In Christian tradition the birth of Mary is celebrated on 9th September, whilst the Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated on the 8th December, nine months previously. The Immaculate Conception, according to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, was the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her mother’s womb free from original sin. Although the belief that Mary was sinless and conceived immaculate (“spotless”) was widely held since Late Antiquity, the doctrine was not dogmatically defined until 1854, by Pope Pius IX in his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus. There we read:
From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world. Above all creatures did God so love her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.
The definition given there is:
“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
Protestants, and most Messianic Jews, generally reject the doctrine because they do not consider this development of dogmatic theology to be based on reliable exegesis of Scripture. It is accepted by some Anglo-Catholics, but is rejected by most in the Anglican Communion.
Protestant theology, from Martin Luther to Karl Barth, holds that Mary is the ‘Mother of God’ (theotokos) but that this truth has been overloaded with excessive dogmatic development, producing Mariology. John Calvin, for example, “did not accept the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, considering it conflicted with the aforementioned doctrines and with Romans 3:23 that all have sinned.”
The doctrine of the immaculate conception (Mary being conceived free from original sin) is not to be confused with her virginal conception of her son Yeshua. Roman Catholics believe that Mary was not the product of a virginal conception herself but was the daughter of a human father and mother, traditionally known by the names of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne. In 1677, the Holy See condemned the belief that Mary was virginally conceived, which had been a belief surfacing occasionally since the 4th century.
As a Messianic Jew I have difficulties with this teaching, although I hold Mary in very high respect. As the true ‘daughter of Zion’, the human representative of God’s preparation of Israel for the coming of Messiah, the picture of humility and acceptance of the Incarnation of Yeshua, I have much to learn, admire and emulate in the life of Miriam. I appreciate the devotion of my Catholic friends to Mary, but for me, the focus is on Yeshua himself, and the miraculous nature, theological significance and spiritual gift of his Virginal Conception.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for Miriam Bat-Heli, the mother of Yeshua. By faith we recognize the supernatural nature of her Virginal conception of the baby Jesus, as prophesied in the Tanach, made known through the Angel, and affirmed through the righteousness behavior of Joseph. Help us not to go beyond what Scripture clearly teaches, or add to your Word through our own theological reflection, but rather focus on the surpassing nature of your redemptive love through the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and longed-for return of your Son, our Messiah, Yeshua. In his name we pray. Amen.
The relevant sections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church read:
“HE WAS CONCEIVED BY THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, AND BORN OF THE VIRGIN MARY”
Paragraph 2. “Conceived by the Power of the Holy Spirit and Born of the Virgin Mary”
- CONCEIVED BY THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. . .
484 The Annunciation to Mary inaugurates “the fullness of time”,119 the time of the fulfillment of God’s promises and preparations. Mary was invited to conceive him in whom the “whole fullness of deity” would dwell “bodily”.120 The divine response to her question, “How can this be, since I know not man?”, was given by the power of the Spirit: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”121
485 The mission of the Holy Spirit is always conjoined and ordered to that of the Son.122 The Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of Life”, is sent to sanctify the womb of the Virgin Mary and divinely fecundate it, causing her to conceive the eternal Son of the Father in a humanity drawn from her own.
486 The Father’s only Son, conceived as man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, is “Christ”, that is to say, anointed by the Holy Spirit, from the beginning of his human existence, though the manifestation of this fact takes place only progressively: to the shepherds, to the magi, to John the Baptist, to the disciples.123 Thus the whole life of Jesus Christ will make manifest “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.”124
- . . .BORN OF THE VIRGIN MARY
487 What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ.
488 “God sent forth his Son”, but to prepare a body for him,125 he wanted the free co-operation of a creature. For this, from all eternity God chose for the mother of his Son a daughter of Israel, a young Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee, “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary”:126
The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined mother, so that just as a woman had a share in the coming of death, so also should a woman contribute to the coming of life.127
489 Throughout the Old Covenant the mission of many holy women prepared for that of Mary. At the very beginning there was Eve; despite her disobedience, she receives the promise of a posterity that will be victorious over the evil one, as well as the promise that she will be the mother of all the living.128 By virtue of this promise, Sarah conceives a son in spite of her old age.129 Against all human expectation God chooses those who were considered powerless and weak to show forth his faithfulness to his promises: Hannah, the mother of Samuel; Deborah; Ruth; Judith and Esther; and many other women.130 Mary “stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from him. After a long period of waiting the times are fulfilled in her, the exalted Daughter of Sion, and the new plan of salvation is established.”131
The Immaculate Conception
490 To become the mother of the Savior, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.”132 The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”.133 In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.
491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God,134 was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.135
492 The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”.136 The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love”.137
493 The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God “the All-Holy” (Panagia), and celebrate her as “free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature”.138 By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.
“Let it be done to me according to your word. . .”
494 At the announcement that she would give birth to “the Son of the Most High” without knowing man, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responded with the obedience of faith, certain that “with God nothing will be impossible”: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word.”139 Thus, giving her consent to God’s word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus. Espousing the divine will for salvation wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son; she did so in order to serve the mystery of redemption with him and dependent on him, by God’s grace:140
As St. Irenaeus says, “Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.”141 Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert. . .: “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.”142 Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary “the Mother of the living” and frequently claim: “Death through Eve, life through Mary.”143
Mary’s divine motherhood
495 Called in the Gospels “the mother of Jesus”, Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as “the mother of my Lord”.144 In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly “Mother of God” (Theotokos).145
496 From the first formulations of her faith, the Church has confessed that Jesus was conceived solely by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, affirming also the corporeal aspect of this event: Jesus was conceived “by the Holy Spirit without human seed”.146 The Fathers see in the virginal conception the sign that it truly was the Son of God who came in a humanity like our own. Thus St. Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the second century says:
You are firmly convinced about our Lord, who is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born of a virgin,. . . he was truly nailed to a tree for us in his flesh under Pontius Pilate. . . he truly suffered, as he is also truly risen.147
497 The Gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility:148 “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit”, said the angel to Joseph about Mary his fiancee.149 The Church sees here the fulfillment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”150
498 People are sometimes troubled by the silence of St. Mark’s Gospel and the New Testament Epistles about Jesus’ virginal conception. Some might wonder if we were merely dealing with legends or theological constructs not claiming to be history. To this we must respond: Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike;151 so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age. The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith, which understands in it the “connection of these mysteries with one another”152 in the totality of Christ’s mysteries, from his Incarnation to his Passover. St. Ignatius of Antioch already bears witness to this connection: “Mary’s virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord’s death escaped the notice of the prince of this world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God’s silence.”153
Mary – “ever-virgin”
499 The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man.154 In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”155 And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the “Ever-virgin”.156
500 Against this doctrine the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus.157 The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, “brothers of Jesus”, are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls “the other Mary”.158 They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.159
501 Jesus is Mary’s only son, but her spiritual motherhood extends to all men whom indeed he came to save: “The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is, the faithful in whose generation and formation she co-operates with a mother’s love.”160
Mary’s virginal motherhood in God’s plan
502 The eyes of faith can discover in the context of the whole of Revelation the mysterious reasons why God in his saving plan wanted his Son to be born of a virgin. These reasons touch both on the person of Christ and his redemptive mission, and on the welcome Mary gave that mission on behalf of all men.
503 Mary’s virginity manifests God’s absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father. “He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed. . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures.”161
504 Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary’s womb because he is the New Adam, who inaugurates the new creation: “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.”162 From his conception, Christ’s humanity is filled with the Holy Spirit, for God “gives him the Spirit without measure.”163 From “his fullness” as the head of redeemed humanity “we have all received, grace upon grace.”164
505 By his virginal conception, Jesus, the New Adam, ushers in the new birth of children adopted in the Holy Spirit through faith. “How can this be?”165 Participation in the divine life arises “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God”.166 The acceptance of this life is virginal because it is entirely the Spirit’s gift to man. The spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God167 is fulfilled perfectly in Mary’s virginal motherhood.
506 Mary is a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith “unadulterated by any doubt”, and of her undivided gift of herself to God’s will.168 It is her faith that enables her to become the mother of the Savior: “Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ.”169
507 At once virgin and mother, Mary is the symbol and the most perfect realization of the Church: “the Church indeed. . . by receiving the word of God in faith becomes herself a mother. By preaching and Baptism she brings forth sons, who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God, to a new and immortal life. She herself is a virgin, who keeps in its entirety and purity the faith she pledged to her spouse.”170
508 From among the descendants of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. “Full of grace”, Mary is “the most excellent fruit of redemption” (SC 103): from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.
509 Mary is truly “Mother of God” since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God himself.
510 Mary “remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin” (St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1: PL 38, 999): with her whole being she is “the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38).
511 The Virgin Mary “cooperated through free faith and obedience in human salvation” (LG 56). She uttered her yes “in the name of all human nature” (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 30, 1). By her obedience she became the new Eve, mother of the living.
119 Gal 4:4.
120 Col 2:9.
121 Lk 1:34-35 (Gk.).
122 Cf. Jn 16:14-15.
123 Cf. Mt 1:20; 2:1-12; Lk 1:35; 2:8-20; Jn 1:31-34; 2:11.
124 Acts 10:38.
125 Gal 4:4; Heb 10:5.
126 Lk 1:26-27.
127 LG 56; cf. LG 61.
128 Cf. Gen 3:15, 20.
129 Cf. Gen 18:10-14; 21:1-2.
130 Cf. 1 Cor 1:17; 1 Sam 1.
131 LG 55.
132 LG 56.
133 Lk 1:28.
134 Lk 1:28.
135 Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (1854): DS 2803.
136 LG 53, 56.
137 Cf. Eph 1:3-4.
138 LG 56.
139 Lk 1:28-38; cf. Rom 1:5.
140 Cf. LG 56.
141 St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 22, 4: PG 7/1, 959A.
142 St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 22, 4: PG 7/1, 959A.
143 LG 56; Epiphanius, Haer. 78, 18: PG 42, 728CD-729AB; St. Jerome, Ep. 22, 21: PL 22, 408.
144 Lk 1:43; Jn 2:1; 19:25; cf. Mt 13:55; et al.
145 Council of Ephesus (431): DS 251.
146 Council of the Lateran (649): DS 503; cf. DS 10-64.
147 St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Smyrn 1-2: Apostolic Fathers, ed. J. B. Lightfoot (London: Macmillan, 1889), II/2, 289-293; SCh 10, 154-156; cf. Rom1:3; Jn 1:13.
148 Mt 1 18-25; Lk 1:26-38.
149 Mt 1:20.
150 Isa 7:14 in the LXX, quoted in Mt 1:23 (Gk.).
151 Cf. St. Justin, Dial., 99, 7: PG 6, 708-709; Origen, Contra Celsum 1, 32, 69: PG 11, 720-721; et al.
152 Dei Filius 4: DS 3016.
153 St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Eph. 19, 1: AF II/2 76-80; SCh 10,88; cf. 1 Cor 2:8.
154 Cf. DS 291; 294; 427; 442; 503; 571; 1880.
155 LG 57.
156 Cf. LG 52.
157 Cf. Mk 3:31-35; 6:3; 1 Cor 9:5; Gal 1:19.
158 Mt 13:55; 28:1; cf. Mt 27:56.
159 Cf. Gen 13:8; 14:16; 29:15; etc.
160 LG 63; cf. Jn 19:26-27; Rom 8:29; Rev 12:17.
161 Council of Friuli (796): DS 619; cf. Lk 2:48-49.
162 1 Cor 15:45,47.
163 Jn 3:34.
164 Jn 1:16; cf. Col 1:18.
165 Lk 1:34; cf. Jn 3:9.
166 Jn 1:13.
167 Cf. 2 Cor 11:2.
168 LG 63; cf. 1 Cor 7:34-35.
169 St. Augustine, De virg., 3: PL 40, 398.
170 LG 64; cf. 63.