The solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in the womb of St. Anne should be both a festive and a reflective celebration for Christians of the 21st century. The young girl Mary of Nazareth, the daughter of Anne and Joachim, and the spouse to be of the carpenter Joseph, is chosen from the very first moment of her existence to be free of the penalty brought upon the human race by the sins of mankind’s first parents, Adam and Eve. Mary is not spared the curse of original sin after the first heartbeat is detected. Nor is she freed from the penalty of spiritual death after the first trimester. Nor is she relieved of humanity’s perennial curse moments before her birth.
No, Mary is delivered from any taint or even hint of sin from the first moment her embryonic life commenced in the womb of her mother Anne. Mary did not become human at a certain point in her existence, and so at that moment was relieved of mankind’s perennial curse. Undeniably, Mary always was human, from her conception, through her birth, through the joys and sorrows of her own motherhood and even now into eternity. And indeed, what was true of Mary is true of every child conceived in the womb. Humans do not become persons at certain points in their existence; they are human from the first moment of their existence, even to the sad point of being, unlike Mary, burdened with original sin.
Medieval arguments about quickening notwithstanding, the Scriptures and Christian Tradition have always celebrated and treasured the child in the womb. Jeremiah heard the Lord clearly, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born, I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you (1:5).” Isaiah gave similar testimony, “Hear me, coastlands, listen, distant peoples. Before birth the LORD called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name (1:1).” And again, St. Paul had a like intuition, “But when God, who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult flesh and blood… (Galatians 1:15).”
Again, certainly one of the most touching events in Scripture was the embryonic encounter between the pre-born Jesus Christ and the pre-born John the Baptist. The precursor’s mother, Elizabeth, senses that she is already in the presence of a Divine Person when she acknowledges that the being in the womb of Mary is indeed her Savior: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me (Lk1:43)?” The unborn Jesus is already her “Lord,” all the prerogatives found in Christ in later life are now present in the womb. Elizabeth’s own unborn son John is clearly capable, even in the womb, of sensing that he is now in the presence of someone Divine: “For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy (Lk.1:44).” The person of the newly born Christ that would bring “great joy” (Lk.2:10) to the shepherds after Jesus’ birth was already fully present, even while Jesus was still in his mother’s womb.
These two great women, Elizabeth, among the elite of the Old Testament, and Mary, certainly the pick of the New Testament, truly appreciated and happily acknowledged that the children they were carrying were true persons, already capable of an intimate encounter.
As the Christian world celebrates the Virgin Mary’s exalted gifts bestowed upon her at her conception, St. Paul reminds his Ephesian readership that all human beings, even before they are conceived or born, are part of God’s eternal plan and that the unique destiny of every human person must be respected: “God chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved. In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:3-6, 11-12).” Every human being, from the moment of conception until natural death and beyond into eternity, holds a unique place in the mind of God.
Human life, at any and every stage of development, “exists for the praise of his glory.” The Church certainly but society as well must realize an unfailing sense of “great joy” and tender responsibility toward the prospect of every new life coming into this world.