As tomorrow is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I thought it appropriate to talk about her, and specifically what Catholics believe concerning her. One major problem many non-Catholics have is our belief in the Immaculate Conception...that is, when they understand that this is talking about Mary and not Jesus! So let me take a moment and explain what it is we believe.
The Immaculate Conception means we believe when Mary was conceived, she was kept from inheriting the state of original sin by a special act of God. This is the analogy most often given to explain it (from the link below):
Suppose a man falls into a deep pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been "saved" from the pit. Now imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to topple into the pit, but at the very moment that she is to fall in, someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been saved from the pit, but in an even better way: She was not simply taken out of the pit, she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. This is the illustration Christians have used for a thousand years to explain how Mary was saved by Christ. By receiving Christ’s grace at her conception, she had his grace applied to her before she was able to become mired in original sin and its stain.
Basically, we believe Mary was born in the state that Eve was. We often call Jesus the new Adam for obvious reasons, he helps us out of that pit that Adam fell into in the first place, and we call Mary the New Eve, because while Eve said no to God, Mary said yes. She was really the first person to accept Christ, though in a very literal way, lol! Also, we call Mary the New Ark, because just as the Ark of the Covenant was a vessel that was considered holy, was not to be touched by impure hands, and held within it the most precious and holy of all things on earth, so too did Mary. She had within her the very body of our Lord, and how much more infinitely worthy of being kept free from contact with any vessel that has a stain of sin is He than mere objects! It seems fit that the vessel that was to carry him should be pure and untouched by any kind of sin, even original sin.
Now, where does this idea come from at all? It was not invented in the 1800s, it has been around for a long long time, it was just formally defined in the 1800s. This is an explanation of where we get the idea.
When discussing the Immaculate Conception, an implicit reference may be found in the angel’s greeting to Mary. The angel Gabriel said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). The phrase "full of grace" is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. It therefore expresses a characteristic quality of Mary.
The traditional translation, "full of grace," is better than the one found in many recent versions of the New Testament, which give something along the lines of "highly favored daughter." Mary was indeed a highly favored daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that (and it never mentions the word for "daughter"). The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning "to fill or endow with grace." Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, Catholics hold, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.
Now, the Assumption means that we believe Mary was taken into Heaven, both body and soul. (This is in contrast to the Ascension, where Christ ascended into Heaven by His own power...we don't believe Mary ascended by her own power, we believe she was taken, assumed into Heaven, like Elijah.) Interestingly enough, there is no formal declaration on whether or not she actually died before this happened!
So...happy Feast of the Assumption to all you Catholics out there, remember to go to mass as it is a Holy Day of Obligation!