When Our Lady revealed to Sr. Lucia the five greatest offenses against her Immaculate Heart, I have to believe she was being a typical mother to us by not drawing attention to the countless other sufferings she endures. Even within each of the five offenses are hundreds of distinct ways in which the world turns their hearts and minds from her.

In order to make some reparation for these little swords, and in honor of her Immaculate Heart, I thought it only appropriate to reply to an argument against her sinless nature:

If Mary was without sin, why did she make a sin offering at the temple in Luke 2:22-24? (1)

Mary made a sin offering at the temple because she, like Christ, was born under the law (Gal 4:4). In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas explained that Christ submitted to the burdens of the law, like circumcision, even though he had no need of it. By doing so, he gave an example of humility and obedience, while approving the law and avoiding undue criticism, as he did elsewhere (Mt 17:27). Aquinas adds that these were

the same reasons He wished His Mother also to fulfill the prescriptions of the Law, to which, nevertheless, she was not subject…. Although the Blessed Virgin had no uncleanness, yet she wished to fulfill the observance of purification, not because she needed it, but on account of the precept of the Law. Thus the Evangelist says pointedly that the days of her purification “according to the Law” were accomplished; for she needed no purification in herself. (2)

Aquinas goes on to explain that the rites and ceremonies of the Old Testament did not cleanse a person from sin, since that is only possible through grace. However, these old signs foreshadowed the sacraments of the New Covenant, which do effect sanctification. The old rites were able to cleanse people, but only from a certain irregularity or bodily uncleanness that inhibited divine worship according to the law. Hebrews 9:13 explains, “The blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed.” Since it was the body that was the subject of Mary’s “sin offering,” it is not correct to impute her soul with sin.

The forty days of ritual impurity, followed by the sin offering for a mother, were not because she committed a sin. After all, giving birth is not immoral. In the same way, according to Mosaic law a woman had to present a sin offering if her period was longer than normal (Lev 15:19-30). One could not imply from this that she was any more of a sinner than any other woman. The same could be said for the sin offerings needed to ceremonially cleanse one from leprosy (Lev. 14:20). At times sin offerings were offered as atonements for breaking the moral law, but they served many other purposes within the Mosaic tradition. So, the fact that Mary followed a ceremonial Old Testament law as it pertained to childbirth does not mean that she was a sinner.

Lastly, it could be pointed out that in Leviticus the law said, “when the days of her purification shall have been accomplished,” but when Luke mentions the same law, he writes, “When the days were completed for their purification” (Lev 12:6; Lk 2:22). This does not seem to be a reference to Joseph and Mary, since the father does not incur any impurity through childbirth, and so was not in need of ritual purification. Men incurred uncleanness through intercourse, but they would be cleansed from that within the same day (Lev 15:18). Obviously this would not have applied to Joseph, and even in normal cases of fatherhood, the husband is not required to present a sin offering forty days after the birth of the child. Only the mother is required to do this. The only thing the couple would do together is pay for the ransom of the firstborn, but this is not considered a purification for them.

The reference to “their purification” more likely refers to the purification of Mary and the child Jesus. But why would the purest members of the human race be in need of purification?

The purification and presentation of Jesus meant that he was ransomed for five silver shekels by Joseph and Mary. Like all firstborn children, Jesus was set apart and consecrated to God (Ex 13:2). For the Jews, the payment from the parents to the priest symbolized that the parents were buying the child back from God. However, the law did not require that the firstborn be presented at the temple, since the law could be fulfilled by simply paying a priest (Num 18:15-16). Neither did the law require the mother to be purified at the temple.

Luke does not explain why the trip was made to the temple, although some suggest this fulfills the prophecy in Malachi 3:1, which reads, “And suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord who you seek.” Whatever their reasons, it seems that Luke combines the purification of the mother with the ransom of the son in one act, stressing the presentation of Christ. It should not be overlooked that portions of Luke’s gospel came from Mary, and so this was likely her report of the events.

Lastly, and perhaps most convincingly, if Mary’s sin offering proves that she had sinned, then the fact that Jesus received a baptism of repentance in the Jordan should all the more impute guilt to Christ, which of course it does not. Therefore, if the gospel can speak of Christ being purified, Mary’s holiness cannot be called into question merely because she was purified.

By delving deeper into God’s Word, we can help our non-Catholic friends to see that Mary’s sinlessness does not contradict Scripture or detract from God’s glory. On the contrary, the Bible teaches us that the beauty of her soul is entirely the work of His hands.

Jason Evert, a Catholic apologist with Catholic Answers, holds a Graduate degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He specializes in the Catholic Church’s teaching on chastity, giving seminars and talks to thousands of young people each year.

Notes

(1) Cf. Lev 12:1-8.

(2) Summa Theologiae, III, 37, 4.