Was the Immaculate Conception indeed unnecessary? All things are possible with God, of course; yet, “Who can make the clean out of the unclean? No one!” (Job 14:4). Making the clean out of the unclean is one of those logical impossibilities, such as making a four-sided triangle, that even God cannot perform.
So, it’s logically impossible for God to bring forth the sinless Jesus from the sinful Mary, but it’s not logically impossible for God to bring forth the sinless Mary from the sinful Anne?
An excellent question. It raises a far deeper, more difficult and important question: if Job is right that it is logically impossible to bring impurity out of impurity, how can we be saved, even by God?
I’ll deal with the second question first.
There is no way even God could rearrange impurity so as to get purity out of it. But it is possible to get purity out of impure raw materials if you just delete the impurities. This is what happens with the redemption of all our sins by the Atonement. The impurities are washed away by our Lord’s sacrifice, leaving a pure residue, fit for Heaven. Thus the Asperges me, domine of Psalm 51:7:
Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
In practice this washing is said to feel rather like purgation in a refiner’s fire than anything else. As George Herbert puts it in his poem Easter:
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing His praise
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With Him mayst rise :
That, as His death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.
The refiner’s fire purifies the Levites so that they may themselves offer a fitting sacrifice (Malachi 3:2-3); may offer themselves a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God; which is their reasonable service (Romans 12:1). The fire of Redemption burns off the impurities, leaving only the true, just gold. This is how Fallen creatures can be made pure.
The water of the washing with the fuller’s soap in the crystal sea that stands before the Temple is the water of baptism; the calcining fire of the refiner’s furnace is the flame of the Holy Spirit’s uncreate light (Matthew 3:11).
Baptism washes away Original Sin. Baptism is how we die with Christ, and are reborn with him. It is our participation in his sacrifice, and his rite of passage from Egypt through the Red Sea and the Jordan to the Promised Land.
This Passover from the slavery of sin to the freedom of our Father’s House is implemented once forever and always, at Calvary and at every Eucharist, when we join again with the angels in their wedding feast of manna, of water and blood, which is the Spirit and the Life.
So then, back to the Immaculate Conception. The efficacy of Christian baptism presupposes the completion of the Atonement. You can’t participate in a Redemption that is not accomplished.
The accomplishment of an atonement adequate to the redemption of the Fallen creation in turn presupposes the sacrifice of a pure and infinitely worthy, infinitely competent creature. The infinite worth and power of the victim was furnished by the Divine Nature present in the hypostatic union in Christ. The creaturely nature of the victim was inherited from Mary. If Mary had been spotted when Jesus was conceived, her spots would have been inherited by the victim. And that would have spoiled the sacrifice. So Mary had to be free of sin in order for the Atonement to be effected.
Thus the case of the conception of Jesus is subtly different than that of Mary. Jesus had to inherit a spotless human nature from Mary in order to be a sacrificial victim adequate to the redemption of the whole world. Mary on the other hand could inherit a sinful human nature from St. Anne and St. Joachim, so long as she was cleansed of its impurities prior to the Annunciation. This could have taken place after her conception, I suppose, like our baptisms all do. But an Immaculate Conception would have prevented Mary’s encumbrance by the concupiscence to which those of us born in sin are subject, and which makes it so hard for us to avoid sinning even when we are washed clean by baptism and the Holy Spirit. The derangement of her body and soul by any jot of concupiscence would have made it much, much less likely that Mary would be able to make it all the way to the Annunciation without falling into sin. So while the Immaculate Conception was not ontologically necessary, it was a *really good idea.*
But in order for Mary to be cleansed of her inheritance of Original Sin, and for that matter any of her own personal sins, the Atonement had to be effected. The only way that the Atonement could be prepared, then, was for it to be completed. How could the Atonement be prepared, when it had not yet been completed?
In the order of time, there seems to be a big problem here. But recall that the Atonement was efficacious in eternity, of which as many temporal orders – i.e., worlds – as there may be are but departments. Given the eternal actuality of the Atonement, baptism of the Holy Spirit can occur at any locus of the temporal order. This again is how Elijah and Moses were raised from the dead and appeared in their glorified resurrection bodies on the Mount of Transfiguration before the Atonement had happened.
So, the quick and the dead can be raised incorruptible, no matter where or when they live or die; and Mary could have been baptized in the Holy Spirit at her very conception, so that she was born and lived immaculate.