The Immaculate Conception. The Ark of the New Covenant: two of the most misunderstood doctrines of the Church, so closely tied together! It’s impossible to talk on one without the other. So what does these doctrine mean? More importantly, what do they not mean?
The Immaculate Conception
Let’s do what we always do; let’s go to the definition. In the case of doctrine, we go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
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. CCC 491
The Church understands this to mean that the Blessed Mother was saved at the very moment that she was conceived. This seems odd because Mary wouldn’t be able to meet the requirements of salvation, such as faith (Eph 2:89), baptism (1 Peter 3:21), and taking of the Eucharist (John 6:54). So how is it that she could be saved?
We always need to remember that we worship a God who isn’t bound by any aspect of His creation, not even time itself. God, in His infinite wisdom, foresaw the plan He had for Mary, but also that Mary would submit fully to His will. In this perfect knowledge, God took the future faith that Mary would display, coupled it with Jesus’ salvific work on the cross, and applied it to her fully at the moment of her conception; to quote Gabriel, Mary really was ‘full of grace’ (Luke 1:28). When we read this greeting, we’re reminded of St Paul’s letters that tell us that it’s by grace that we are saved, through faith (Eph 2:8-9). We also remember that this grace is ‘not of ourselves, lest any of us should boast.’ This is exactly what Mary said when she praised the Lord as ‘God her Savior’; the Virgin boasted in God’s work, not her own goodness.
In light of God applying grace to Mary by virtue of her future faith, did she make that faith known? In the Catholic sense, did Mary meet the requirements of salvation? Was Mary baptized? Did she share in the Eucharistic meal? Well, of course Mary had faith (Luke 1:38), but she was also baptized by the Spirit when God overshadowed her, and another event similar to baptism would be the waters breaking before labor. Mary took the flesh and blood of Jesus to herself when she conceived the Savior’s human form. See again how God is able to apply future Sacraments without being bound by time?
This doesn’t mean that Mary was the perfect human by her own effort or nature. No, that would be the heresy Pelagianism, that man can save themselves with no action on God’s part. No, it instead means that Mary’s nature was perfected by God Himself, and kept from sin.
We read in scripture that God is able ‘to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish’ (Jude 1:24-25). We see no issue with the notion that God can do this at any point, even at the moment of conception.
Why would the Lord do this? God’s plan for Mary was quite unique in all of human history: She would conceive the human flesh of God the Son, becoming the Temple of God in the flesh, affording the Lord His human nature. In the Old Testament, it was the Ark of the Covenant that bore God’s glory on earth. But for this New Covenant, there would be a New Ark: Mary. It would make sense that God would sanctify her for His purpose.
New Covenant, New Ark
To talk about Mary as ‘Immaculate’, we also have to understand her role as the New Ark. We must understand that the Ark of the Covenant was also Holy, but not just for its own sake. It was sanctified by God in order to serve a purpose.
The Ark of the Old Covenant was ordered by God to contain certain things: the manna from Heaven, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. To affirm its completion, the glory of the Lord overshadowed it, and His glory filled the space (Ex 40:34-35.)
Does this sound familiar? When the angel Gabriel informed Mary of God’s plan, he told her that ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child will be born.’ (Luke 1:35). We have the Spirit overshadowing the Ark/Mary, the glory of God filling the space/filling the womb of Mary, and Mary carrying that which was from Heaven, the New Covenant. (John 6).
The angel Gabriel was drawing a parallel between the Ark of the Old Covenant with the Blessed Virgin, affirming her as the ‘New Ark.’
Mary carried Jesus for nine months, and He goes on to declare Himself as ‘the living bread that came down from Heaven’ (John 6:51). The Lord was the fulfillment of the Law of Moses, bringing the Law of Grace (Matthew 5:18, John 19:28-30), so Mary contained the ‘new law’ of the New Covenant. The Old Law was God’s word inscribed in stone, the New Covenant was God’s Word clothed in flesh.
When St Luke refers to Mary as ‘full of grace’, he uses the Greek ‘charitoo’. which means ‘to imbue with special honor, make accepted, highly favored.’ It’s worth noting that Gabriel referred to Mary as already being ‘full of grace’, so she was already ‘accepted, highly honored’, even before her conception of Christ!
We have further evidence that Mary is considered the New Ark. When Mary went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, she was greeted most strangely. Elizabeth asked Mary:
‘And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me.’ (Luke 1:43)
This draws a parallels to the account of the Ark of the Covenant. For context, the Philistines had captured the Ark, and King David set out to bring it back to the Temple. Uzzah, a companion of David, had been killed when he touched the Ark, and David was afraid that he would share the same fate. He asked himself
‘How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?’
When the Ark was brought back the people of Israel, the King leapt and danced for joy in front of the Ark (2 Sam 6:9-14.) This is again a foreshadowing of the New Ark, when Elizabeth’s baby ‘leapt for joy’ in her womb when he heard the voice of Mary. (Luke 1:38-45).
The Ark of the Covenant was Holy, unique, and contained God’s glory. It makes sense that Mary, as the one who contained God Himself, would be unique, holy, and sanctified for her purpose.
We see how the Immaculateness of Mary was necessary for her to be the Ark of the Covenant. They are two sides of the same coin, and can only be truly understood when they are presented together.