Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

In the year 1854 Pope Pius XI proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.  He noted;

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.Immaculate

This doctrine seeks to explain how Jesus could be born without original sin. Jesus was free from original sin because Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin from the moment of her conception.  Although this is a distinctively Catholic solution to the problem of how Jesus could be born without original sin, and yet also be of the family of Adam and Eve.  Protestant theology also needs to provide an answer to this puzzle.  How was Jesus conceived without original sin?

One might ask, is the doctrine of the immaculate conception scriptural?  Obviously the exact words “Immaculate conception” are not found in Scripture but the same could easily be said for the word ‘Trinity.’  The doctrine is seen in Scripture but theology and Tradition have provided us with the technical vocabulary.

Annunciaton The scriptural background to this doctrine is found in the words of the Angel Gabriel in Luke 1:28.  The Catholic edition of the RSV translates the greeting of the Angel Gabriel as;

Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!

The Angel Gabriel’s greeting begins, with the Greek word chaire or “rejoice.” In Latin this would be  “Ave” which we traditionally translated “Hail.”  This greeting is filled with Old Testament connotations.  In many Old Testament passages Zion is invited to rejoice in the coming messianic joy of the Kingdom (Joel 2:21-23; Zeph 3:14; Zech 9:9). There is a clear connection here between Zephaniah 3:14-15 and Luke 1:28.  The Jerusalem Bible preserves the poetry of Zephaniah;

Shout for joy, daughter of Zion;

Israel shout aloud!

Rejoice, exult with all your heart,

daughter of Jerusalem!

Yahweh has repealed your sentence;

he has driven your enemies away.

Yahweh, the king of Israel, is in your midst;

you shall have no more evil to fear.

One is particularly struck by the words “the Lord, the king of Israel is in your midst” in connection with the incarnation.  The Angel Gabriel continues, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!" (Luke 1:28, RSVCE). 

The Greek word behind RSVCE translation “full of grace” is kecharitōmenē.  This is a highly inflected form of the Greek charitoō.  This word is quite rare in the Bible. Fr. Ignace de la Potterie notes that the verb used here is from a special class of causative verbs. 

In a religious context causative verbs would express the transforming of the person acted upon--the effect that grace has on someone.  The verb kecharitōmenē in Luke 1:28 is a perfect passive participle.  Being acted upon is also the normal sense of the passive voice and antecedent action is the basic meaning of the perfect tense.

An awkward but extremely accurate translation would be, "Rejoice in the transforming grace you have received, for the Lord is with you!” A much more succinct translation would be “Hail, [Mary] full of grace”.  It is possible in translating the participle to emphasis either the verbal aspect as indicated in the above translation or to turn the action into a title “the-one-having-been-transformed-by-the-grace-you-have-received.” This explains the NAB translation which renders the verse, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  Yet following the NAB it is difficult to communicate the full impact of the Greek verb in the title “favored one.”  Mary is the “favored one” because God has chosen to transform her with his grace to prepare her for the incarnation.

The Church has supplied the the exact moment that Mary received this transforming grace as ‘the moment of conception’, and Luke 1:28 clearly points to this.  The perfect tense of the verb above indicates that at some point prior to Mary receiving  the angel’s greeting she had already been transformed by grace in preparation for the incarnation.  The formal definition of the dogma simply clarifies the details of the nature and timing of this grace;

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

Luke 1:28 is clearly a strong scriptural support for this doctrine.  Holy Mary, Our hope Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!

On the Vigil of the Feast to the Immaculate Conception

SGM

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