Sunday, February 24, 2013

Defending the Immaculata

The following is an email I sent to a Fundamentalist gentleman who approached me at a Deaf club several weeks ago and proceeded to attack the Catholic Church.  It may he helpful to our Protestant friends who do not understand the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and to help those Catholics in understanding it better.

I need to respond to your attack on the Mother of Jesus from two Fridays ago as (1) you do not understand what is meant by the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and (2) you misunderstand the Scriptures you used to attack the Mother of Jesus.

First of all, yes of course Mary needed a Saviour, and indeed she did call God her Saviour.  But here's the real question:  How could God be Mary's Saviour when the finished work of the Cross had not yet happened?  John Duns Scotus answers that question clearly for us, and we'll get back to that in a moment.

Notice that the greeting from the Archangel Gabriel to Mary was in the same pattern as the Old Testament saints whose names were changed:  Like Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, etc.  In like fashion, Gabriel does not say "Hail, Mary, full of grace!"  No; he says "Hail, full of grace!" (Lk 1:28, AV and RSV CE).  The Greek word for "full of grace" is κεχαριτωμένη,which is in the perfect passive participle voice.  In other words, (a) the perfect tense means that the action took place and was completed some time in the past; (b) the passive voice means that the action was done by somebody else.  Translated literally, it means "you-who-have been-graced."  Furthermore, the perfect tense indicates that the past action has implications for the present.  What's significant is that it's not in the aorist tense, which means a past event that remains past.  Thus κεχαριτωμένη means that Mary's being full of grace bears on the present circumstance of her becoming the Mother of the Incarnate Word.  Neither is it in the imperfect tense, in which case it would be translated as "you-who-are-being-graced"--because she is already "full" of grace that no more can be added; nor is it in the pluperfect tense (which is similar to the aorist tense).  This is exactly what we miss in English--the Greek New Testament is far, far clearer than any English translation because the "perfect tense" does not exist in English apart from the use of auxiliary verbs and because Greek tenses behave in ways that are untranslatable in English.

So if Mary is "full of grace" or κεχαριτωμένη (=you-who-have-been-graced), we need to ask two more questions:  If Mary's grace was begun sometime in the past, when did it begin?  This is significant because it is St Luke who is writing, St Luke who was a companion of St Paul the Apostle, the great theologian of grace and he doubtless has a Pauline understanding of grace.  This leads us to the second question:  How could Mary be full of grace prior to the Cross?  We know that the Cross is the fountain of every grace and blessing.  But Mary had not even conceived the Incarnate Word in her womb until her "Yes" to God's plan (Lk 1:38).

This question also speaks to the Magnificat:  "Mary spirit rejoices in God my Saviour" (Lk 1:46, 47).  How could Mary be full of grace before the Cross, let alone the Incarnation (cf. Jn 1:14)?  And how could Mary claim God to be her Saviour before the finished work of the Cross?  St Paul is strikingly clear:  "[T]hey are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by His Blood, to be received by faith" (Rom 3:25).

The answer is simple:  Crux stat dum volvitur mundi--the Cross stands while the world turns.  The Mystery of the Cross of Jesus is that it was a reality even before creation.  Hence the Apocalypse speaks of "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev 13:8).  John Duns Scotus teaches that the Cross of Jesus transcends time, and it was the grace of the Cross which was retroactive in time which wrought the salvation of Mary.

But this still leaves unresolved as to when Mary's grace began.

The answer is found in the Protoevangelium (Gen 3:15):  "I will put enmity between you and the woman."  The enmity between the serpent--who is Satan (cf. Rev 12:9)--and the "Woman"--who is Mary (cf. Jn 2:4, 19:26; Rev 12:1).  But what is the extent of this enmity (Gk ,ἔχθραν, Heb וְאֵיבָ֣ה׀ )?  It is total enmity between Satan and the Woman--who is Mary since she gave birth to Christ who "crushed the head of the serpent."  The opposition between Mary and Satan is repeated in Rev 12 which actually echoes the Protoevangelium of Gen 3:15.  The enmity between Mary and Satan is absolute and total.

If the enmity between Mary and Satan is absolute and total, it follows that the total enmity on Mary's part is in the totality of her life--from conception.

It is at conception, then, that the first moment of Mary's being full of grace (Lk 1:28) took place (since, again, since κεχαριτωμένη  is in the perfect tense).  If Mary was full of grace at her conception, and since grace and sin are opposed (as the Woman and the serpent are opposed), it follows, then, that Mary's conception was an immaculate one.

But what about "All have sinned" as St Paul said?  He was referring to personal sin.  And despite the quantifier "all have sinned..." we still have to exclude Jesus a priori because He was without sin (2 Cor 5:21; Pet 2:22) and, of course, children, who are incapable of committing personal sins before the age of reason.  

We cannot get into this question without starting another email but suffice it to say that the historic, Christian method of reading the Scriptures differs from the Fundamentalist in that Christians--especially Catholic Christians--use Scripture to interpret Scripture.  We do not, like Fundamentalists, use one Scripture to "cancel out" another--which is what you did in our discussion of humanity's sinfulness versus the Annunciation.  Thus we must be cognizant of the sinfulness of the human race; this bearing on Mary is such that she was saved from sinat the moment of her conception.  But we must be more specific:  the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception says that God preserved Mary free from all "stain of original sin."  Does that mean that the fallenness of humankind did not apply to Mary?  Absolutely not.  Whereas you and I are saved from sin in the same way that a lifeguard jumps into the water to save a drowning swimmer, Mary was saved analogous to that of a person who could not swim about  to fall into the water but was caught by the lifeguard.

So it is clear that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is consonant with the Scriptures:  Mary's being full of grace, on account of her total enmity with Satan, took place at the very beginning of her life, i.e., at conception, and the finished work of the Cross worked its power against the flow of time, backward, to Mary's life.  So Mary was indeed saved, and that more perfectly than any of us!

Vivat Iesus,
Revd Hysell