“Full of Grace”: Introduction to the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception

One of the central Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine, which received the added certainty of an infallible definition by Pope Pius IX in 1854, proclaims that Mary was conceived without any stain of Original Sin. Before examining the full solemn pronouncement of Pope Pius IX, which was issued with the papal charism of being protected from error by the power of the Holy Spirit, let us first examine the revealed seeds of this doctrine as they are contained in Scripture and Tradition.

From Sacred Scripture we have at least two passages of the Bible that present the implicit seed of the revealed truth of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

In Genesis 3:15, after Adam and Eve committed Original Sin, God addresses Satan, who is represented by the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed; he (1) shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel.” Since the “seed” of the woman is Jesus Christ, who is to crush Satan victoriously in the Redemption, then the woman must in fact refer to Mary, Mother of the Redeemer.

The word “enmity,” which is rich in meaning in this passage, signifies “in opposition to.” The enmity established between the “seed” of the woman, which is Jesus, and the “seed” of the serpent, which is sin, and all evil angels and humans, is in absolute and complete opposition, because there is absolute and complete opposition between Jesus and all evil. In other words, the seed of the woman and the seed of Satan have to be in complete and total opposition to each other as depicted in the term “enmity.”Further in the passage we see the identical God-given opposition or enmity given and proclaimed by God between the woman, Mary, and the serpent, Satan. Mary is given the same absolute and perpetual opposition to Satan as Jesus possesses in relation to sin. It is for this reason that Mary could not have received a fallen nature as a result of Original Sin. Any participation in the effects of Original Sin would place the Mother of Jesus in at least partial participation with Satan and sin, thereby destroying the complete God-given opposition as revealed in Genesis 3.

The opposition between Jesus and sin is paralleled by the opposition between the woman, Mary, and the serpent, Satan. Again, this tells us that Mary could not participate in the fallen nature of man because that would mean participating, at least partially, in the domain of sin, a reality to which God gave Mary complete opposition. From the New Testament the principal scriptural seed for the Immaculate Conception is revealed in the inspired words of the Angel Gabriel, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). In the angelic greeting, Mary’s name is nowhere used. Rather, the title “full of grace” is used as a substitute for Mary’s name by the angelic messenger of God. These angelic words refer to a fullness of grace, a plenitude of grace that is part of Mary’s very nature. So much is Mary’s very being full of grace that this title serves to identify Mary in place of her own name. It is also true that no person with a fallen nature could possess a fullness of grace, a plenitude of grace, appropriate only for the woman who was to give God the Son an identical, immaculate human nature. Mary was conceived in providence to be the woman who would give her same immaculate nature to God when God became man. Certainly we can see the fittingness in God receiving a human nature from a human mother, and receiving an immaculate nature from a truly immaculate mother.

In the Greek text of Luke 1:28, we have an additional implicit reference to Mary’s Immaculate Conception taking place before the announcement of the Angel. The Greek word “kecharitomene,” is a perfect participle, and so we translate Luke 1:28 most accurately in this way, “Hail, you who have been graced.” The Greek translation of the angel’s greeting refers to an event of profound grace experienced by Mary that was already completed in the past. (2)

These implicitly revealed seeds of the Immaculate Conception blossomed gradually but steadily in the Tradition of the Church. The early Church Fathers refer to Mary under such titles as “all holy,” “all pure,” “most innocent,” “a miracle of grace,” “purer than the angels,” “altogether without sin,” and these within the first three centuries of the Church. Since the word “immaculate” means “without sin,” then the titles used for Mary by the early Fathers, such as “altogether without sin,” certainly contain the understanding of her immaculate nature (cf. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854).

The early Church Fathers also compared Mary’s sinless state as being identical to Eve’s state before the participation of Eve in Original Sin. Mary as the “New Eve” was seen to be in the same state of original grace and justice that Eve was in when she was created by God. Since Eve was obviously conceived in grace, without the fallen nature that we receive due to Original Sin, the parallel made by the Church Fathers between Mary and Eve before the fall illustrates their understanding of Mary’s likewise immaculate nature. In the words of St. Ephraem (d.373): “Those two innocent… women, Mary and Eve, had been (created) utterly equal, but afterwards one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life.” We can see the complete parallel between the sinless Eve before the fall and the sinless Mary. St. Ephraem also refers to Mary’s sinless nature in this address to Our Lord: “You and your Mother are the only ones who are immune from all stain; for there is no spot in Thee, O Lord, nor any taint in Your Mother.” (3)

In time, references to Mary’s Immaculate Conception became more and more explicit and developed. To quote a few examples:

St. Ambrose (d.397) refers to Mary as “free from all stain of sin.” (4)

St. Severus, Bishop of Antioch (d.538) states: “She (Mary)…formed part of the human race, and was of the same essence as we, although she was pure from all taint and immaculate.” (5)

St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (d.638), refers to Mary’s pre-purification at conception, addressing the Virgin: “You have found the grace which no one has received…. No one has been pre-purified besides you.” (6)

St. Andrew of Crete (d.740) tells us that the Redeemer chose “in all nature this pure and entirely Immaculate Virgin.” (7)

Theognostes of Constantinople (c.885) writes: “It was fitting indeed that she who from the beginning had been conceived by a sanctifying action…should also have a holy death…holy, the beginning…holy, the end, holy her whole existence.” (8)