Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, explains how in her Immaculate Conception, Mary began her life sinless, but always had the same capacity for sin that we do, just as Adam and Eve had such a capacity to sin prior to the Fall. That she did not sin in her life, is, I think, why she is properly proclaimed Humanity’s Sole Boast:
When we fall, we fall from a human dignity, not an angelic one; our skid may well end at a level of animal savagery, but we never “tumble down” into humanity. It was natural indeed that the Legion inside the Gerasene demoniac pleaded to be cast into swine — not because pigs are of themselves wickeder then men, but because the elevator, so to speak, was already at that floor. There is no point, then, in exploring this avenue further. I think the way out is more direct. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “Whenever I hear the word ‘dialogue’, I reach for my dogma.” Let us, in the same spirit, reach for our dogma and see if it has anything to say to us.
Pope Pius IX’s Dogmatic Definition of 1854 runs thus: “The Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of omnipotent God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved free from all stain of original sin…. ” First, it should be noticed that the grace given to the Virgin Mary was “in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ.” That is, in and of herself, she too was in need of salvation and was saved through the sacrifice of her Son, although it worked “retroactively” as it were, so as to affect her even at her conception.
A very partial analogy might be drawn with a woman afflicted from birth with a progressive terminal disease, whose own child grows up to be the scientist who discovers the cure for the disease, and so heals the mother. But let’s not push that too far. The second point, and this is the one I want to stress, is that it is original sin from which Mary was preserved at her conception. The contamination which we all inherited from Adam, namely, estrangement from God with its consequent warping of our human appetites, as well as death itself, did not touch her. The fittingness of this “singular privilege and grace” was, to my mind, well expressed by the English bishop Langdon Fox, who asked, “How could Mary be said to have been made fit to stand in the relationship of Mother to the all pure God if the Devil could claim, and claim truly that once, even if only for moment, she had been in the state of Original sin?” that is, if the devil had her in his control even briefly. Be that as it may, it should be clear that freedom from original sin does not bring with it an incapacity for actual sin. After all, Adam and Eve were both created without original sin; it was in fact their first actual sin whose effect we call “original” in their descendants.
Now the upshot, it seems to me, is this. The Blessed Virgin Mary lived her life in the state in which Adam and Eve lived before their sin. She was as capable of sin as they were; her life, to this extent like ours, was a series of choices between good and bad, self and other, God’s will and her own. her glory, for which all generations will call her blessed, is that in every instance she said, “I am your servant. Let it be done to me in accordance with your word.” She, who was full of grace, said, “Your will be done, not mine.” When she praised God because He had looked on her in her lowliness, she was not feigning humility. She was uniquely aware that it was God’s grace, and not her own merit, in virtue of which she had been set apart. And the consciousness of the gap between her humanity and God’s power was uniquely acute in her case.
C.S. Lewis remarked somewhere that we are not to imagine that Jesus had an easier time with temptation than we. In fact, he said, Jesus Christ was the only one who ever felt the full strength of temptation, because He was the only one who never gave in to it. He said by way of explanation something like this: “After all, you don’t discover the true strength of the German Army by laying down and letting it roll over you; but only by standing up to it and fighting it at every turn.” If I might extend (and correct) C.S. Lewis here, I would say that the Virgin Mary is, apart from her Son, the only one who really knew humility, since it was she who, in every instance, chose obedience, who let God’s will trump her own, who refused to be duped into trusting in her own resources.
We might illustrate what this means from the Gospel: I once heard another Jesuit talk over coffee about a homily he had to give at a summer camp for retarded children. The Gospel text on which he was to preach was the account of the Rich Young Man. Unsure how he was going to communicate the message to his congregation, this priest somewhat despairingly brought out a simple coffee cup after reading the Scripture. He said, “You see, the rich young man’s cup was already full of all the things he had, and so Jesus couldn’t give him anything; there was no room.” I still think that to be one of the most striking exegeses of that passage I’ve ever heard. And, when it is reversed, the same image can be applied to Mary. Her cup alone was genuinely empty; she alone had room only for God, for herself, no element of possessiveness or self-will, which took up the space made for God’s love. She alone was truly an earthen vessel, a repository, she whom the archangel Gabriel called “full of grace.”
Her humility, her lowliness, was not a sham. Alone of our race, she could point to her humility without an admixture of hypocrisy. The lowliness was hers; the glory was God’s. Far from being aloof from the pain of decision, she is the only one of us who ever felt the full sting. If you think I am laying it on a bit thick here, I’d invite you to try living for ten minutes genuinely unconscious of your own dignity, genuinely reliant on God. It hurts like blazes.