Jesus’ family tree includes an immaculate rose

By | December 8, 2011

In the ancient world, the rose was a symbol for beauty. The Roman goddess Venus (Greece’s Aphrodite) was associated with the red rose. For Christians, this flower of perfect beauty eventually became associated with Mary and was connected in various ways.

 

  • The rosary, associated with a garland of roses and fully developed as a devotion by the 15th century, is linked to Mary.
  • The Litany of Loreto, dating to 1587 with parts that trace back much earlier, refers to the many titles of Mary, including “the Mystical Rose.”
  • And the upcoming feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12), honors the visions of St. Juan Diego in 1531. Mary appeared to Juan Diego with the request that a church in her honor be built. As a sign for the local bishop, Mary caused roses to bloom in winter for Juan Diego to take to the bishop. Images of those roses remain upon Juan Diego’s cloak, preserved in the Guadalupe shrine in Mexico City.

Thinking of Mary as the flowering stem from which the savior bloomed brings us to the feast, this coming week, of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8). (The 1910 Novena of the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary as the “mystic rose of purity.”)

The Immaculate Conception is sometimes confusing to people. Since this solemnity falls during Advent and quite close to Christmas, some people have mistakenly thought it refers to the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. The Gospel reading for the day perhaps adds to this confusion because it recounts the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38). In the reading, the angel Gabriel tells Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus.”

However, the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord (and thus his conception) is actually March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas.

No, the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of St. Anne. In fact, the Nativity of Mary is celebrated on Sept. 8, nine months after the Immaculate Conception.

Now, it was not until Dec. 8, 1854, that Pope Pius IX released the papal teaching that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception … was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

In other words, it is an infallible teaching of the church that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin.

Now, as noted, the Nativity of Mary has been celebrated for centuries. Likewise, Mary’s conception (nine months earlier) has been celebrated for centuries. The celebration developed in the Eastern church first and to this day is called “the Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos (Mother of God) by St. Anne” in Orthodox and Byzantine churches. That feast is celebrated on Dec. 9. Notice there is nothing in this feast’s name that addresses Mary’s immaculate state.

Mary’s sinless state from her first moment had been a matter of debate for centuries. It was not that anyone questioned Mary’s purity. What they were concerned about was what saying Mary was immaculate from the first moment of her life meant  basically that she was never touched by original sin (which is what the 1854 doctrine says) and that she thus did not need a savior (which is not what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches).

For example, both St. Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century) and St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) disagreed with the notion that Mary was never touched by original sin because, as theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson explained, this meant that “if Mary was not touched by sin, she did not need the Redeemer.” That was just unacceptable to these saints. (Or to Sr. Johnson.)

However, other saints, such as Blessed Duns Scotus (d. 1308) explained that this was not necessarily the case. Instead, he noted, Mary needed a redeemer just as much as any child of Eve, but that — through the grace of God and the actions of the Savior — Mary was conceived and sanctified at the very same instant. As Sr. Johnson explained, Jesus “preserves someone (his mother) from being touched by sin in the first place.”

And it was not so much, as some people have focused upon, that God desired a pure vessel in which to preserve the purity of the Son. Yes, Mary was pure. But the Son was also pure — and ever pure, because he was always divine in nature, as well as human in nature. Mary’s purity would not have affected that.

Rather, the Immaculate Conception of Mary shows her to be the first fruits of the redemption. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “In her, the ‘wonders of God’ that the Spirit was to fulfill in Christ and the Church began to be manifested” (n. 721).

Christ came to cleanse and purify all people — to save the entire world. He — sometimes called our Christmas rose — started first by redeeming his beloved mother, the mystical rose springs from the root of Jesse.

Sources: “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; papal documents at vatican.va; catholictradition.org; the Marian library at udayton.edu; antiochian.org; orthodwiki.com; Catechism of the Catholic Church and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”

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