The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary causes difficulties for this biblical scholar, for though biblical passages are read on the feast day, none of them clearly support the doctrine as promulgated by the Church. This is not to say that the Church, through its Tradition, does not have access to other means of revelatory support, that which has been revealed to the Church through its history, theology and reflection on the ancient and apostolic tradition, but what does one make of the scriptural readings for the Immaculate Conception?
First of all, none of the readings for the Immaculate Conception make reference to Mary’s conception, and no passage in the Old or New Testament does so either. The first reading, from Genesis 3, was thought in the past to reference Mary’s sinlessness directly, especially 3:15:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike at your head,
while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15, NAB; similar in NRSV)
The locus for the use of this text in establishing Mary’s sinlessness was found in the Vulgate’s (mis)translation of “he” for “she”: she will strike at your head. Translators today are of one accord that the reference is to “her offspring,” and so should be translated as “he.” Yet, even if the traditional understanding of this passage was maintained, there is no direct path from it to the Immaculate Conception.
What of the Gospel reading? The key line is in Luke 1:28, in which the NAB translates Gabriel’s greeting to Mary as “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you”. Questions about the traditional rendering of this verse abound, as seen in the NRSV translation, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” While I do not like the NRSV translation at all – a Greetings Mary, for instance, just does not have the proper connotations for prayer or last second football heaves –the NRSV translation raises issues as to how much theological weight should be placed on a simple Greek participle. I think that the term “grace” should appear in the translation, but what does “full of grace” mean? It does not clearly indicate on its own, and cannot be pressed to indicate, that Mary has been free of the stain of original sin.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception develops throughout the history of the Church not simply from Scripture, but from the faithful in the Church and, only after I would argue, from the writings of the theologians reflecting on Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. This took place over many, many centuries before being promulgated as a doctrine of the Church. It arose from a reflection on the requisite holiness necessary for the task to which Mary had been called, and the sinlessness of Mary and the challenges to the teaching of the doctrine on original sin which this teaching posed were considered. Theologians both accepted and rejected aspects of the doctrine throughout its development.
One last question: what does all this mean as you reflect on these Scriptures? The teaching of Mary’s Immaculate Conception developed in the living Tradition of the Church as it reflected on the holiness necessary for the vocation to which she had been called and prepared and the Scriptures which occasioned this reflection. We should continue to reflect on her holiness too, as we prepare for the coming of Jesus, for we are a part of this same, living Tradition.
John W. Martens