Living in Advent Peace: Celebrating the Immaculate Conception
At Christms, perhaps most of all times in the year, Christians recall that our Lord has a mother. With her Son, Mary of Nazareth presents a stumbling block to the world’s fads and decadence; and far too often, her images and tradition of devotion present an offense to Protestantism’s scruples and proper avoidance of idolatry. So at this juncture of the year, we might ask, what does all the fuss about Mary really mean?
Mary means many things to the Church, who honors her as its prototype. Mary is the instantiation of the New Testament promise that “by grace you have been saved by faith; and that not of yourselves- it is the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast.” We celebrate Mary because she is the one first saved by the prevenient and supremely efficacious grace of her Creator and Savior, and in her profoundly simple person we see the personal model of the promise that we can ultimately be saved by grace alone. Above all others, Mary has nothing that she has not received.
In the Gospel account, notice that the angel of the Lord does not hail Mary as being “full of merit,” but merely, “full of grace.” Mary’s appropriate response in her Magnificat is to proclaim the greatness of God, who has looked with mercy on her own lowliness. And that is precisely why she is rightly exalted. In the Church’s belief that Mary was preserved by grace from the moment of her conception in view of her motherhood of Jesus, the one Redeemer of the world, we confess that because Mary is most clearly God’s handiwork, we pay attention to Mary because we live in the hope of the same work. In other words, Mary is Christian soteriology personified.
These proposals are developed beautifully by Bl. Duns Scotus, who wrote of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in his twelfth century Ordinatio. Scotus explains that Mary enjoyed real sanctification in view of the imputed merits of her son, by which she was protected from original sin from the very moment of her conception. In this regard, Mary was the prime recipient of the imputation of the merits of Christ, both in temporal terms as well as in qualitative and quantitative terms; this is clarified by Scotus’ ensuing explanation that Mary is the most redeemed and most sanctified, by being the one to whom Christ’s merit is most imputed:
It was evident that the door was open to her through the merits of Christ that were foreseen and accepted in a special way for this person, so that because of his passion this person was never in a state of sin…for thus God determined that although he had accepted the foreseen passion of Christ to remit original sin of all who have believe in that passion, nevertheless he only remitted that punishment due to the sin… for the sake of the passion he foresaw, since it was exhibited as present.
Scotus thus describes Mary’s redemption as the most perfect instance of the imputation of Christ’s merit; hers is a unique reception of imputation so strong that it ontologically transforms her and sets her apart from every other creature:
For a most perfect mediator has a most perfect act of mediation, possible with respect to some person for whom he intercedes… (And) with respect to no person did He have a more excellent degree than regards Mary… because He merited to preserve her from original sin.
Thomas Aquinas, drawing directly from Augustine, agrees with this notion of Mary’s preeminent privilege in her redemption, explicitly in Summa III.27 ad 2, and implicitly when considering another issue in Super Psalmos 51: “also the mercy of God is reckoned among those things because it removes sins. But it is better that it should be removed all together.” In sum, Aquinas agrees with Scotus that “it is a more excellent benefit to preserve one from evil than to permit one to fall into it and then free such.” In other words, Scotus reasons that if coming into being in the state of original sin is the greatest punishment possible for a child of Adam, then the greatest instantiation of Christ’s redemption is the preservation and rescue of one creature from the greatest punishment; “therefore if Christ has reconciled us most perfectly to God, He has merited that this most grave punishment itself be taken from someone- His mother.”
In fact, given that Christ’s reparation and reconciliation remedy original sin even more immediately than actual sin, such that Christ is more urgently the Mediator for Mary and her preservation than for any other creature, Scotus concludes that Mary is more indebted to Christ for her redemption than any other creature:
Mary most of all needed Christ as a redeemer…He was so perfect a Mediator for some person- Mary- that he preserved her from original sin… from what persons reconciled owes the mediator, I argue in this way: a person reconciled is not obligated to the mediator in the highest way unless he or she has received from him the highest good that the mediator can give… no person is obligated in the highest degree to Christ as Mediator unless he has been preserved from original sin.
Thus, Mary, as most redeemed and perfected creature, is most indebted to Christ for her innocence. In sum, the Church believes that Mary was prevented from the stain of original sin by her Son’s sanctifying grace, which she gained in view of His passion and death. As Catholic scholar D.N. Cross puts it, “Jesus pays the debt that Mary would have incurred had Jesus not paid it… Jesus as it were pays His mother’s potential debt.” In this way, the perfectly assignable nature of Christ’s merit, and our dependence upon it, is highlighted by its retroactivity. And it is for this reason that Catholics rejoice with Mary, because with her, we know that we rejoice and boast in nothing other than in God our Savior, who alone is able to preserve us for Himself.