Over the weekend, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the dogma of which was declared by Pope Pius IX in an 1854 papal Bull entitled Ineffabilis Deus. The elevation of this teaching to the status of dogma has often been decried as a Catholic attempt to recentre the economy of Divine grace away from Christ towards Mary, and indeed many Catholics have been guilty of regarding this and other Marian attributes as the result of exclusively Marian merit, in isolation of the salvific power of Christ.
In arguments over the justification of the Marian dogmas, what is often forgotten by many, Catholic or otherwise, is the actual wording of the 1854 definition by Pius IX. This is important because the wording demonstrates a papal intention to place Mary within the framework of grace instituted by Christ, and not without. Mary was born without the stain of original sin, said Pius, as the result of being preserved by an action of God, and “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race”.
Thus, Mary stands not as a counterpoint of the graces won by Christ. Rather, Mary demonstrates the fullest extent of the operations of Christ. In other words, as John Henry Newman once wrote, Mary stands as a figure as much in need of the saving power of Christ as everyone else. However, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception states that Mary is a unique recipient of Christ’s saving work. Thus, Mary does not diminish the power of Christ, but amplifies the saving power of God, particularly when read in an eschatological key. Mary stands as the embodiment of mankind in terms of what we are to become in Christ at the end of history, as opposed to what we became in Adam from the beginning. The joint Anglican and Roman Catholic mariological statement, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, explains it in this way in paragraph 59:
the eschatological perspective illuminates our understanding of Mary’s person and calling … Christ’s redeeming work reached back in Mary to the depths of her being and to her earliest beginnings.
This dogma then is not about the aggrandisement of Mary at the expense of Christ. Rather, it demonstrates how nothing, not even the past – so often deemed as irreversible – can stand in the way of Christ’s salvific operations. Because of the kind of operations of grace at work in Mary’s past, Mary stands as a revolutionary figure. By this one means that the person of Mary demonstrates what is to be hoped for from the saving power of God in the future. This is most movingly articulated by her Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, on which Ben Myers at Faith and Theology provided a most moving homily at Grace Brethren Church in the United States.
In short, the person of Mary is a declaration to the status quo. If God’s work can tear down even the impenetrable barriers of the past, those that have become arrogant by displays of power in the present better beware, for there is an even greater power coming that will tear down that seemingly impenetrable fortress, one who “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly” (Lk 1:52).