A few years ago, EWTN aired a special video on the story of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe. Unfortunately, I did not see the video, but the ad on the upcoming event included a refrain from a prayerful hymn that was portrayed as having been sung by the late saint of Auschwitz. He sang
Who are you, Immaculate Conception? Who are you?
The passion in the question, and its striking depth and fundamental importance, reminded me of the famous question of St. Thomas Aquinas, "What is God?"
Some years ago, as I celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, I revisited this question. A few years before that, I noted the significance of Mary's answer to St. Bernadette, when the latter, prompted by the demands of her pastor (Father Dominique Peyramale) asked the lady in her vision who she was. Mary responded, "I am the Immaculate Conception." It was obvious from her answer that the title is completely personal and singles her out among all of humanity as chosen by God from all eternity to be conceived, and forever preserved, without any stain of sin inherited from humanity's first parents. We can get a sense of the significance by emphasizing the word the in the title.
The question for theologians is what is the full significance of this title? For example,
- Why is there only one? Although Jesus, too, is sinless from conception, he is a divine person, not a human person, though fully sharing in our human nature by having a human body and soul — and it is his soul that is completely pure, just as Mary's is pure.
- The Catholic theology of grace declares, along with Pope Pius IX's declaration, Ineffabilis Deus, that her state is "a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race," a grace granted before the accomplishment of Christ's mission, the source of those merits. Thus, that theology declares the availability of such grace before Christ's mission. Such grace accounts for the salvation of persons such as Enoch, who "walked with God," Elijah, who was taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot, and the many who were "filled with the Holy Spirit" before Christ sanctified Baptism, or "descended to the dead."
- It is clear by analogy with Solomon's queen mother, the reference to the "woman clothed with the sun" in Revelation 12, and the "enmity between you [the serpent, or Satan] and the woman [or Mary]" in Genesis 3:15, that Mary has a unique status, shared only with Jesus, as a representative of humanity, a status which, combined with her gender, makes her totally unique. The Church has long recognized that she is "the new Eve," and spiritual mother of us all.
- It is in this connection that we can understand the salutation from the Angel Gabriel, "Hail, highly favored one." Others in the history of salvation were described in scripture as "favored." Only Mary is described as "highly favored." This reminds us of "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," and "And God said, it was very good." "Well pleased" and "very good" are unique comparatives, along with "highly favored." By contrast, with other cases, God is, at best, "pleased," and God declares something "good" or some few are "favored." Even these instances are extraordinarily rare. The unique comparative applies only when the one so identified shares the image and likeness of God without any stain of sin, a state of ontological purity.
- Tradition likens Mary to "the Morning Star," or Venus, whose reflected light is a perfect reproduction of the source of light, the sun, who is the image for Jesus, who is both God and man. Even in Jesus, the light issues from his divinity, and is only reflected, albeit perfectly, in his humanity.
- Both Jesus' humanity and Mary are perfect temples of the Holy Spirit as far as it is possible to be in God's conception of humanity.
As St. Gregory of Nazianzus declared, "That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved." [to gar aproslepton, atherapeuton ho de henotai to theu, touto kai sozetai.] It seems that God decided it was necessary for a woman, Mary, to be perfect, along with Christ, so that humanity, both men and women, could be healed and united with the Godhead. Thus, the Church calls Mary (albeit, not yet formally) Co-Redemptrix. Thus, Mary would share, as mother and as woman, in the sufferings of Christ. She would share in his resurrection and ascension, body and soul, into heaven. She would become Mediatrix of all graces.