The word limbo usually brings to mind the situation conjured up by medieval theologians to explain the eternal status of unbaptized infants.
When Europe was introduced to the Moslem world during the Crusades and later to the natives of the Western Hemisphere after Columbus, religious thinkers were hard-pressed to explain the final condition of those who may have died without personal sins.
Yet, there is another limbo, the limbo of the fathers. Again, theologians were presented with the virtuous lives of those many characters of the Old Testament, those good Jews like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rabekah, Jacob and Rachael. These patriarchs certainly did not deserve condemnation when they died; yet Jesus Christ had not yet died on the cross for their salvation so they could not go to heaven. The eternal gates were still closed, so to speak. These blessed men and women, it is believed, awaited their redemption in a place of natural happiness, not seeing God face to face as they would in heaven, but rather living happily in hope of ultimate salvation and redemption.
The ancient creeds bear witness to this belief, when they testify that Jesus Christ “descended into hell” after his death, that Christ went to this nether world, this limbo of the fathers, to release the souls of those just Jews and pagans who were expecting deliverance.
The limbo of the fathers, like the limbo of the unbaptized, is a tribute to the seriousness with which our ancestors in the faith dealt with their beliefs. Theirs was truly a “no loose ends” theology.
With all due respect, the fly in this theological ointment was no one less than the Blessed Virgin Mary. If good Jews like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, the Maccabee brothers, et al., had to wait for Jesus Christ to die on the cross and rise from the dead to be released from the consequences of original sin, then how did Mary take advantage of Christ’s saving grace when she was immaculately conceived in the womb of St. Anne? Christ had not even been born yet, let alone die and rise. Or was Mary saved by someone other than her son Jesus?
Again, the medieval theologians put their collective heads together and arrived at the inspiring notion of what they called “preveniant grace,” or what might be called anticipatory grace. God the Father took advantage ahead of time of the saving grace that Christ would earn by his death on the cross and graciously applied that saving grace in advance to Mary, rescuing her from the consequences of original sin, endowing her with sanctifying grace from the very first moment of her existence. Mary never risked any time in limbo of any sort; her entire existence from conception until she “completed her earthly journey,” as Pope Pius XII happily phrased it, was lived totally in the Divine Presence.
The Solemnity of the Assumption this year fortunately occurs midweek so American Catholics may celebrate with full enthusiasm this feast which is truly the logical and gracious result of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Since Mary was spared original sin, Mary should be spared the consequences of original sin. Since no spiritual or moral corruption ever beset the soul of Mary, it is most appropriate that no bodily or physical corruption should ever blemish her flesh and bones. The medieval theologians were not the only ones who shunned loose ends. God the Father could be as neat and as systematic as St. Albert the Great and St. John Damascene ever were. Pope Pius XII well noted that all of Mary’s great privileges were the result of God’s love of “harmony and order,” her one privilege building on the other.
The Father kept Mary’s soul intact at her conception, by preserving her from original sin. The Father kept Mary’s virginity intact when she became the Mother of his Son, by engendering the child in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. And now, through the Assumption, the Father keeps Mary’s physical body intact by welcoming her wholly and immediately into the fullness of heavenly beatitude. The Father would not allow sin or decay or even a physical relationship to compromise Mary’s integrity as his unique spouse. When God had the angel address her as “full of grace,” he really meant it.