The Unspotted Mirror: Mary's Immaculate Conception

Chapter 4 of Mother of God by Fr. Cyril Bernard Papali O.C.D.

Read the other chapters here.

“For she is a vapour of the power of God and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty God: and therefore no defiled thing cometh into her… Being compared with the light, she is found before it.” (Wis. VII, 25, 29.)

          It is said that a certain sculptor presented to Pope Pius IX a statue in white marble representing the Immaculate Conception. The aged Pontiff scanned it long with his keen eyes and at length spotted a faint streak of discolourment about its base. He would not accept the gift, it was not “immaculate”. The Church of God has displayed the same scrupulous solicitude through the ages in all matters relating to Our Blessed Lady. Everything about her must be pure and divine. Nothing must be said or thought about her that implies the least stain or imperfection. For she is purer than the light, because she bore the Light of the Light. The Church has repeatedly resisted the attempts of some Scholastics who believed it necessary to put somewhere in the picture of Mary some nominal streak of darkness in order to fit her into their general picture of the world. The Church by instinct favours all that redounds to the greater glory of the Mother of God. So much so that saintly theologians like Scotus and Suarez, Salmeron and Dionysius the Carthusian and many others have formulated a general principle: “It is safe to attribute to Mary whatever is more excellent.”[1] The monk Angelus Nicholas of St. Albanus tells us that : “Many things are presumed about the Virgin, that are not found in the Scriptures; and we have to stand by these presumptions as long as they are not disproved.”[2] The author commonly known as pseudo-Anselmus has an even more daring passage: “Until God reveals to me something more worthy to say about Our Lady, I shall continue to say what I have said, and shall not change what I have written.”[3]

          The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is one of those divine truths that the Heavenly Father hid from the wise and the prudent and revealed to the little ones. The instinct of the faithful and the Liturgy of the Church had long established it before the medieval Schoolmen took it up for dissection, and very nearly killed it in the process. Nothing less than a divine truth could have successfully stood the test of the newly perfected fighting machinery of Scholasticism. But thanks to the solicitude of the Church, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception rode triumphant over the hundred hurdles thrown in its way and came out richer and clearer for the ordeal.

          But the Church had had no misgivings about it at any time. Her divine instinct had discerned much more in the Scriptures than sceptics could find. For instance on the very opening pages of the Bible she was able to read clear allusions to the Immaculate Conception. The unsullied earth of Paradise out of which Adam was formed has from time immemorial served as a figure of the Immaculate Virgin of whom the Second Adam was formed. In the ancient account of the martyrdom of St. Andrew we read: “Christ is born of the Virgin, indeed of a better earth which is animated as well as immaculate.”[4] Again she is the celestial Paradise of the Second Adam. Dionysius of Alexandria writes: “The one and only Virginal daughter of Life brought forth the Word, the Virginal Paradise, a living dwelling not fabricated or manufactured by man, but made firm by the Holy Spirit and protected by the power of the most High.”[5] St. John Damascene sings the praises of this spiritual Paradise in glowing words: “Today Eden received the rational Paradise of the New Adam in which the condemnation was lifted, and in which the tree of life was planted. No access to this Paradise was open to the serpent. For the only Begotten Son of God formed Himself into a man from this virgin and pure earth.”[6] This spiritual Paradise is again referred to in the Canticle: “My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.”[7] The word enclosed is repeated and the fountain said to be sealed up because this Paradise is unlike the first in that the devil could gain no entrance here. She is Immaculate.

          Even more significant is her place in the great promise. When the Scriptures introduce Mary for the first time, she stands with her Son apart from the whole fallen race. “I shall put enmities between thee and the Woman, and thy seed and her seed; she shall crush thy head.”[8] Critics have insisted that it ought to be “It shall crush thy head” meaning the “Seed”. But the Church has persisted in reading “she shall crush” though it is really her Seed that crushed the serpent’s head. She with her Son constitutes the redeeming side, all the rest the redeemed. “Thou Lord,” cries St. Ephrem, “and Thy Mother. You alone are perfectly Holy; for in Thee, Lord, there is no stain, nor is there any blemish in Thy Mother.”[9] By reason of her superior predestination to the divine motherhood, her fullness of grace was derived directly from Christ and could in no way be affected by the fall of Adam. She was unlike the rest of the children of Adam for whom he could merit or forfeit grace. She with Christ constitutes the source of that grace which Adam receiving from them had to pass on to his posterity. For as the first Adam and Eve were the natural parents of the human race, so the Second Adam and Eve are the parents of the order of grace. This annulment in Mary’s case of the universal law of dependence on Adam, by reason of her inseparable union with Christ, is clearly brought out by Scheeben: “She was created as daughter of Adam for the sole reason that she was destined to be the Mother of the Redeemer; and consequently her bodily relation to Adam from the beginning is entirely subservient to her bodily relation to Christ. Such being the case, her bodily relation to Adam, as opposed to her bodily relation to Christ, can in no wise assert itself. The latter completely paralyses it in advance. Hence it follows that in Mary Christ’s grace of Redemption not only precluded the actual incurring of the universal stain of sin, but it also cancelled in her regard all share in humanity’s common debt through Adam’s transgression, and with it the necessity also, as well as the possibility, or incurring the stain of sin.”[10]

          Then, she is the Second Eve who had to repair the evil of the first. Mary stands to Eve as Christ to Adam. She must therefore in every way excel the first Eve. For this reason alone, argues Cardinal Newman, she must be Immaculate, for Eve proceeded from the hand of God adorned with grace. “Each is made equally pure and guileless,” writes St. Ephrem, “but Eve became the cause of death; Mary, the cause of our salvation.”[11] And he even suggest that the fall of Eve, far from drawing down Mary, has incidentally exalted her still more. “And if you wish to become acquainted with the mystery of each,” he continues, “consider the two eyes of a body, one of which lost its light by being accidentally blinded, making the other shine with a brighter light and causing it to take in everything. Now take a look back at the world. It received two eyes: Eve the left eye became plainly blinded; Mary the right eye became by that calamity more bright.”[12] Teodotus of Ancyra makes the same contrast between Eve and Mary: “In place of the virgin Eve who became to us an instrument of death, God chose a Virgin to give life. This Virgin was most pleasing to Him and full of grace. In life this woman was averse to the iniquity of the first woman. She is the Virgin, innocent and immaculate, holy in mind and body, produced as a lily among thorns, who knew not the evil of Eve… Who was a daughter of Adam, but unlike him.”[13]

          Her perfect immunity from every stain is the recurring theme of the great Saints and Doctors of the Holy Church. “Whence this work?” asks St. Ambrose in wonderment, and answers, “Certainly not from this world. From heaven Christ selected this vessel, by which He was to descend; He set this temple of chastity apart as sacred.”[14] And St. Maximus of Turin emphasising her original sanctity says: “Mary was indeed a dwelling fit for Christ, not because of the state of her body, but by virtue of original grace.”[15] Paul the Deacon writes: “How fitting, dear brethren, to call this Blessed Virgin and Mother a sprout, the Virgin who projected the intention of her perfect work into the supernal and who being flexible and totally free from the knots of corruption, was remarkable through her humility.”[16] The same idea is developed by St. Peter Damian to show how she stands high above all creation and uncontaminated by the corruption of our fallen race: “Thus the sprout of Jesse buds from the distorted root of the human race, and shooting up from the tree of the patriarchs in height and erectness, knows no tendency to become knotty, no trace of the darkness of the children of Adam.”[17] Origen calls her “a Virgin who is not deceived by the persuasion of the serpent nor infected by his poisonous breath.”[18] And St. Athanasius: “A Virgin protected by the power of the Most High, not at any one time but always.”[19] Proclus wrote these beautiful words: “Though she is formed out of the slime of the earth, she is the orb of a new celestial creation upon which the sun of justice uninterruptedly sends its rays, thereby causing all darkness of sin to flee from her whole soul.”[20] The solicitude with which Divine Providence safeguarded the Blessed Virgin and kept her beyond the reach of all evil is thus described by St. John Damascene: “O most sacred daughter of Joachim and Anna, who wast hidden from principalities and powers as well as from the fiery darts of the devil, who layest in the bridal bed of the Holy Ghost and wast kept without stain, in order to become the bride of God and God’s Mother by nature.”[21] St. Andrew of Crete describes how in Mary creation has recaptured its original purity: “Today a temple is constructed, made by the Creator of all things. Today Adam (in Christ) wishes to offer the first-fruits to the Lord for us and from us, and selects as first-fruit Mary who out of the whole fermentation was never fermented, and by whom the bread was made whereby the human race was to be regenerated. Today human nature, which was once formed good and pure, receives the gift of its first divine creation and restores it to its former self.”[22] And St. Jerome concludes: “Whatever is done in her is all purity and simplicity; the whole is mercy and justice. She is called Immaculate because she was in no way corrupted. And if you diligently study her you will find no virtue, no beauty, no brightness, no glory wanting in her.”[23] It was Isidore of Thessalonica who reversed the psalm of David for her: “I am not conceived in iniquities, and me alone did my mother not conceive in sin.”[24] Audacious saints!

          The Liturgy of the Church has not been less eloquent. From the fifth century onward we have liturgical record of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the Oriental Liturgy of St. James, particularly approved in the Sixth Oecumenical Council of the Church, we read: “Let us make commemoration of the most holy, Immaculate, most glorious and Blessed Lady, Mother of God and ever Virgin Mary.” The Greek Liturgy is full of the praises of Mary such as these: “Hail thou who raisest the falling world, thou who never wast subject to any fault.” (Jan. 2); “St. Joachim, glorious with the spirit of God, and you St. Anne, bright with the grace of God, you are two tapers from which was lighted that great lamp about which no vestige of shadow is to be seen!” (July 25, Vespers of St. Anne). The Alexandrian Liturgy sings: “To the holy, Immaculate and Blessed Mother of God, let praise and honour resound from every mouth; for she has been exempted from the law, nor been included in the law.” Chaldaic Liturgy has this about the Child Mary: “She was not caught in the net of the serpent, nor did she fall by his snares; nor did the wicked claws of the enemy prevail against her purity. O virgin in soul and body… Mary, most praiseworthy and exalted is thy conception.” The Coptic says about her nativity: “For this Virgin Mary destroyed the ignominy of Eve and filled all women with joy.” The Syriac Liturgy had these remarkable words on the feast of St. Anne: “Anna conceived in her womb the Queen of the universe, the cause of our joy, Mary who remained untouched by original sin from the first moment of her conception in her mother’s womb.” It almost sounds like a dogmatic definition. Indeed this truth was so widely diffused in the Orient that even the Al-Koran of the Mohammedans has this remarkable passage: “O Mary, purer and wiser than all men and women, who in all things attend to God alone.”[25]

          It was against such a background as this that the medieval Schoolmen raised a wall of objections to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. They would not pass unquestioned the feast which had been universal in the East for ages and was steadily gaining ground in the West. This scepticism looks unintelligible from this distance; but the intellectual approach to this particular question had been so completely warped and confused that the greatest theologians were easily misguided, while the simple faithful had no misunderstandings whatever about it. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is singular in this, that while most other doctrines have been defended by the theologians against heretics, this had to be defended by the Church against the bulk of the theologians  themselves. It proved once for all that faith does not really depend on the support of reason and that the Church that counts so much on the Scholastics can very well carry on without them or even in spite of them. It was Cardinal Cajetan who challenged Pope Leo X to judge between “fifteen Saints and innumerable Doctors on the one hand; and a timid scot, a Francis Mairon, A Peter Aureolus and the illiterate mob on the other.” The Church quietly sided with the timid Scot and the illiterate mob.

          The first reaction of the Scholastics to the feast was a denial of its true significance. They tried to evade the difficulty by assuming that the feast only referred to Our Lady’s birth and not to her conception, until the Church declared that it truly referred to her conception and indeed to the first moment of her conception. The question thus became inescapable. The main difficulty was to square this privilege of Mary with the universal law of the fall of mankind. Has not St. Paul written that all have died in Adam and that all are by nature children of wrath? It is true. The law is certainly universal, and for that very reason argues greater glory to Mary if God makes her a singular exception to it. Mark the words of King Assuerus to Esther: “Thou shalt not die; for this law is not made for thee, but for all others.”[26] And Esther is one of the most remarkable types of Mary precisely in this: she is not pardoned, she is not freed from the after-effects of the law; the law simply is not for her. If we turn back to the first pages of history to the scene when God passed the death sentence on mankind, we see again the promised Woman standing with her Seed apart from the condemned race. The Bile does not warrant any implication of her in this condemnation. This law is not for her.

          But would not this be derogatory to Christ the Redeemer, for she could not then have been redeemed by Him? This gave endless headaches to theologians till that glorious champion of Mary, Duns Scotus, pointed out that her case was in fact one of a higher redemption in which the anticipated merits of Christ, instead of lifting her out of the fall, completely forestalled the fall itself and preserved her immune. It was a divine paradox of the grace of Redemption overdoing itself and rendering even Redemption superfluous. A physician who prevents a disease by his anticipated care may not be literally curing, but he is actually more than curing! With this magic stroke Scotus gave a new orientation to Scholastic thought and enabled it to grope back to the truth. The flood of light he threw on the subject was so great, particularly at the famous Parisian controversy presided over by Papal Legates, that that illustrious Academy was fully converted to his view, and in the Office of the Immaculate Conception approved by Pope Sixtus IV, Scotus was specially mentioned as the “divinely-sent defender of the Immaculate Mother of God.”

          That did not quiet all doubts. Must she not have been at least under an obligation of incurring original sin in order that she may be included in the redeemed world? Scotus reassured the theologians of his day that she “would have been subject to original sin if she had not been preserved.” And they were satisfied. It really meant that if God had not predestined her to be His Mother, and had nevertheless decreed that she should be born – two hypotheses that may help our theological disquisitions but may mean nothing to God – she might have been like any other child of Adam subject to original sin. The point is, did God ever envisage her in this double hypothesis? There are theologians who hold, and their number is on the increase, that God simply and absolutely predestined her to be the Mother of His Son and, for that very reason, decreed that she should receive the fullest share of His grace irrespective of whether the rest of the human race would fall or be redeemed. She then is the most finished product of the grace of Christ, depending entirely on Him and only on Him, and who has no reason for existence apart from Him. This view renders the question of sin and debt of sin beside the point. Fr. Martindale, S.J., has expressed this idea in one of his articles: “I hold (and, though this is not a Catholic dogma, yet it is in harmony with it and is held by many) that, even had sin not been sinned, the Incarnation would have taken place, so that in every possible way communion between man and God might be established. Imagine saying that because there had been no sin, therefore there would be no Jesus, no Blessed Sacrament, no Mary! But given that the Incarnation – the birth of the Son of God from a human mother – was eternally decreed, then in God’s mind that Mother was Immaculate, that is, filled with grace, the supernatural life, from the first moment of her existence. The Immaculate Conception, then, is no disconcerting, edge-ways-on privilege. It simply means that Mary was exactly what God always intended that she should be.”[27]

          All through the centuries of debate the Church was slowly consolidating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. She enriched the feast with indulgences and privileges, instituted a Divine Office in its honour, encouraged the public preaching of it, forbade the denial of it, step by step made the different aspects of the truth clearer by authentic declarations, and finally, when the stage was fully set for the complete unfolding of her Immaculate beauty, defined it by the infallible voice of Pope Pius IX: “Therefore, after having offered to God the Father through His Son our own private prayers with humility and fastings as well as the public prayers of the Church, that He may deign to direct and confirm our mind with the power of the Holy Spirit, having invited the help of the whole celestial choir, having invoked with sighs the Holy Ghost and been moved by Him, for the honour of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, for the glory and embellishment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian religion, by the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and Ours, We declare, pronounce and define: That the doctrine which holds the Most Blessed Virgin Mary to have been at the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of the Almighty God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin, is revealed by God and therefore to be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”[28]

            Scarcely four years had elapsed and a heavenly Virgin appeared to a peasant girl in the grotto of Massabielle at Lourdes, and declared her identity: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”


[1] Scot. III, q. 1. n. 18.

[2] Ep. 172, inter Epp. Petri Celleno

[3] De Concep. B.M.V.

[4] St. Hippolytus, Or. in illud ps. 22, Dominus pascit me.

[5] Adversus Paulum Samosatenum.

[6] Or. I in Nativ. Deip. No. 7.

[7] Cant. IV, 12.

[8] Gen. III, 15.

[9] Carmina Nisibena.

[10] Mariology, Vol. II, ch. iii.

[11] Sermones Exegetici, in Gen. III, 6.

[12] Ibidem.

[13] Hom. 6, PG, lxxvii, 1427.

[14] De Instit. Virginum ad Esuseb. C. 5.

[15] Hom. 6. ante natale Domini.

[16] Hom. I de Assumpt.

[17] Sermo XI; PL. cxliv, 558.

[18] Hom. I inter Hom. in Diversos.

[19] Or. in Annun. Deip.

[20] Or. 6; PG., lxv, 733 et 757.

[21] Or. I in Nativ. Deip.

[22] Or. in Nat. Deip.

[23] Serm. de Assump. B.M.V.

[24] Orat. in Praesent. Deip. ff. 13.

[25] Cap. 5.

[26] Esther XIV, 13.

[27] Canadian Messenger, May, 1941.

[28] Bulla Ineffabilis Deus.