The Mystery of the Immaculate Conception is not something on the borderlands of the Christian religion; rather, it stands front and center in the true Faith. This is because the Immaculate Herself is so wrapped up in the divine decree for the redemption of men, that her perpetual sinlessness and fulness of grace form a continuum with what the faith teaches about Jesus (Christology) and His Salvation (Soteriology).
Blessed Pius IX expressed this truth in Ineffabilis Deus, the encyclical wherein he defined the dogma:
And hence the very words with which the Sacred Scriptures speak of Uncreated Wisdom and set forth his eternal origin, the Church, both in its ecclesiastical offices and in its liturgy, has been wont to apply likewise to the origin of the Blessed Virgin, inasmuch as God, by one and the same decree, had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom. [Emphasis mine.]
An example, by the way, of the deliberate verbal ambiguity between “Uncreated Wisdom” and the “Seat of Wisdom” is found in the prophecy that the Church puts in place of the Epistle in the Mass propers for the Immaculate Conception, where Wisdom personified speaks to us. It is the Logos Himself that is speaking, but the Church applies the passage also to Our Lady. This “ambiguity” is not a confusion of the persons of Jesus and Mary, but a poetic way of highlighting the intense cooperation between the two — who are truly joined in the Incarnational economy “by one and the same decree” in the Mind of God.
There is a two-fold connection between the Immaculate Conception and the Redemption. Chronologically, the Immaculate Conception antedates the Incarnation and Redemption. Ontologically, however — in the higher order of being — the Immaculate Conception depends upon Christ’s Redemption. Explaining this relationship between the two Persons and their respective doctrines can help us understand the whole picture much better. And a deeper understanding of their mutual relationship goes a long way in addressing objections to the Marian dogma.
The Collect for the feast makes clear this two-fold relationship:
O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin didst prepare a worthy dwelling-place for Thy Son: we beseech Thee, that as by the foreseen death of the same Thy Son, Thou didst preserve her from all stain, so Thou wouldst grant unto us also, through her intercession, to come unto Thee with clean hearts. Through the same Jesus Christ Our Lord, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end.
Mary was prepared by the grace of Christ to be a fit dwelling place for that same Christ.
Many Protestants are under the impression that Catholics deny Mary’s need for the Salvation or Redemption of Christ. They think we Catholics believe that Mary’s holiness is somehow independent of the work of Christ the Savior. But this is untrue. Mary is just as radically dependent upon God as the rest of humanity is. Her Magnificat is a hymn of gratitude for the “great things” God — whom she calls her “Savior” — had done for her. The Church recognizes this dependence: Blessed Pius IX said in Ineffabilis Deus that Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race.”
Elsewhere in the encyclical, he says that the “Blessed Virgin [was] preserved from original sin by the grace of the Holy Spirit.” And again: “Mary, the most holy Mother of God, by virtue of the foreseen merits of Christ, our Lord and Redeemer, was never subject to original sin, but was completely preserved from the original taint, and hence she was redeemed in a manner more sublime. ”
Those who would doubt that God could perform this out-of-sequence sanctification of the Virgin have a problem with the notion of omnipotence.
In considering Mary’s unique Redemption, I have been using the terms “Redemption” and “Salvation” side-by-side. Perhaps this is a good place to distinguish the concepts. Although in the present economy (after the Fall) they are inseparable, the concepts differ significantly. To “redeem” literally means to buy back. Jesus Christ bought us back from death, sin, and hell by his atoning sacrifice. If Adam had not fallen, our race would not need to be redeemed. But we would need a “Savior” to save us from a finite, natural existence. Even Adam’s paradisal state, where he was in sanctifying grace, would require that he be “saved” in order to be delivered into the Beatific Vision.
In terms of the angelic nature, we can explain it this way: Jesus is the Savior of the good angels, but he is not their Redeemer. This is because they were never under the sway of sin. They did not need to be “bought back,” as the members of our race needed to be. With clear knowledge of the good in their angelic intellects, and sheer malice in their wills, the wicked angels fell once, never to be redeemed. The good angels, without ever falling, went from the state of grace to the state of glory. Jesus saved them whom he did not need to redeem.
Mary was both redeemed and saved, but her redemption was unique inasmuch as she was redeemed preventively. This means that her redemption both “came before” (prevent literally means “come before”) and completely averted her contamination with Original Sin. It’s as if a good man buys the freedom of some wild tribesman before the slave trader even captures him. Thus was Mary “redeemed in a manner more sublime.”
The Advent season, during which the Feast of the Immaculate Conception occurs, is all about preparation. The four weeks of Advent represent the four thousand years (in the Vulgate reckoning) during which God was preparing his faithful people for the coming of the Savior. Then, “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Mary is that woman of whom Christ is made. It stands to reason, then, that she herself would be prepared by grace, would be, in fact, saluted by Saint Gabriel with the unique title of kecharitomene, “filled with grace,” or “woman who has been graced” (Luke 1:28).
Blessed Pius IX touches upon this preparatory aspect of the Immaculate Conception in the first paragraph of his defining encyclical:
From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world.
That God prepared for the world’s salvation with the Advent of a uniquely sinless creature ought to be a sign to us. Although we cannot compete with her who was “redeemed in a manner more sublime,” we are left to conclude that our own preparation for Christ’s coming ought to be a sinless one. We have heard the Apostle Paul tell us this on the first Sunday of Advent:
The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy: But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences. [Rom. 13:11-14]