September 8th, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Generally the feast day of a saint is held upon the occasion of his death. Indeed, in the Roman Martyrology, the day of death is often called the natalicia or birthday – referring to the saint’s birth into heaven.
However, there are three feast days which commemorate a birth. The first and most prominent is, of course, Christmas – the Nativity of our Savior Jesus Christ. The second is the Nativity of our Lady. The third is the birth of St. John the Baptist. These three – Jesus, Mary and John – were born without original sin (having been sanctified even before birth), and hence these three are honored with feasts commemorating their earthly births.
Today we consider Mary’s birth, which is not contained in Scripture, but the sanctity of which is attested by the words of the angel Gabriel.
John the Baptist and Jeremiah
Both John the Baptist and (most probably) Jeremiah were born without original sin, according to the testimony of Sacred Scripture. The Bible verses are: Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you (Jeremiah 1:5, for the prophet Jeremiah) and He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15, for the Baptist).
St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes this tradition in Summa Theologica III, q.27, a.6 and cites St. Augustine as the primary patristic authority.
The Blessed Virgin Mary
Of course, the Mother of God was sanctified before her birth – indeed, she was wholly preserved from original sin. Thus, she was holy in her birth in a pre-eminent manner (far exalted above both Jeremiah and John the Baptist).
The Immaculate Conception preserved our Lady from all sin and raised her up in a most excellent grace. This mystery is contained in the words of St. Gabriel: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee! (Luke 1:28)
The Greek word for full of grace is κεχαριτωμένη – which means not only that Mary was filled with grace at the moment of the angelic salutation, but that she has already been filled with grace from some point in the past. Indeed, the Greek could well be translated as “Hail, you who have been and are highly favored, the Lord is with thee!”
Our point here is to stress that the Scriptures hint to the fact of the Immaculate Conception, for Gabriel does not set any time in which our Lady had been sanctified and filled with grace, but simply states that she has been and is filled with grace. It is as though she were conceived in grace, by a most marvelous and immaculate conception.
Are others born without original sin?
Today there is a tendency to presume that God regularly remits original sin in children either while they are in the womb or immediately after their birth. It is quite rare to hear priests or catechists affirm that children are conceived and born in original sin – and that sanctifying grace is granted to infants only through baptism.
Particularly in the case of infants who die without baptism, many (even many “conservative”) Catholics insist that these children must have been freed of original sin either in the womb or immediately after birth and without the sacrament of baptism. However, would this not tend to equate the billions of miscarried and aborted children with Jeremiah and John the Baptist? Would this not even tend to encroach upon the unique graces given to our Lady?
In this matter, we must recall that the Church is aware of only four individuals who were in the state of grace as infants without having received the sacrament of Baptism (or, at least, the baptism of blood): Jeremiah, Mary, John the Baptist, and Christ Jesus. For all the rest we can only hope in the mercy of God and affirm that, according to Scripture and Tradition, we know of no other means besides baptism by which an infant may be saved.