Though the teaching has roots even back to the Old Testament, the Church received the words to certify the dogma in the encyclical Ineffabilis Deus. The defining paragraph reads:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.In reading the entire document, it is clear that this includes all stains of sin, original or actual.
This of course is no small point of contention between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants generally do not recognize or acknowledge the typological figures in Scripture that point to her Immaculate Conception.
However, the purpose of this post is not to provide an extensive apologetic for the dogma. It is to bring attention the flaw in one of the critics' arguments against Mary's Immaculate Conception. The argument says because Mary underwent the rite of purification for sin after Christ's birth (Luke 2:22-24), she therefore must have sinned.
For example, Reese Currie of Compass Distributors writes:
Under the Law of Moses, Mary offered a sin offering, the reason for so doing being that one has sinned. So the notion that Mary led a sinless life is proven false...Here is the Scriptural text in question:
And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord") and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons." (Luke 2:22-24)The quoted portion refers back to Leviticus:
Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. ... And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean." (Lev. 12:2-3,6-8)Authors like Currie focus on the phrase "for a sin offering." Thus, since Mary underwent the purification rite of the Old Covenant under which her action occurred, some critics consider Luke 2 as a "proof" against the idea that Mary is without all stain of sin.
But this conclusion results in a number of problems.
A sin to bleed?
First is a simple problem in understanding the sign of the rite, rather than a statement about the woman's sanctity. According to the text of Leviticus 12, the "sin" the woman committed was the ceremonial need to be purified from the uncleanliness "from the flow of her blood." (cf. Lev. 15 for further context on Jews and sexual "regulations.") No woman commits a sin simply when her body involuntarily behaves according to biology and sheds blood. The idea that "bleeding is morally sinful" is nonsensical on its face. The rite in Leviticus is a "legal" uncleanliness and part of the OT "law" Christ superseded by fulfilling the law. (cf. Gal. 3:13; Mat. 5:17)
The view of sexual actions in the Old Testament often were associated with unholiness. For instance, in 1 Sam. 21:4-5, the priest in the scene refuses to give "holy bread" to men who had recently had relations with women. Of course, God even commanded pre-Fall man to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28) so sexual activity is of course not inherently sinful. These Old Testament figures are rather signal of the actual holiness required to approach God. Understanding how Israel thus viewed these rites points us to the holiness to come.
So then Jesus must have sinned too since he underwent rites for sin?
The second consequence of the critics' argument is perhaps more revealing of its unreasonableness. Remember, the critics' rule is if a person undergoes an OT ritual for sin, that person necessarily must be a sinner. However, the example of Christ, who was without sin (Heb. 2:17; 4:15), destroys the critics' rule.
Notice in the very text of Luke 2:22 it reads when the time came for "their purification." Most manuscripts read "their" in the original Greek (see footnote 2 at NetBible, incidentally a Protestant source). If that is the case, then according to the critics, Jesus, too, must have been a sinner in need of purification. After all, this gibes with the full context to which Luke 2 refers. Leviticus 12:3 reads "And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." In the Old Testament, an uncircumcised male is seen as cut off from God's people, a disgrace, a breaker of God's covenant (cf. Gen. 17:14; Gen. 34:14). Shall the critic therefore call Jesus a disgrace, cut off from God?
Consider also that Jesus underwent John's "baptism of repentance" (Acts 13:24, Mat. 3:11, etc.):
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. (Mat. 3:13-15)This is an enlightening text. Even though the rite of John's baptism was for the purpose of the recipient's repentance, Jesus "consents" anyway. John even argued with Jesus, questioning why Jesus would even want to undergo the baptism! Yet Jesus consents for a purpose other than a need to repent of sin. He consents for a reason other than the legal purpose of the rite. In doing so, Jesus reveals at least one other reason to undergo a rite for sin: for fulfillment.
And therefore, one cannot consider Luke 2:22-24 a prooftext of any sort against Mary's Immaculate Conception. For she needn't be a sinner to undergo a legal rite for sin.
1For examples, see books like Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero or The Fathers Know Best by Jimmy Akin.