Way of Essenic Studies
There is a widespread misunderstanding of the term "Immaculate Conception." Many people, even Catholics, believe this refers to the conception of Jesus, but Immaculate Conception is actually a Catholic dogma that asserts that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was preserved by God from the stain of original sin at the time of her conception.
im·mac·u·late: 1: having no stain or blemish 2: containing no flaw or error 3: spotlessly clean.
con·cep·tion: 1 a (1) : the process of becoming pregnant involving fertilization through sexual intercourse.
There is a widespread misunderstanding of the term "Immaculate Conception". Many people, even many Catholics, believe this refers to the conception of Jesus by Mary. Nearly every time this term is used in television or in popular culture, it is in reference to the conception of Jesus.
The conception of Jesus by Mary is more properly called the "Incarnation of Christ." The phrase "Immaculate Conception," by Catholic interpretation, is not directly connected to the concept of the "Virgin Birth." The Catholic Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception on 8 December, exactly nine months before the official birthday of Mary. The Incarnation of Christ is celebrated on 25 March, nine months before Christmas Day.
The Immaculate Conception is a Catholic dogma that asserts that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was preserved by God from the stain of original sin at the time of her own conception.
Specifically, the dogma says she was not afflicted by the privation of sanctifying grace that afflicts mankind, but was instead filled with grace by God, and furthermore lived a life completely free from sin.
It is commonly confused with the doctrine of the virgin birth, though the two deal with separate subjects. Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but her soul was acted upon by God blocking sin from perpetuating at the time of her conception.
The Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in his constitution Ineffabilis Deus, published December 8, 1854 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception).
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary had been established in 1483 by Pope Sixtus IV who stopped short of defining the doctrine as a dogma of the Catholic Faith, thus giving Catholics freedom to believe in this or not; this freedom had been reiterated by the Council of Trent. The existence of the feast was a strong indication of the Church´s belief in the Immaculate Conception, even before its 19th century definition as a dogma.
The Catholic Church believes the dogma is supported by scripture (e.g. her being greeted by Angel Gabriel as "full of Grace"), and by the writings of many of the Church Fathers, either directly or indirectly, and often calls Mary the Blessed Virgin (Luke 1:48).
Catholic theology maintains that since Jesus became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, she needed to be completely free of sin to bear the Son of God, and that Mary is "redeemed 'by the grace of Christ' but in a more perfect manner than other human beings" (Ott, Fund., Bk 3, Pt. 3, Ch. 2, §3.1.e).
History of the Doctrine
Aside from the acceptability of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, there is a history of its development within the Catholic Church.
The Conception of Mary was celebrated in England since the ninth century. Eadmer was influential in its spread. The Normans suppressed the celebration, but it lived on in the popular mind.
It was rejected by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Alexander of Hales, and St. Bonaventure (who, teaching at Paris, called it "this foreign doctrine", indicating its association with England). St Thomas Aquinas expressed questions about the subject, but said that he would accept the determination of the Church.
These famous churchmen had problems with the doctrine, due to the medieval understanding of the physical workings of human conception and implantation in the womb. They did not believe that the soul was placed in the body at the moment of conception. Aquinas and Bonaventure, for example, believed that Mary was completely free from sin, but that she was not given this grace at the instant of her conception.
The Oxford Franciscans William of Ware and especially Blessed John Duns Scotus defended the doctrine, despite the opposition of most scholarly opinion at the time. Scotus proposed a solution to the theological problems involved with reconciling the doctrine with that of universal redemption in Christ, by arguing that Mary's immaculate conception did not remove her from redemption by Christ, but rather was the result of a more perfect redemption given to her on account of her special role in history.
Furthermore, Scotus said that Mary was redeemed in anticipation of Christ's death on the cross. This was similar to the way that the Church explained the Last Supper (since Catholic theology teaches that the Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary made present on the altar, and Christ did not die before the Last Supper). Scotus' defense of the immaculist thesis was summed up by one of his followers as potuit, decuit ergo fecit (God could do it, it was fitting that he did it, and so he did it). Following his defense of the thesis, students at Paris swore to defend the thesis, and the tradition grew of swearing to defend the doctrine with one's blood.
Popular opinion was firmly behind accepting this privilege for Mary, but such was the sensitivity of the issue and the authority of Aquinas, that it was not until 1854 that Pius IX, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Catholic Bishops, pronounced the doctrine infallible.
Parallelisms in Other Religions
Anahita (or Nahid in Modern Persian), the mother of Mitra, whose name means "unstained" or "immaculate", was an ancient Persian deity. Her cult was strongest in Western Iran, and had parallels with that of the Semitic Near Eastern "Queen of Heaven", deification of the planet Venus. The largest temple with a Mithraic connection is the Seleucid temple at Kangavar in western Iran (c. 200 BC), dedicated to "Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras".
Isis was also sometimes described as immaculate. "Immaculate is our Lady Isis," is the legend around an engraving of Serapis and Isis, described by C W King, in The Gnostics and their Remains.
The Virgin Birth is a key doctrine of the Christian faith, and is also held to be true by Muslims (Qur'an 3.47), however, they do not call him (Jesus) "Son of God", rather "Servant of God". In the Qur'an, Jesus (Isa in Arabic) is consistently termed "Isa ibn Maryam" - a matronymic - because, in Muslim belief, he had no biological father.
The doctrine asserts that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother, the Virgin Mary, without the participation of a human father. Instead, the Miraculous Conception (not the Immaculate Conception) took place when the Holy Spirit "overshadowed" Mary.
This was not understood to mean that the human body of Christ was created ex nihilo (from nothing), for the tradition of the Church is that Christ "took his flesh from Mary." This is also understood to be a miracle, something not possible without divine intervention.
Another reason that Christians who accept the Virgin Birth consider it to be significant is that it shows Jesus' divine and human natures at once united, paving the way for all of humanity to be united with God. Eastern Orthodox tradition says that from the time Jesus was born, the flaming sword was removed from the Garden of Eden, making it possible for humanity to re-enter Paradise.
Scriptural and Philological Controversy
In the wider sense, arguments for and against the Virgin Birth depend on fundamental philosophical assumptions or the Virgin Birth cannot have taken place in any traditionally accepted sense. To many, the Virgin Birth violates natural philosophy and the science based upon it. There are also objections to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth based on scriptural evidence and other ongoing theological debates. The required Sethian and Davidic bloodlines of the Messiah, so meticulously mentioned in the Bible, would abruptly end, without justification, with Joseph.
The Son of Man
Some Christians also reject the notion of the Virgin Birth. Research by many groups, including Christian Research indicates that among both the clergy and the laity (in all branches of Christianity) beliefs in central tenets of the faith such as Virgin Birth or bodily Resurrection is highly variable. Among male clergy of English Affirming Catholicism, less than 25% believe in Immaculate Conception or Virgin Birth.
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Immaculate Conception / Virgin Birth