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From the outside, the Immaculate Conception is likely seen as the oddest and the most unnecessary of Catholic doctrines. To have faith in salvation through Jesus, we surely do not have to believe that his mother was conceived without the taint of original sin, do we?
There are other ways of responding to this question, but the one I prefer has to do with Mary's deep communion with the Holy Spirit. From the moment of her conception, she was at one with the Spirit. There was no sin that stood in the way of their total union.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power" (n. 1127).
The Catechism's statement is made in relation to the sacraments; it could just as well have been made regarding the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary. From start to finish, Mary's life is connected with the Holy Spirit. When Mary is present, the Holy Spirit is nearby.
Some commentators have maintained that while Mary is the created Immaculate Conception, the Holy Spirit is the uncreated Immaculate Conception.
The Holy Spirit is begotten out of the eternal love of the Father and the Son. That love is so powerful that it bears fruit in the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. Like all genuine love, the love of the Father and the Son for each other is fruitful. It bears fruit in a new "Thou," the Holy Spirit.
The love of the Father and the Son is perfect, love that is not closed in on itself. It is love that freely opens itself to that which is beyond the relationship. The love of the Father and the Son is embodied in the Spirit.
Likewise, the Father wills that Mary be a fitting vessel to bear the Son of God as her son. So, from the moment of her conception, God preserved her from all sin, not by destroying her free will, but by bringing her into an abiding and intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit.
The love of Mary and the Holy Spirit is so perfect, so complete, that it bears fruit in the birth of a child who is truly the Son of God.
St. Maximilian Kolbe said of Mary that she "is raised to such a height of perfection above all other creatures that she accomplishes in everything the will of the Holy Spirit who dwelt in her from the first instant of her conception."
We have traditionally referred to Mary as the spouse of the Holy Spirit because it was through the power of the Holy Spirit that the Son of God was conceived in the womb of the ever-virgin mother. The term "spouse" is appropriate because it implies that the Holy Spirit's entering into Mary's life was not a transitory, fleeting occurrence. It abided.
For Kolbe, the term "spouse" is inadequate to express the intimacy of their relationship. The Immaculate Conception does not change Mary from human to divine, but it does "configure her in a special and ineffable way to the Holy Spirit."
This is a grace that changes the soul indelibly. Because of this grace, just as the Holy Spirit is totally receptive to the eternal love between Father and Son, so Mary is receptive to the Holy Spirit. And just as the love of the Holy Spirit is fruitful in the continual outpouring of the divine love that he receives, so Mary's love is abundantly fruitful for the salvation of the world.
The Immaculate Conception is not a weird doctrine. It is a revelation of the Holy Spirit, one that is particularly attuned to the modern world where persons are seen as reaching fulfillment through an autonomous assertion of their own wills.
Mary, from the moment of her conception, was not autonomous. She was at one with the Holy Spirit. Through that communion, the will of God was enacted through her. Despite her lack of willfulness, she is the finest flower of humankind.
None of us were immaculately conceived. But we benefit enormously from observing and following Mary's example. Union with the Holy Spirit is the path to human fulfillment.
Holy Spirit, make your home in us. Empower us with the same indelible grace you emblazoned in Mary's heart. Empower us to do the will of the Father. Empower us to give birth to your Son in this world. Amen.