Now before I go on, let's us all remember that just because a dogma is defined at some given point in history doesn't mean that Roman Catholics just then started believing it. It simply means that the time had come for that belief to be formalized as an important teaching of the Church. Which is kind of funny, considering that the document the teaching is defined in is called a "bull." Some things just don't translate well from Latin to English, do they?
Anyway, Mary's immaculate conception is very important, considering who she was in God's plan for the salvation of mankind: she was the mother of Jesus. A big responsibility that required a special person, wouldn't you say? So special, in fact, that when God laid out His plan of salvation to the serpent in Genesis 3:15 ( "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel." -NAB), that plan was already complete. That's how God does things, which is part of the whole omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient package.
Since Mary was chosen to be the one -- the woman -- and was never part of a short list of likely candidates, the time and place and circumstances of her birth were already decided. The foreshadowings of Mary and Jesus in the Old Testament are best illustrated by the accounts and descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant was a large chest made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. The top part of the chest featured two kneeling cherubim, wings spread and facing inward; there were also gold rings cast at the four corners which held the long gold-covered poles used for transporting the Ark whenever it was moved from its place in the sanctum sanctorum.
The Ark held several articles relating to the Old Covenant: the stone tablets Moses received from God on Mt. Sinai, Aaron's staff that burst into bloom and a golden container of manna. Scholars believe that there was also a scroll of the Pentateuch contained inside, although that point is debatable. One point that isn't, though, is the holiness of this holy object.
Obviously, the contents of the ark were of enormous importance to the Hebrew people, not only symbolically, but in reality. But the actual chest itself was supposed to be a reminder of God's presence among His people. In fact, God spoke from the "propitiary", the place between the two cherubim's raised wings, during the time of Moses. God took this so seriously that only certain consecrated people were even allowed to move the ark and they had to follow some rather precise rules. During the reign of King David, the ark was brought back to Jerusalem after being captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 5, 7: 2) by ox cart. While it was being transported, the oxen who were drawing the cart stumbled and a man named Uzzah reached out to steady it so that it wouldn't tip off the cart. He immediately fell dead (2 Samuel 6: 2-7).
So it wasn't just what was in the ark that was sacred and holy. The ark itself was to be treated with reverence and honor.
That brings us to the New Testament, to the archangel Gabriel who brought a message to Mary, the ordinary-but-extraordinary Hebrew girl, who learned that she would be who the Greeks later called "theotokos," the God-bearer, the Ark of the New Covenant. Only this time, instead of being a wooden chest overlaid with precious gold, the new "ark" would be a human being. Instead of a holy object designed to the exact specifications of God, this new ark was a holy person, also designed to God's exact specifications -- the stain of the sin of Adam (original sin) was removed from her soul before her birth. And instead of holding sacred objects -- stone tablets of the Law, manna, the staff of Aaron -- this ark was designed to hold the most sacred being of all, the Lamb of God. Not just the manna from the wilderness that the Hebrew people ate of yet died, but the very Bread of Life. 1, 2, 3
Like the old ark, the new "ark" wasn't just designed to hold a sacred object - she herself was holy. Human, yes. Always human, never divine. A person, a woman, a girl. Never a goddess, never a second-string member of the Trinity, never an object of worship. But.....holy. When you consider it, it only makes sense. If two stone tablets, a walking stick and a container of manna were so important that they needed a sacred vessel to contain them, how could we believe any less of the woman who carried Jesus in her womb? Can you really imagine any less than a woman immaculately conceived in a one-time purposeful act of God as the mother of our Savior?
"Behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed": Those are Mary's prophetic words recorded in Luke 1: 46, the very words I am thinking about this Advent.
1 So they said to him, "What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"So Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." So they said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. -John 6: 30-35 NAB
2 I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?"
Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever."
These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
Then many of his disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?"
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, "Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe." Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father."
As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?"
Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God." -John 6: 48-69 NAB
3 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. -Matthew 26: 26-29 NAB