveloped from the beginning of her life in the redeeming and saving love of God” (Rahner). There was long debate between the Dominicans and Franciscans on this theological issue but it all boils to the same thing.
However, like the rest of us, this life of radical closeness with God was given her. She did not merit it. There is no such thing as auto-redemption. No one can merit salvation. Not us, not Mary. We all need God’s mercy and compassion. God had mercy on her from the start. She was “full of grace” from the beginning. She has found favor with God, as the angel says (Luke 1: 30).
If Christ’s sacrificial love is what redeems us, Jesus has suffered first and foremost for Mary than anyone else. This is what Edward Schillebeeckx, the Dutch theologian who died recently, wrote: “If we consider Christ’s redemptive suffering on the Cross in its aspect of sacrificial love, we can, and indeed are bound to, conclude that He suffered first and foremost and most of all for Mary…. As the most beautiful creation of his redemptive death, Mary is the person for whom Christ shed his redeeming blood most liberally and with the most fervent sacrificial love” (Mary, Mother of the Redemption, 50).
There are two simple things I want to say in this little reflection.
First, Mary is not a goddess. She is not co-redemptrix. Pope Francis reminds us: “It’s true that Christian piety always gives beautiful titles to her, like a son to the mother … how many beautiful things does a son say to the mother? But pay attention: the [beautiful] things that the Church, the saints, say to Mary, take nothing away from Christ’s uniqueness as a redeemer… He [Christ] is the only redeemer.”
Second, Mary is the model believer, our outstanding model of a life of faith and love. She lived a life of intimacy with God and love of neighbor because God loved her first. We are called to do the same.
Like all of us, she also struggled with her humanness, with pain, with suffering, with injustice, with deceit, with division, with violence, with poverty.
Most intimately, she suffered the pain of injustice done to her own son, maybe like the mothers of sons killed extrajudicially. While she was full of grace from the start, her heart was also pierced with sword as the old man Simeon prophesied by the temple. Despite being immaculately conceived, all these affected her to the depths of her being.
Yet God sustained her. And she remained faithful.
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of LiCAS News or its publishers.