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In Luke 2:22-24, it is written,

22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; 23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. (KJV)

Then, in Lev. 12:8, it is written,

8 And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean. (KJV)

If Mary was sinless, why did she offer a sin offering (one of the turtledoves or pigeons)? I'm looking for a Catholic perspective.

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There are two facets to the answer, one regarding the nature of the sin offering itself, and one regarding Mary’s motivations for making the offering.

In summary, in Israel, so-called “sin” offerings were offered for transgressions agains the ritual law, not so much for offenses against the moral law.

Moreover, just as Jesus submitted himself to the baptism of John, even though he did not need to repent of any sins, Mary wished to fulfill the requirements of the Jewish law out of loving obedience to God.

There is, thereore, no contradiction between Mary’s sinlessness (in the moral sense) and her offering a sacrifice to remove the merely ritual impurity associated with childbirth.

Regarding the sin offering itself

The sin offering for women after childbirth, as the O.P. points out, is spelled out in chapter 12 of Leviticus.

In ancient Israel, women were considered ritually unclean for a few weeks after the birth of her child. (It varied according to the sex of the child; a total of 40 days for a boy, and 80 days for a girl. See vv. 2-6.) That essentially meant that they were unable to partake of the liturgical celebrations until their uncleanliness was over, at which time they were to make a sin offering, or either a lamb or a pair of pigeous or turtledoves (vv. 6-8).

But it is important to note that ritual uncleanliness had nothing to do with moral uncleanliness. Leviticus chapter 4 introduces the concept of sin offerings in this way:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins … [and it goes on to spell out what each group should do] (Lev. 4:1-3).

Sin offering could only be offered for unintentional transgressions and, in general for the removal of ritual uncleanliness. There was, in fact, no provision in the Law for the forgiveness of moral offenses—and this lack was one of the constant sufferings of the People of Israel.

(The problem of the forgiveness of sin, in the proper sense of the term, is the topic of the second half of 2 Samuel, for example: King David commits some grave moral offenses—his adultery with Bathsheeba, the murder of Uriah, and his taking of the census against God’s orders—and yet the Law offers no provisions for reconciliation with God. Although God makes his forgiveness known through the prophets, he is extremely stern by our standards.)

In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins [in this case, moral offenses]” (Heb. 10:4). For that, says Hebrews, the Blood of Jesus Christ is necessary.

Hence, even though Mary herself was completely endowed with grace (kecharitomene, Lk 1:28) at the birth of Jesus, and even though her son was, evidently, perfectly pure, she still incurred ritual uncleanliness under the Law of Moses.

It should be observed that the Law did not make any exceptions. The moral character of the woman was never considered; all women had to make the sin offering after childbirth.

Why Mary chose to fulfull the Law

Was Mary strictly obliged to make the offering? No, because she was already full of grace and, in fact, already redeemed. Mary, however, fulfilled the prescriptions of the Law out of loving obedience to God. (It probably never occurred to her to ask whether she was “exempt” from the Law or not.)

Jesus did something similar when he received the baptism of John. Jesus was also sinless and (unlike Mary) incapable of sinning; and yet he received the baptism of repentence, because it was “fitting … to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15).

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    Fantastic Answer, Mary fallowed the Old Testament, therefore, being obedient to that Covenant and all its ordinances, made a sin offering. Well Done. Plus 1 – Marc Sep 15 '15 at 11:51
  • While this answer provides a Catholic Church reasoning, it ignores the pair of turtle doves of Lev. 12:8. One was for the sin offering, as addressed in the answer, but the other was for a burnt offering, an atonement offering due to one's sin. Surely there is a better answer than ignoring the text! – SLM May 4 '18 at 3:27
  • @SLM I didn’t ignore it: Mary was, as you point out, offering the sacrifice mentioned in Leviticus 12, which would ordinarily be a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove, but which could reduced to two birds for the poor. My point was that Mary was fulfilling the prescription of the law without being strictly obliged to, as she was already free of sin. It should be noted that the Old Law did not distinguish well between transgressions against the ritual law and the moral law. – AthanasiusOfAlex May 10 '18 at 10:08
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Archbishop Fulton Sheen addresses this in his Life of Christ

He notes that this is akin to the Circumcision of Jesus, he says these are two sides sin, one "the necessity of enduring pain to expiate for it" and the "need for purification". He says that Jesus didn't need to be circumcised because He was God and she didn't need to be purified because she was conceived without sin.

But, to show

this Child's dedication to the Father was absolute, and would lead Him to the Cross

all those events took place.

He goes on to write that bringing the turtledoves in particular was a show of how Jesus chose to come into the world in poverty. At least in what the world calls poverty. Because she actually had a lamb to offer, the world just didn't see it that way.

Thus the mother who brought the Lamb of God into the world had no lamb to offer -- except the Lamb of God.

Furthermore, Mary is representative of the Church in her entirety so

Here it was not the Firstborn of Mary alone Who was presented, but the Firstborn of the Eternal Father. As the Only Begotten of the Father, He was now presented as the Firstborn of a restored humanity. A new race began in Him.

So, I'd say, in the very literal sense, she was simply doing what was done at the time, for no angel told her not to and she only pondered at the meaning of the angel's greeting. But in the eternal sense of scripture, this was our purification, not Mary's.

  • Does Catholicism teach that Mary was conscious of her sinlessness? – curiousdannii May 15 '18 at 7:07
  • @curious no, that doesn't appear to be something the Catholic Church teaches. The teaching is that sinlessness helped her follow her intellect and be obedient in a way that sinfullness leads the rest of us to follow our passions and be disobedient. vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p122a3p2.htm and we're similarly unconscious of our sinfullness. – Peter Turner May 15 '18 at 13:30

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