Mary’s Purification in the Temple
Q: How can Catholics claim that Mary is sinless when Luke tells us that she went to the Temple for the childbirth purification ritual (Luke 2:22-24), which included a sin offering (Lev. 12:8)?
A: It is amazing how people think something like the Catholic Church that has been around for two thousand years will not have encountered such basic objections before. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas has a nice section in the Summa Theologiae (III:37:4) on precisely this topic, which is interesting in that in his day the question was academic as everyone already believed that Mary was entirely sinless by a miracle of God’s grace (just as we will all be entirely sinless one day). Just goes to show how thorough the Angelic Doctor was in refuting every conceivable objection. And it is amazingly easy to stomp this fragile objection into tiny little pieces.
The basic answer is that Mary submitted to the childbirth purification ritual–with its mandatory sin offering–for the same reasons that Jesus submitted to circumcision (a purification ritual symbolizing being made spiritually clean; cf. Deut. 10:16, 30:6, Jer. 4:4, Rom. 2:29), celebrated the Passover (which was also a sin offering so that God’s wrath would pass over the household), and baptism (another purification ritual; Acts 22:16, 1 Peter 3:21). In fact, if there were any difficulty in explaining Mary’s submission to the purification ritual, it would be ten times harder to explain Christ’s submission to these rituals since he was instrinsically and infinitely holy, while Mary was merely rendered entirely sinless by God’s grace, as we shall be.
The first reason Christ submitted to circumcision and Passover was that the Mosaic Law required it, and he (like Mary) was “born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4).
The second reason is that to remove any cause for criticism and slander on the part of others, Christ submitted to things in the Mosaic Law of which he had no personal need or requirement (cf. Matt. 17:24-27).
The third reason is that Christ did these things in order to provide an example for others–an example of obedience to the Mosaic Law with regard to circumcision and Passover, and an example of obedience to the Christian Law in the case of baptism.
There were other reasons as well (such as the fact that these rituals pointed toward Christ), but the three that have been given are a more than adequate explanation of why Mary submitted to the Mosaic Law ritual of purification after childbirth (including its sin offering). She was born under the Law, she wished to give no occasion for slander in her conduct, and she wished to give an example to others.
Here is the most important part of what the Angelic Doctor has to say on the matter:
Objection 1. It would seem that it was unfitting for the Mother of God to go to the Temple to be purified. For purification presupposes uncleanness. But there was no uncleanness in the Blessed Virgin, as stated above (III:27-28). Therefore she should not have gone to the Temple to be purified.
I answer that, As the fulness of grace flowed from Christ on to His Mother, so it was becoming that the mother should be like her Son in humility: for “God giveth grace to the humble,” as is written James 4:6. And therefore, just as Christ, though not subject to the Law, wished, nevertheless, to submit to circumcision and the other burdens of the Law, in order to give an example of humility and obedience; and in order to show His approval of the Law; and, again, in order to take away from the Jews an excuse for calumniating Him: for the same reasons He wished His Mother also to fulfil the prescriptions of the Law, to which, nevertheless, she was not subject.
Reply to Objection 1. Although the Blessed Virgin had no uncleanness, yet she wished to fulfil the observance of purification, not because she needed it, but on account of the precept of the Law. Thus the Evangelist says pointedly that the days of her purification “according to the Law” were accomplished; for she needed no purification in herself.