Last Tuesday, I was struck again by how the Catholic Church can often seem to perpetuate misunderstandings within Catholicism. Like the Immaculate Conception…
How many people think that the Immaculate Conception refers to the way in which Jesus was conceived in the womb of his virgin mother? Quite a few. Even many Catholics. And if you go to Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, you receive fuel to add to the fire of your mistake. For, in the Gospel reading for the Feast, we hear of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, telling the young virgin that she will conceive a child in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the big story that the Catholic Church has chosen to emphasize on the day on which we celebrate the Immaculate Conception. So, it would be very natural for one to assume that the “conception” referred to in the Immaculate Conception is this miraculous conception of Jesus, in the womb of a virgin.
But it’s not.
Who Is Immaculate?
Jesus was not immaculately conceived – he was divinely conceived, by the power of God, the Holy Spirit, in the womb of a virgin. (We celebrate this, by the way, on the Feast of the Annunciation, which is on March 25 – nine months before Christmas, hello!) Catholics believe that Mary was immaculately conceived, meaning that she was conceived, she was brought into being from the very beginning, without stain. What stain? The stain of Original Sin.
First Things First…
The key to understanding why the Church has chosen the biblical account of the Annunciation as the Gospel of the day is in the first biblical account read on the Feast.
The First Reading is from the Book of Genesis, telling the story of the first man and the first woman when they fell from Paradise. The woman, who will come to be known as Eve, has succumbed to the temptations whispered to her by the serpent and has gone against God’s will by eating a forbidden fruit. She has given the fruit to the man with her, who has also eaten it. Through this act of disobedience, they come to experience what evil is and feel their smallness, afraid of their vulnerability. And afraid of God. The consequence of this act is that they can no longer live in Paradise – but what we hear on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the consequence for the disobedient and conniving serpent: there will be enmity between him and the woman, and between his seed and her seed. The serpent shall strike at his heal while he strikes at his head.
And, yes, this is a foreshadowing of Christ. As the serpent’s seed represents the devil, Jesus represents the “seed” of the woman. It is good and right to compare the prophecy in the Book of Genesis with the prophecy in the Gospel, by seeing Christ as the promised “seed”. This could, however, lead to confusion again about whose conception we are celebrating on the Feast of December 8 – but only if we forget about The Woman. For, it is also good and right to compare the woman in the Book of Genesis with the woman in the gospel, seeing Mary as the new Eve. This is the main reason why these two readings of the Bible were chosen to be read on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception by the Catholic Church.
Let’s look at that Genesis account…. The first sin of mankind (Original Sin) is what the First Reading of the Feast Day is about – the disobedience of the first man and the first woman.
The first man and the first woman came “fresh and pure from the Creator’s hands”, knowing nothing of disobedience or evil, nothing of sin. Eve was immaculate, stainless, blameless. In this pure state, she was free from the attachments of sin, free from the selfishness and hangups that can weigh a person down and make it difficult to freely and openly choose the generosity of selflessness, of true love. Because she and Adam were in this pure and innocent state, it was even more devastating that they chose self-centeredness and willfulness. Their choice had cosmic consequences. They chose pride and distrust of God. And the world fell.
Now, every human being is “stained” by this Original Sin, darkening the intellect and weakening the will. This is our inheritance from our first parents. In a sense, this is part of our banishment from Paradise, from being able to walk and talk with God as intimately as the first humans did in their pure state.
A lot of people don’t want the woman, Eve, to take so much of the blame. After all, the first man knew all about that tree and was there when she picked its fruit, so he has equal blame. But, it’s important that the Fall of Mankind began with the first woman. In the Bible, it says that she is named Eve because she is the mother of all the living.
The New Eve
God did not want the story of human beings to end with the pain and separation of Original Sin. God chose to free us from evil and restore us to Paradise, through His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. God gave us a second chance. So, He created a New Eve, a human being conceived without the stain of original sin, to try again…
Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus, is understood as the New Eve. God created her and kept her, from the very beginning of her being, free from the stain of Original Sin, so that she may be as innocent and pure as the first Eve. For, the first woman’s cataclysmic free decision in the Garden of Eden must start to be undone by another woman’s free choice of universal impact – the second woman is The Woman, the New Eve: Mary.
Early Christian theologians drew upon the parallel between Eve and Mary. The first Eve said “no” to God by going against God’s will. The New Eve says “yes” to God by accepting God’s will. The old ushered in the Fall of Mankind – but the New opened the way for the Salvation of Mankind, in Jesus Christ. The first Eve gave the tainted and forbidden fruit to the man who was with her. But, the New Eve bore the divine and perfect fruit of her virgin womb to all Mankind. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the New Eve, is the Mother of All the Living in Christ. Death was born through Eve’s act of disobedience and selfishness – but Life was born through Mary’s act of obedience and love.
It is important to remember that God never forces us to do anything. He created us with the gift of freewill so that we may be able to choose love. Love can never be forced. And so Mary had to freely choose. God created her especially for the purpose of being His Son’s mother, fruit bearing the fruit of salvation and eternal life to the world. And never did God see her or treat her as a mere vessel. God wanted her (as He wants every human being) to use her freewill to cooperate with His Plan, which is for our ultimate joy. He sent His messenger, Gabriel, to Mary to announce His Will to her, whom the Angel addressed as “Fall of Grace” – or, in another translation, “Favored One”… and then waits for her response. The whole future of humankind hinged on her response…
© 2015 Christina Chase
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Although crippled by disease, I am fully alive in love. I write about the profound wonder and terrible beauty of life while living with physical disability and severe dependency. Unafraid to ask life's big questions, I was briefly an atheist and considered other religions before finding, in God's choice to intimately share our humanity, what it truly means to be fully human. A revert to the Catholic Faith, I blog weekly and have written a book called It's Good to Be Here.