(Pic to the left is of the altar at the Anglo-Catholic Parish of St Mary, Grove Park, Asheville, North Carolina.)
Yesterday, a blog commentor first posted a quote of mine, then responded, and repeated the process. He’s referring to this old post. New comments follow …
ME: “In short, Orthodox believe that Mary was conceived just as any other is conceived; the Immaculate Conception is not a ‘dogma’ of the Orthodox Church.”
COMMENTER: I, too, believe that Mary was conceived in the same way as other people. Such is the teaching of the Catholic Church. However, we don’t believe that Mary inherited alienation from God as other people do. The difference is in the effects of conception, not in how it came about.
Now, Orthodox tell me that Mary was conceived in a state of alienation from God. However, they celebrate her conception and birth. Why would you celebrate her conception and birth, if she wasn’t already a saint (thus no alienation from God present within her)? This appears like a contradiction to me.
ME: “Perhaps I am misunderstanding your use of ‘grace.'”
COMMENTER: By “grace” here, I mean no more than the presence of God in the soul of Mary at her conception, allowing her to be in union with God (or “born again”) from the first moment of her existence.
In poking around for a reply, I actually came upon some statements from a Roman Catholic priest that said, and I paraphrase: “But wait! We love the Blessed Virgin so much — The Immaculate Conception has to be true!”
And that’s fine. It’s just not Orthodox.
From other sources …
Why don’t Orthodox believe in the Immaculate Conception?
Mary (like all of us) was born mortal as a result of the Fall, but without Adam’s guilt. But for Roman Catholics, a “special” birth for Mary was necessary so that Christ could be born to a spotless vessel. So the Immaculate Conception is a natural consequence of the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin in the West, but is not needed in Orthodoxy to explain how mortal Mary could have given birth to her All-Holy Son.
We can refer to Mary as “immaculate” in the sense that her obedience to God was so marked that she may rightly be declared as pure as any sinner might be. Her holiness has never been matched or exceeded. However, we do not believe in the Immaculate Conception as understood in Catholicism. We do not believe that she had to be herself conceived free from any taint of original sin. Our objection, substantially has to do with St. Augustine’s characterisation of original sin. As Bishop Kallistos has observed (also John Meyendorff and other Orthodox theologians) … if we believed what St. Augustine taught about original sin then the Immaculate Conception would be a logical outworking of that in terms of Mary’s holiness and obedience. However, since we do not believe that original sin is transmitted sexually, conception is irrelevant to this issue.
While I would love to be able to fully answer your question, it is far beyond the scope of an e-mail, especially because full understanding of the Orthodox position, based on the tenor of your question, on the Virgin Mary requires a thorough explanation of some of the secondary issues to which you refer, such as original sin, the Immaculate Conception, supernatural grace, etc. As such, I would highly recommend that you meet in person with the parish priest at the Orthodox Church you have been visiting — he will no doubt be glad to answer the question at some depth.
I can say, in short, that the Orthodox Church believes that Mary, as a human being, could indeed have sinned, but chose not to. In the Roman Catholic understanding, it seems that Mary, who according to Roman doctrine had been exempted from the guilt of original sin [the Orthodox do not accept that humans share the guilt of the first sin but, rather, only the consequences] before all eternity, and thus could not have sinned. This is where the complexity comes in on a number of levels and which puts your question beyond the scope of an e-mail.
Even Patriarch Bartholemew:
In consequence, according to the Orthodox faith, Mary the All-holy Mother of God was not conceived exempt from the corruption of original sin, but loved God above of all things and obeyed his commandments, and thus was sanctified by God through Jesus Christ who incarnated himself of her. She obeyed Him like one of the faithful, and addressed herself to Him with a Mother’s trust. Her holiness and purity were not blemished by the corruption, handed on to her by original sin as to every man, precisely because she was reborn in Christ like all the saints, sanctified above every saint.
Her reinstatement in the condition prior to the Fall did not necessarily take place at the moment of her conception. We believe that it happened afterwards, as consequence of the progress in her of the action of the uncreated divine grace through the visit of the Holy Spirit, which brought about the conception of the Lord within her, purifying her from every stain.
As already said, original sin weighs on the descendants of Adam and of Eve as corruption, and not as legal responsibility or moral stain. The sin brought hereditary corruption and not a hereditary legal responsibility or a hereditary moral stain. In consequence the All-holy participated in the hereditary corruption, like all mankind, but with her love for God and her purity — understood as an imperturbable and unhesitating dedication of her love to God alone — she succeeded, through the grace of God, in sanctifying herself in Christ and making herself worthy of becoming the house of God, as God wants all us human beings to become. Therefore we in the Orthodox Church honor the All-holy Mother of God above all the saints, albeit we don’t accept the new dogma of her Immaculate Conception. The non-acceptance of this dogma in no way diminishes our love and veneration of the All-holy Mother of God.
Then, the comments regarding the above quote on OrthodoxyToday get really interesting. Here’s a few …
Fr Hans Jacobse:
Actually the Patriarch is correct since the Immaculate Conception relies solely on Augustinian anthropology. The doctrine doesn’t make sense otherwise. In fact, if you look at the theological rationale behind the doctrime at the time it was dogmatized, you find Augustinian thinking. The inheritability of “original guilt” is precisely why the “special grace” was necessary — according to Catholic thought.
Again, Fr Jacobse:
The Immaculate Conception confers the salfivic “merits” of Christ onto Mary at the point of her conception to remove the “stain” of original sin. It’s a cosmic transaction that takes place before the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. See: The Catholic Encyclopedia.
This is Augustinian juridical soteriology, pure and simple.
Sadly — and I’ve even met Roman Catholics who believe this — many misunderstand and think the term “Immaculate Conception” refers to our Lord’s birth. Wait! Come to think of it, I’ve got a Catholic icon of the Crucifixion whereon our Lord sports a blonde mane. Hmmm.