Today, December 8, we celebrate the Solemnity of The Immaculate Conception—the sinless conception of Mary in the womb of her mother. In the famous account of Luke 24:13-35, we encounter the risen Jesus walking with two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. This scene contains one of the most foundational texts for understanding the relationship between Jesus the incarnate Word, and the Scriptures as God’s written Word. Along the way to Emmaus, before the disciples recognized the identity of their mystery companion, Jesus challenged them:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27 ESV-CE, emphasis added)
Here is Jesus, the risen Christ, teaching His disciples that all the Scriptures reveal Him. Of course, “the Scriptures” at this point would not have included the New Testament, as this event took place on the morning of the Resurrection. Jesus, therefore, is teaching that the Old Testament—not just the New—has revelatory value in disclosing His mission and identity. It is here that we begin our discussion of Mary and her Immaculate Conception, and its relationship with the Emmaus Road account.
It is unfortunate that so many Christians are quick to write off the Immaculate Conception as something derived solely from Tradition. Though Sacred Tradition has faithfully expanded upon and safeguarded our celebration of Mary’s sinless conception, it has not done so apart from Sacred Scripture. In fact, our understanding of Mary’s being conceived without sin is predicated upon an interpretation of Scripture. How so? Where does the Bible say that? Well, it doesn’t do so directly. Of course, the absence of explicit statements does not mean the Scriptures have nothing to say about other truths of the Faith, like the Divine Trinity, for example. So let’s dive a little deeper into the Bible, with Jesus as our Teacher, learning from Him just as He taught the disciples along the road to Emmaus.
One of the ways the Old Testament reveals Christ is through typology. Typology is “[t]he study of persons, places, events, and institutions in the Bible that foreshadow later and greater realities made known by God in history.”1 That is to say, certain Old Testament characters and narratives shape our understanding of future characters and accounts, principally Christ and His Church. This is not a method of Bible reading contrived centuries later as a way of making sense out of the Old Testament; in fact, the biblical authors themselves understood things this way. For example, Peter describes the event of Noah and the Flood as a type of Baptism which was to come.
…when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds [Greek, antitypon] to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 3:20-21)
Peter tells us that Baptism is revealed and shaped by the account of the Flood in Genesis and is brought to fulfillment through the redemptive work of Christ. He rightly calls Baptism the antitype, that is, the fulfillment, of the Flood. In typology the antitype (the fulfilling person/event) is always greater than the type (the earlier person/event), otherwise it would not be a fulfillment but a mere repetition—on the same level as the old and not greater.
Peter is not the only author to read the Old Testament typologically. Consider what Paul says regarding Christ:
Adam . . . was a type of the one who was to come. (Rom 5:14, emphasis added)
Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit. . . . The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. (1 Cor 15:45, 47, emphasis added)
Here again we see Jesus portrayed as the antitype of Adam. This is not to say that Jesus and Adam merely “had a lot in common,” but that behind and around and overshadowing the biblical portrayal of Adam is the revelation of Jesus. As Adam was the firstborn of all creation (Luke 3:38), so Jesus is the firstborn of new creation (Heb 1:6). As Adam was created without sin (Gen 1:31), so Christ is without sin (Heb 4:15). As Adam was cursed from a tree (Gen 2:16-17), so Christ redeemed us on a tree (Acts 5:30). As Adam bore the shame of nakedness (Gen 3:7), was exiled from a garden (Gen 3:23-24), and bore the punishment of sweat, thorns, and thistles (Gen 3:17-19), so Christ was stripped naked (Matt 27:31), agonized in a garden (John 18:1), sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44), and bore a crown of thorns (John 19:2). The relationship of the first and the last man informs and enriches our understanding of salvation immeasurably. Thanks to typology and the key interpretive passage of Luke 24, Christians are able to encounter Jesus more and more deeply through study and reflection on the biblical revelation of “the first man Adam” and “the last Adam [Jesus]” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church §411, 504-505, and 539).
Following this interpretive trajectory, we are now prepared to ask: If Christ is the new Adam, who is the new Eve? It is in pursuing an answer to this question that we arrive at a deeper biblical understanding of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
Just as the New Testament authors portray Jesus through the lens of Adam, so they represent Mary through the lens of the first woman, Eve. The Gospel of John, for example, introduces Mary not by her given name but by calling her “woman” (John 2:4; also 19:26). This recalls the Genesis account, which refers to Eve by name only once (Gen 4:1), but repeatedly calls her “woman” or “the woman” instead (11x in Gen 1-3). Just as “the woman” in Genesis invites Adam to eat of the forbidden tree, sending mankind into a state of sin and division, so the new “woman,” Mary, invites Jesus to perform His first public miracle-sign, initiating His ministry of redemption and salvation.
At the very end of the biblical drama, the Apostle John once again paints Mary with the colors of a familiar scene from Genesis. The woman portrayed in Revelation 12—a mysterious figure no doubt—clearly has Mary in view (even if the depiction represents more than Mary). Here we read of a woman, her offspring, and a serpent—recalling Genesis 3, where we read of a woman, a serpent, and the woman’s future offspring (or “seed”; Gen 3:15). In the scene of Revelation 12, this woman’s offspring was a “male child” who was “to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev 12:5), and who would reign as king over the conquered serpent (Rev 12:9-10). Who could this child be other than Christ? And if the child is Christ, then who else could this woman be but Mary, who gave birth to Christ? Indeed, this woman is painted in vibrant colors from Genesis 3, likening her to the first woman Eve. Brant Pitre draws the connection:
[A]ccording to the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation, Mary is not just the mother of Jesus. She is also a second Eve and the woman of Genesis 3:15, the mother of the Messiah whose offspring would conquer Satan and undo the Fall of Adam and Eve precisely by dying on the cross.2
The New Testament is rich with multiple examples of Old Testament imagery concerning Mary the mother of Jesus. (For a treatment on Mary’s typological relationship to the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant, see this article.)
With this background in view, we can see how fitting it is for Mary, the new and last Eve, to be created without sin. Some would like to justify Mary’s immaculate conception on grounds that it was necessary for Jesus, who was without sin, to be conceived by a sinless mother. In other words, Mary had to be free from the stain of original sin in order to avoid transmitting the curse to Jesus.
It is better to understand Mary’s sinless state as corresponding to and flowing from her typological relationship to Eve. Adam and Eve were not created in a state of sin, but were created “very good” (Gen 1:31); they only fell into a state of sin through an act of disobedience (Gen 3:1ff). It follows typologically that the new Adam and the new Eve likewise would be “very good” and without sin. And if Jesus and Mary are the true and superior antitype fulfillments of the original types of Adam and Eve, then it follows further that they never fall into sin as Adam and Eve once did. For if Jesus and Mary fell into sin, then they would not be greater than Adam and Eve, but just the same as them. In God’s great plan of redemption, the new and last Man and Woman came to correct the error of their typological predecessors and to provide the way of redemption and restoration, making it possible for the glory of God to manifest itself in the human race.
This understanding of the Immaculate Conception paves the way for a manner of thinking, reading, and believing that has informed the Catholic understanding of Mary since the earliest days of the Church. It also invites further inquiry into the role of Scripture in all the other Marian dogmas of the Church, including Mary as the Mother of God, the Assumption of Mary, Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth, and more.
My prayer is that this short reflection on the Immaculate Conception will open our hearts to a fuller understanding and appreciation of how Scripture informs our beliefs about Mary, and will serve as an inspiration to cling tightly to God’s Word when contemplating the mysteries of the Mother of our God. May God richly bless us as we faithfully do so, and may Mary, the Immaculate Conception, intercede for us in our efforts.