It’s the International Women’s Day (“Festa della Donna” here in Italy), so let’s talk a bit about my favorite woman: the Blessed Mother. Specifically, I want to talk about her sinlessness, and whether or not this eliminates her need for a Savior. I know a joke that might shed some light on this:
A man is running late for an important meeting. He hurries to the office, and arrives in the parking lot with only minutes to spare… only to find that the lot is entirely full. He circles around looking for parking, somewhere, anywhere, but to no avail. Finally, in a moment of desperation, he cries out, “God, I know we don’t talk much, but if you open up a parking space for me, I promise that I’ll go back to church.” Immediately, a car pulls out, and a parking space opens. Quickly, the man adds, “Never mind. One just freed up.”
That, more or less, is the problem with how we view Mary’s salvation, and our own. What do I mean by that?
Well, think about what it is that Catholics believe about Mary’s sinlessness. We don’t believe that Mary preserved herself from sin by the strength of her own will, or that she somehow avoiding the stain of original sin on her own. Rather, it’s that God saved her from sin.
It is she who is addressed by the angel Gabriel as “Full of Grace” (Luke 1:28), and it’s by the grace of God that she was preserved from sin. As the encyclical Ineffabilis Deus defined of the Immaculate Conception, “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” The idea that this God-given grace makes grace or God irrelevant is the same sort of ironical reasoning we saw in the parking lot joke.
This faults in this “parking lot” reasoning are more obvious when we talk about her ongoing sinlessness. After all, Mary wasn’t just preserved from original sin, but also from actual sin. She never commit a sin in her life. But here again, this is the result of the ongoing grace of God. To say that Mary could have been saved apart from God because she was sinless would be like saying that you can get by fine without the elevator because you’re already going up. It ignores the glaringly obvious reality: you’re going up on the elevator, and without it, you’d fall to your death. Same with Mary. Her sinlessness doesn’t mean she didn’t need a Savior. Her sinlessness was the result of her having a Savior, and (by grace!) remaining close to Him always.
If you’re coming from a Protestant perspective, everything that I’ve said so far might sound like Catholics have a weird Mary hang-up, and at the expense of grace. But the contrary is true on both counts: the point here is much bigger than what we believe about the Virgin Mary, and it’s critical that we get this right to think clearly about grace and salvation.
Here’s the radical reality: if you think being sinless is enough to be saved, you’re wrong. We don’t just need the grace of God because of original sin or the fall. If Adam and Eve hadn’t fallen, they would have still needed grace to get from Eden to Heaven. Likewise, even if we were sinless, we would still need God’s grace if we ever hoped to enjoy eternal bliss with Him in Heaven. Why is that? Because Heaven is more than we (any of us!) deserve, and it’s beyond our unaided natures. To see what I mean, turn from Mary to the angels. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that even the angels are saved by grace. That’s a remarkable fact. The angels are created without sin, and most of them never fell. But it’s true nevertheless.
Aquinas explained that “the will’s natural inclination is directed towards what is in keeping with its nature. Therefore, if there is anything which is above nature, the will cannot be inclined towards it, unless helped by some other supernatural principle.” In other words, an angel desires the sort of things that are appropriate it as an angel, just as a man desire the sort of things appropriate to him as a man. But seeing and loving God in the Beatific Vision is infinitely beyond all of that. It’s more than we could ever ask for. Through grace, God enables us to achieve more than we could ever achieve (or even hope for) on our own.
And this doesn’t stop once we get to Heaven. It’s not as if, once we get to Heaven, we cease needing the grace of God. The Virgin Mary and all of the Saints and Angels in glory are there because of grace — not just that God graciously brought them there in the first place, but that He sustains them continuously for all of eternity. There’s no expiration date on this grace, and no point at which you suddenly “earn” Heaven apart from God. For all eternity, we — all of us: Mary, the angels, and God, willing, you and I — will owe all of our joy and glory to the merits of Christ and the grace of God.
I have a lot of respect for Protestants who are cautious about affirming Mary’s sinlessness out of a recognition of the universal need for grace and salvation. Their hearts are in the right place, and if Catholics believed that Mary was sinless by her own merit, apart from grace, they’d be right to balk. But we know that Mary needed a Savior. She tells us so herself (Luke 1:47). The real issue is that the Catholic Church has a deeper understanding of grace, recognizing that Mary’s need for a Savior isn’t based upon her having already committed any sins.
Rather than being a threat to God’s sovereignty or grace, Mary’s sinlessness is one of the most spectacular manifestations of His grace and majesty.