THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION. PART 1
A woman destined from all eternity to be the means of saving the world by deifying our nature, and to contain in her chaste womb Him whose " tabernacle is the sun, and who bows the heavens beneath his feet"—a woman expected from the creation of the globe, revealed by God himself in Paradise, and the avowed end of all the holy generations who have succeeded one after the other from the days of the patriarchs, 1 can be no ordinary creature, and must have prerogatives superior to humanity. The pious belief in the immaculate conception of Mary flows from this feeling of reverence. Descendants of an unfortunate head,—degraded by our rebellious father, disgraced by the sentence which condemns him instead of receiving from him the life of grace, we have received from him the death of sin, and, by a fearful destiny, we are condemned before we are born. This misery, inherent in the human race, cursed as one man in its origin, is common to all, and the Scripture has made no exception in favour of any child of Adam; but the piety of the faithful could not bear the idea that the Mother of God should be subject to the disgraceful condemnation which marks us with the seal of hell in the wombs of our mothers ; they have been persuaded that the Sovereign Judge must have suspended the general effect of his severe law in favour of her who came into the world for no other purpose than to contribute to the accomplishment of the most secret, most incomprehensible of the counsels of God—the incarnation of the Messias. Notwithstanding the silence of the gospel, it has been generally believed that the Virgin, with a view to her divine maternity, was held back, as it were, on the brink of the abyss which the' fatal disobedience of our first parents opened under our feet, and that her conception was immaculate as her life. This belief, which the Greeks borrowed from Palestine, and adopted with enthusiasm, 2 led to the institution of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which was celebrated with great pomp at Constantinople as early as the sixth century. 3 In the West, on the other hand, this doctrine met with opponents, and powerful ones; for St. Anselm, St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas of Aquin, Albert the Great, and many other learned and wise personages, all great theologians, and what is more, very devout to Mary, maintained that she had been conceived in sin, and subject to the general law, 4 although shortly after she had been entirely purified from it, by a special and surpassing favour, which began her glorious state of Mother of God.
But the belief in the immaculate conception of the holy Virgin prevailed in the end over the opinion of the great doctors of the middle ages; what the eagles of the schools had not seen was discovered to the unlearned. The writings of the apostles and doctors were turned over afresh; what they have bequeathed to us from age to age concerning the grandeurs of Mary, was more scrupulously examined, and this research caused strong light to fall on tins obscure point of the history of the Mother of Christ.
And, in fact, when we go back to the apostles, we already .see the title of most holy and immaculate applied to Mary. 5
The apostle St. Andrew, quoted by the Babylonian Abdias, expresses himself in these terms:—"As the first Adam was made of the earth before it was cursed, so the second Adam was formed of virgin earth which was never cursed."
The saints and martyrs who lived in the third century, St. Hippolytus, 6 Origen, 7 St. Dionysius of Alexandria, 8 give to the holy Virgin the qualification of "pure," and" immaculate." St. Cyprian 9 is more precise, and says plainly that" there is a very great difference between the rest of mortals and the Virgin, and that all she has in common with them is their nature, and not their fault.
In the fourth century St. Ambrose, who compares the Virgin to "a straight and shining stem, where there was never found the knot of original, or the bark of actual sin;" 10 St. John Chrysostom, 11 who proclaims her "most holy, immaculate, blessed above all creatures;" St. Jerom, 12 who poetically makes her "the cloud of the day which never knew darkness; " St. Basil, 13 whose footsteps the defenders of the immaculate conception have always gloried in following,—have never varied as to that purity of the lily which applies so well to the queen of angels.
In the fifth century, St. Augustin 14 cannot bear that even the name of Mary should be mentioned when there is any question of sin; and St. Peter Chrysologus 15 affirms that "all have been saved in the Virgin."
St. Fulgentius, who lived at the beginning of the sixth century, says that the "holy Virgin was entirely excepted from the primeval sentence." 16 "It is wrong," says St. Ildefonsus, 17 Archbishop of Toledo, who flourished in the same century, " to seek to subject the mother of God to the laws of nature ; it is manifest that she was free from original sin, and that she removed the malediction of Eve." St. John Damascene, 18 speaking expressly of her conception, says that she was " pure and immaculate." In the ninth century Theophanes, Abbot of Grandchamp; in the tenth, St. Fulbert, Bishop of Chartres ; towards the middle of the eleventh, Yvo, 19 one of the most shining lights of that time, and a little later, St. Bruno, 20 founder of the Carthusians, are evidently in favour of the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin.
1 According to St. Augustin, the progeny to which all the patriarchs aspire is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ in Mary, to whom alone their fecundity could extend. "And in fact," says he, "if nature in all her efforts tends to Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of ages, it is not that she flatters herself that she shall attain to the son of God by her own power alone; the extent of her power stops at the humble Mary, who is to bring forth the blessed germ, not by the power of her forefathers, but by the virtue of the Most High."—(St. Augustin, 5, contr. Jul. 9.)
2 We read in the Menologies, so ancient in the use of the Greeks, these words, which clearly set forth their belief in the mystery of the immaculate conception:—By a particular providence, the Lord was pleased that the Blessed Virgin should be as pure, from the first moment of her life, as it became her who was to become worthy to conceive and bring forth Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh."
3 St. Andrew of Crete makes mention of this Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the office of which had been composed by St. Sabbas, to which St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, added an antiphon.
4 The adversaries of the immaculate conception glory in reckoning in their ranks St. Anselm, St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, Albert the Great, &c. Great as these names are, we must not allow ourselves to be dazzled by them; for by comparing these doctors with themselves, we find that they positively maintained opinions both for and against, which shows that their opinion was not decided on this point, or else that they had strange distractions.
5 St. James the Great and St. Mark, in their Liturgies.
6 St. Hipp, in an oration "On the Consummation of the World."
7 Orig. Hom, in St. Matt.
8 St. Dion, in an epistle mentioned in the Biblioth. des PP.
9 St Cypr., de Nat. Virg.
10 "Virgo in qua nec nodus originalis, nec cortex actualis culpæ fuit."—(St. Ambr., de Inst. Virg., c. v.)
11 St. J. Chrys0stom, in his Liturgy.
12 Commentaries of St. Jerom on Ps. lxxvii. "Deduxit eos in nube diei: nubes est beata Virgo, quæ pulchre dicitur nubes diei, quia non fuit in tenebris, sed semper in luce."
13 St. Basil, in his Liturgy.
14 It must be observed that St. Augustin was then defending the doctrine of original sin against the Pelagians.
15 St. Peter Chrysol., de Annunciat., Serm. 140.
16 St. Fulg., Serm. de laudibus Mariæ.—Serm. de duab. nat. Jesu Christi.
17 St. Ildefonsus, in his book De Virginit. Mariæ.
18 St. J. Damascene, De Nativ. Mariæ., Or. ls.
19 The two holy bishops of Chartres, Fulbert and Yvo, declared themselves in favour of the immaculate conception. Yvo maintained it in the pulpit, and Fulbert says in his Paraphrase on the Angelical Salutation to the Virgin, "Ave, Maria, electa et insignis inter filias, quæ immaculata semper extitisti ab exordio tuæ creationis, quia paritura eras Creatorem totius sanctitatis."
20 St. Bruno, in his explanation of these words of Ps. ci., " Dominus de coelo in terram aspexit," which he applies to the Blessed Virgin.