Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Immaculate Birth of Mary

September 8th, The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Nine months after the celebration of her Immaculate Conception, the Church honors our Lady’s Immaculate Birth. In fact, the Nativity of Mary is historically prior in the Church to her Immaculate Conception. Long before there was consensus among theologians regarding whether Mary was conceived without sin, nearly all agreed that she was at least born without sin. The Feast our Lady’s Nativity is more ancient than that of her conception, and this later feast’s date was determined by the date of her birth – much like the feast of the Annunciation was set according to the feast of Christmas.
How pleasing it is to consider the order of revelation and the order of history: Though Mary had been preserved from sin from the moment of her conception, the Church first recognized the holiness of Anne’s daughter in birth and only later came to understand that her sanctification came at the first moment of her existence. As Christmas is a higher feast than the Annunciation, so too, Mary’s Nativity was a feast long before the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Perhaps someday, her Nativity will again rise to prominence.

Immaculate in her nativity
What was it that convinced theologians that Mary had to have been sanctified before her birth? It is true, as St. Thomas Aquinas admitted, that there is nothing in the Canonical Scriptures regarding her Immaculate Conception or sanctification before birth. Yet, though we cannot invoke the immediate authority of Sacred Scripture, we may nevertheless appeal to the authority of Sacred Tradition. The Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary may have originated in either Syria or Palestine in the sixth century, though the church of Angers in France claims that St. Maurilius instated the feast in about 430 – it is from this tradition that the date of September 8th has been set. The feast has been celebrated throughout the Church (both in the east and in the west) from the seventh century. From this liturgical witness, St. Thomas draws his sed contra authority (ST III, q.27, a.1): “The Church celebrates the feast of our Lady’s Nativity. Now the Church does not celebrate feasts except of those who are holy. Therefore, even in her birth the Blessed Virgin was holy. Therefore, she was sanctified in the womb.” – a wonderful example of lex orandi legem statuit credendi.
In addition to the liturgical tradition and the witness of the Fathers of the Church (and St. Augustine in particular), St. Thomas offers theological reasons for Mary’s pre-natal sanctification.  First, the fact that this sanctification is not mentioned in the Scriptures should not give us alarm; neither is her Assumption related directly in the Sacred Books, but we are bound to believe that she was taken up body and soul to heaven.
Second, as the Mother of God, it is reasonable to believe that Mary was given greater privileges of grace than all others, thus the angel greeted Mary, “Hail, full of grace!” (Luke 1:28) Moreover, others had been sanctified in the womb – Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5, “Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you”) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15, “He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb”) – therefore, it is reasonable to think that Mary was sanctified in an even more precious way before her birth.
In what did this sanctification consist?
Mary, before her birth, was entirely cleansed of original sin, so that even the fomes (that is, the tendencies toward sin) were fettered or even entirely taken away [St. Thomas, holds for the former view – with the benefit of the Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception, we maintain the latter]. This means that Mary experienced no inordinate desires, no inclination to evil, no temptation of the flesh, and no lustful impulses. This DOES NOT mean that Mary would never suffer temptations – she could be tempted externally, but she never was inclined internally to follow these temptations.
A natural consequent of her being completely purified from the fomes, the inclination to sin, is that Mary was completely free from all actual sin, whether venial or mortal. Mary never sinned in her whole life – this is a grace which extended from her sanctification in the womb before her birth. Born without sin, Mary was to remain without sin through her entire life.
However, St. Thomas makes a very important point when he states: “The Blessed Virgin was sanctified in the womb from original sin, as to the personal stain; but she was not freed from the guilt to which the whole human nature is subject, so as to enter into Paradise otherwise than through the Sacrifice of Christ.” The point here is that Mary, though conceived and born without original sin, still required the Savior and his saving death. Though she was completely free from original sin, she was not free from the guilt incumbent upon the whole human nature – this is what separated Mary from the Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ was free from original sin both as to the personal stain and as to the guilt – Jesus owed no debt to sin, he required no savior, he was conceived and born in the state of original justice exactly as Adam had been. This is why Christ alone is our Savior and Redeemer, this is why he alone could pay the price. Mary, the Immaculate Mother of our Lord, by reason of her intimate union with Christ in his saving mysteries, may well one day be proclaimed Co-Redemptrix – this would in no way denigrate from the central, necessary, and unique Mediation of her son, Christ our Lord.


Anonymous said...

"Though she was completely free from original sin, she was not free from the guilt incumbent upon the whole human nature – this is what separated Mary from the Christ..." This statement seems to contain a contradiction with the fact that Jesus Christ possesses a HUMAN nature. I would suggest the contradiction can be removed by replacing the word "nature" with the word "person." The reason I think this will remove the contradiction is that Mary is a HUMAN person, while Jesus Christ is a DIVINE person Who took on a human nature. THAT, I think, is a key difference that separates our Blessed Mother from her Son, our Lord.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Anonymous (Sept 9, 5:05pm)...
Original sin is a sin of nature, not something of the person is NOT A PERSONAL SIN...thus, you cannot say that the guilt is incumbent upon the human person...

Christ's human nature was free both from the stain of sin itself, and from the guilt due to sin. He had no need of a savior because he was in no way under original sin.
There is no contradiction...the human nature Christ received was formed by the Holy Spirit and, thus, was in no way touched by original sin.

I hope that helps to clarify.

Brad said...

Hail Mary! Hyperdulia, Queen of heaven and earth! Imagine, arguably God's mightiest creature, a seraphim, Gabriel, paling before her whom he was sent to address! The proof of her humble perfection is that -- no doubt -- she would have received her own inferior while on her knees before him.

I beg everyone to read Mary of Agreda's (a baroque Spanish nun) Mystical City of God for a life-changing awakening regarding who the Virgin is: the Trinity's most perfect creature, before whom seraphim and devils must bow. The $15 abridged version of the book will do this trick. Anyone who reads my words, please don't disregard this tiny bit of anonymous internet advice.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...


I especially like your reference to Mary as the Trinity's "most perfect creature"...
There are, in fact, only three creatures which could not have been created more perfectly...
1) The beatific vision of God
2) The sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ
3) The Mother of God, Mary ever-virgin

How great this mystery...she is truly the "Fairest daughter of our race!"

Peregrinus said...

Two clarifications are in order concerning this very difficult subject. The phrase Anonymous cites from the article may not be contradictory, but it is, at the very least, imprecise. The guilt of Adam is not “incumbent upon the whole [of] human nature.” It is only “incumbent upon” or, better put, affects those to whom Adam has “transmitted” human nature (see CCC, Para. 404). The Christ neither bore the stain of original sin nor suffered from the affects of its guilt because, as you note, Reginalde, He did not ultimately receive His human nature from Adam. He did, nonetheless, precisely speaking, have the same nature as our first parent after the Fall, i.e., a human one. It was just not in the same condition or “state” as Adam’s, i.e., a fallen one ( op. cit.).

Aquinas is, of course, correct in arguing that Mary had to be saved with the rest of the offspring of Adam. He is not, however, correct in assuming, as he seems to, that she could not be saved anticipatorily. God, in fact, applied the merits of the Christ’s atonement, including the removal of guilt or redemption, to Mary anticipatorily, as the Church teaches (see Lumen gentium, 53 & CCC, Para. 492; cf. ST IIIa, q. 27, a. 2, ad 2um). Her “singular” sanctification also included her “more sublime” redemption (see Ineffabilis Deus & Lumen gentium, 53).

Note that I may misunderstand the Angelic Doctor’s position represented by the last quotation in the article from his writings, since I have neither the sentence in the original language nor the context for it.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Peregrinus (Sept 10, 10:58pm),

I agree with your clarification/qualification of my statement regarding the human nature after is much better to speak of the active transmission of the human nature from father to child and the passing down of original sin together with that nature...

Exactly, because Adam did not transmit the human nature to Christ through any man, but the nature was taken materially from the Blessed Virgin Mary (who contributed no active power in Christ's generation), the Son of God took to himself a pure and integral human nature.

Regarding the Common Doctor's discussion of the Immaculate Conception, I think that you might be slightly mis-interpreting what he says...

Though nearly everyone says it, the problem with the Immaculate Conception is, for St. Thomas, not so much about the fact that it occurred before Christ [he holds that Mary was purified of original sin while yet in the womb, before the coming of the Messiah]. The real problem, for Thomas, is to understand how Mary can be saved and sanctified before she is conceived. Indeed, he argues that because she did not exist before her conception, she cannot be purified/sanctified until after her conception...this means that she would be conceived with original sin, but then healed immediately.
Of course, St. Thomas is not correct...Mary was preserved from original sin, neither before nor after her conception, but at the very moment of her conception...
This would be something good to talk more about, but I have to end the comments here.

Peregrine, I can tell that you have a good background in theology; so I would very much enjoy your comments on other posts as they are written. Thank you for the comments you have been making on recent posts!

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