Thursday, December 07, 2006

Scripture Reflection: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8, 2006)

Readings for today: Genesis 3:9-15,20, Psalm 98:1-4, Ephesians 1:3-6,11-12, Luke 1:26-38.

Mary, blessed from conception so as to be a pure vessel for Christ; Mary, the new Eve, the new Ark of the Covenant, Theokotos, the Bearer of our Savior, and the Mother of God: pray for us as we ask God for the strength to say "May it be done to me according to Your word".

First Reading: Adam and Eve have fallen prey to the serpent (Satan, Revelation 12:9) and committed sin. With the freedom of will and the freedom of choice comes the potential to choose wrongly, to disobey God, to choose our own wills over His. But God did not strike Adam and Eve dead -- though die they did. Instead, God permitted them to live, and Eve became the mother of all the living (3:20). Found in this reading also is perhaps the first of all prophecies of the coming of a Savior through humanity (3:15): though the serpent shall strike at the heel of Eve's offspring, her offspring shall strike at the serpent's head. This is not some petty fable explaining while snakes crawl and bite ankles, this is the foreshadowing of a man who shall decapitate sin, conquer death, and restore humanity to God.

Second Reading: Paul opens his letter to the Ephesians by proclaiming our selection by God before the foundation of the world. In stark contrast to his grim assertion that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 RSV), Paul writes to the Ephesians of God's desire for us to be holy and without blemish before Him (1:4). We, as Christians, have accepted this call to Christ, which has been "on the table" since before the world began. Mary is a model of this response: she said "yes" to God and accepted the task for which God had prepared her in her mother's womb.

Gospel: While this account from Luke speaks of the Annunciation -- that is, the proclamation to Mary of the conception of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit -- that is not what this solemnity is about, but let us first examine the role of Mary so that we may better understand this holy truth of her immaculate conception. Gabriel, the angelic herald of God, announces to Mary that she is to bear the Son of God, Jesus, a holy child who shall rule the house of Jacob forever, and have an everlasting kingdom. Mary, curious at first, accepts this holy charge. So why does the Catholic Church hold as truth that Mary was conceived without sin?

As the bearer of Jesus (through whom came the new covenant), Mary was the new Ark of the Covenant. The Ark held the stone tablets upon which the Law of the Covenant were inscribed (Exodus 25:16), and with the Ark was stored a jar of manna (Exodus 16:32-34) and the staff of Aaron (Numbers 17:23-25). These three things were prefigurings of Jesus Christ. The Law was from the finger of God (Exodus 31:18) but Jesus is from the mouth of God, for he is the Word of God made flesh (John 1:1,14). The manna was sustinence for Israel during the exodus, but those who ate it would perish anyway, while Jesus is the true bread from heaven, the bread of life (John 6:26-60). The rod of Aaron showed upon whom the favor of God rested to be the tribe priests for the Israelites, and Jesus is the eternal priest of the new covenant (Hebrews 5:4-6). The Ark of the Covenant was designed to exacting specifications, and was built from acacia wood and plated entirely with pure gold inside and out. So too, then, the new Ark that bore Jesus was human, but pure inside and out, fit to carry the infant Christ.


Anonymous said...

nice commentary, little brother!

Anonymous said...

I like the commentary, as well.

I really am not being flip when I say this, but I have a hard time understanding the whole Ark of the Covenent (AotC)part, though. I mean, I understand the parallel, and how you drew it. I just don't know that it's a Biblical one.

Are there some NT passages linking Mary to the AotC?

The whole "sinless Mary" thing has always confused me. Are you up for discussing it and helping me understand this Catholic doctrine?

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Sure, danny. I can point you to various sections of the Catechism (such as "Conceived by the Power of the Holy Spirit and Born of the Virgin Mary" and "Mary - Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church").

I will say the doctrine is Biblical in the sense that 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 (#487). The Catholic Church did not "decide" that Mary was sinless, but understands it as truth, as revelation from God based on Scripture and apostolic teaching.

I know this is not the way to defend the doctrine, but consider the fact that God could have made His Word incarnate in any way He chose fit, yet He did so through Mary. Mary was not the "best candidate" of a handful of young women God was watching closely, but was conceived for the very purpose of being the mother of Christ, just as Jeremiah was knit in his mother's womb to be a prophet of God (Jeremiah 1:4-5). Mary's sinlessness was not because she was really good at following the Mosaic law, it was because she was kept pure by God because of the purpose He had for her. Jeremiah's role as prophet was as a herald of the word of God; Mary's role as mother of Christ was as the bearer of the Word of God.

James 3:8-11 describes the duplicity of the human tongue, blessing God and cursing men in His likeness. He asks if a spring can give forth both fresh and brackish water. I believe it is the same with Mary: she could not have been both sinner and the bearer of Christ.

My fiancee lent me a book that I haven't gotten around to reading yet, Mary and the Fathers of the Church. I'm sure it will help me understand the Marian doctrines better.

That's all I've got for now -- this is eating into my lunch break (pun intended) so I've got to go.

Anonymous said...

Before I go on to other questions, I need to understand something:

Is it the Catholic belief that was a sinless virgin until the day she died?

After I hear from you about this, I think I will be much more able to discuss this with some semblance of cogency.

Hope you had a great lunch.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

It is the Catholic belief that Mary was conceived sinless and remained without sin for her entire life (by the grace of God and not by her own merits) and that she remained a virgin her entire life (that is, it was not only the conception of Jesus that was a miracle, but his birth as well, and Mary and Joseph never had sex). Their lawful marriage was consummated by the obedience of Mary and Joseph to God's will.

Those might seem like hard things to believe, and I agree: not because they appear to be anti-Scriptural (see Mark 3:32 and Mark 6:3) but because most of the elements of the faith are incredible (including things found explicitly in the Bible). But Mary is blessed among women (Luke 1:42), most blessed because she and no other was chosen to be the mother of Christ (which makes her, as hard as it is to fathom, the "mother of God").

So yes, that is the Catholic belief.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response. I guess I can formulate some coherent questions now.

You say that "Mary and Joseph never had sex"

How is it, then, that Matthew records, "but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus." (NAS)

Does that not indicate that after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary went on to have a normal and active sex life?

You say that "Mary was conceived sinless and remained without sin for her entire life"

Yet Mary and Joseph "misplaced" that Lord when he was twelve. That may not seem like a big deal. But unless I am mistaken, it was a bit of imperfect parenting on their part, no? And as we know, any imperfection is sin.

And depending on which translation you use, the Mark 6 passage does say that his family tried to stop Jesus from accomplishing His task. And anytime we find ourselves working against God, we are sinning.

We really aren't given very much about Mary in Scripture. But from what we are given, I don't think we can conclude that she was sinless.

One more question...
If Mary had to be concieved sinless to give birth to a sinless Jesus, then why wouldn't the mother of the mother of God need to be sinless as well?

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

I don't see reference in Mark 6 (NAB or RSV-CE) to his family trying to hinder him.

I do not think the ignorance of Jesus's parents in Luke 2:41-45 is considered sinful. (Otherwise, I sinned Monday when I thought wrongly that I had my wallet in my pants pocket.)

As for the mother of the mother of God, Mary was human, and Jesus was human and God. As such, a special vessel would be required to carry the infant Christ (who is God), but no such special vessel would be required to carry the infant Mary (who is not God). I believe that is the Catholic understanding on the matter.

Two other resources are: a defense of The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary by Jerome, c. 383 AD; the Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on The Blessed Virgin Mary.

Anonymous said...

Um...heh-heh...Did I say Mark 6? I meant Mark 3.

Sorry for the confusion.

I do think that we are on different pages with regard to what is "sin" and what isn't.

I would ask you whether or not you believe Jesus would ever misplace His wallet. I submit that He would not. To do so would be an imperfection...a slip-up...a missing of the mark of perfection...a sin. (sorry, this means that I do think you sinned by misplacing your wallet.) ;-)

'Zat make sense?

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Ah, Mark 3. The first instance (Mark 3:21) seems to be one of protection: they did not want Jesus to be harmed by the crowd which thought he was crazy. From the second instance (Mark 3:31-35) I can't draw any conclusion as to why they were asking for him (there doesn't seem to be a cause for alarm).

As for Jesus, he was fully human and fully God. Hebrew 2:10 states that For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. That implies that Jesus's humanity was made perfect by his continued obedience. That does not mean Jesus's humanity was ever imperfect, but that its perfection could only be determined when his earthly life was over. On more than one occasion the Evangelists write about Jesus asking questions (although John makes it clear that, as God, he knew the answers):

And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, "Who touched my garments?" (Mark 5:30)

And Jesus said to them, "How many loaves have you?" They said, "Seven, and a few small fish." (Matthew 15:34)

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, "How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?" This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. (John 6:5-6)

But the best example of Jesus developing in his humanity is Luke 2:52: And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. This is one of the mysteries of Jesus Christ's dual natures: we (at least, Catholics) believe he was fully human and fully divine. His abilities to work miracles and know as God the Father knows were not human characteristics -- if Jesus had moved some massive boulder during his ministry, it wasn't his human strength, it was his Godly strength. Likewise, his brain was a human brain. It is mysterious... it's a mystery, after all. Why would Jesus have prayed for deliverance in the Garden of Gethsemane? Why would he pray "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." (Matthew 26:39) if he did not posess a human will as well as the will of God? Why would the Romans have enlisted the help of Simon to carry the cross of Christ if not for the fraility of Jesus's human body and strength?

And I still disagree with you on the matter of whether or not it's "sin". I don't know what category of Mosaic law "forgetting my wallet" falls into.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Here are some more Catholic Apologetics resources on Mary:

Mary in the Bible
Mary in the Early Church and Today
Dogmas of Our Lady

Anonymous said...

Things got a bit crazy, Japhy. I'll definately take a look at these sometime soon.


Also, would it be safe to say that if it was shown Biblically that Mary sinned in any way, the whole "sinless and virgin until she died" thing goes out the window? (and no...I'm not baiting you for anything. I just have some thoughts on the topic.)

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

I'm sure the Church Fathers have poured over Scripture closely enough to have refuted all claims of (reported Biblical) sin on the part of Mary, and that the dogma of Church is supported by their findings. But as it stands, the Catholic Church does not recognize any Scriptural evidence of sin on the part of Mary. By that, I do not mean we place our fingers in our ears and go LA LA LA LA LA when challenged, of course, but that Catholicism has refuted claims of sinfulness in Mary, and there's only so much Scripture to base a claim upon.

I'd also point out that certain Protestant Reformers (such as Luther) believed in Mary's sinlessness as well. The belief (though not formalized as dogma then) was not an issue of contention he had with the Catholic Church.