Today’s Readings: PM Psalm 89:1-29; Isa. 59:15b-21; Phil. 2:5-11
A Reflection from the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, Bishop
Originally published Nov. 2011
You know what the immaculate conception is, don’t you? Especially now around Christmas time, it’s likely that you’ll hear someone use the term. In Bible studies, at Christmas pageants, on TV, even in church services, someone speaks of the “Immaculate Conception” referring to the manner of Jesus’ birth. You know – that Jesus didn’t have a biological father because the Holy Spirit miraculously caused the Virgin Mary to conceive the Son of God in her womb. Wrong!
Contrary to quite wide-spread popular usage, the Immaculate Conception does not refer to the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth, but rather to a teaching about the Virgin Mary’s own birth.
Sacred tradition from the mid-100s tells us that the names of the Virgin Mary’s parents were Joachim and Anne (their day on our calendar is July 26. The “Immaculate Conception” teaches that from the instant of being conceived in the natural way in the womb of St. Anne, Mary herself was preserved from all stain of original sin. This is an official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, celebrated on December 8.
Ironically, I’ve known a good many Roman Catholics who themselves confuse the definitions of the miraculous conception of Jesus and the immaculate conception of Mary. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is an optional devotion for Anglicans, but it has no subscription in Protestant churches (indeed, many find it highly offensive). Personally, I think the teaching is valuable for trying to communicate something of the undeniable truth that the Virgin Mary is herself unique in all of human history.
Scriptural support for the Immaculate Conception is scant and slight (to say the least), which is why its supporters claim it to be principally a matter of divine revelation. Since the second century, Christ has been understood as the “second Adam,” and Mary as the “second Eve” – both terms referring to the Biblical truth that original sin was not involved in the creation of Adam and Eve. Freeing Mary from the stain and consequences of original sin gained further support from the title for Mary as “God-Bearer” (early 200s), the theological logic being that the one who carried and birthed God into humanity must be a perfectly pure vessel. God’s previous action saving Mary from original sin in St. Anne’s womb is then seen as an integral part of God’s plan and preparation for the birth of Jesus. Physiologically, theologically and poetically, mother Anne shares with daughter Mary a common view of that birth in the Bethlehem manger.