Friday, December 7, 2007

An Orthodox Understanding of The Immaculate Conception

Dear Parish Faithful,

On December 9 - this coming Sunday in 2007 - we commemorate The Conception by the Righteous Anna of the Most Holy Theotokos. Joachim and Anna, the parents of Miriam of Nazareth, were aged and despondent due to their childlessness. After intense prayer, the Lord responded to their entreaties and revealed to them separately that Anna will conceive and give birth to a girl that would be destined to serve God in a marvelous and unique manner. (This is why Joachim and Anna brought their child to the Temple when she was only three years old). The Virgin Mary was conceived as all human persons are conceived, thus revealing the potential sanctity of marriage and conjugal relationships based on love and purity of heart.

For the Roman Catholic Church, this commemoration became not only a major feast, but was dogmatized as the Immaculate Conception in 1854 by Pope Pius IX (hence the many Roman Catholic churches named "The Immaculate Conception"). In his "apostolic constitution," Ineffabilis Deus, the pope declared: "The doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin in the first instant of her Conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, savior of the human race, has been revealed by God and must, therefore, firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful."

This dogma presupposes a particular understanding of "original sin," one that permeated all of Western theology, but which never entered the theology of the Christian East, except for the recent centuries, when Orthodoxy was subject to strong Roman Catholic or "Western" influence. The Orthodox Church has never accepted this very late dogma, because it severs the Virgin Mary from the rest of humanity, making her the "great exception," rather than the "great example" as Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I would like to simply record two paragraphs written by contemporary Orthodox theologians explaining why there is no need for such a dogma, and how it distorts our understanding of the Theotokos and human sexuality; and beyond that to our understanding of "original sin."

From a footnote in The Synaxarion (Lives of Saints) under December 9, we read the following (I believe from the book's contemporary editor, Hieromonk Macarius, of Simonas Petra monastery on Mt. Athos):

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception proclaimed by the Roman Catholics in 1854 is rejected by the Orthodox Church, but without in any way detracting from the dignity of the Mother of God. In fact, according the Fathers, the inheritance from Adam consists not in a personal responsibility of all men for original sin, but simply in the inheritance of the consequences of that sin: death, corruption and the passions ... Hence the Orthodox have no difficulty in recognizing that the Mother of God was heir, like us, of the consequences of Adam's sin - Christ alone was exempt -but at the same time pure and without personal sin, for she freely kept herself from all attraction for the world and for the passions, and she voluntarily co-operated in God's purpose by obeying His will with docility: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word," she replied to the Angel Gabriel (LK. 1:38). (The Synaxarion, Vol. II, p. 361)

From a somewhat different perspective, including our understanding of human sexuality and sexual intercourse, Fr. Thomas Hopko writes the following:

The Orthodox Church affirms original sin. Orthodox theology teaches that all human beings, including the Virgin Mary who is a "mere human" like the rest of us - unlike her Son Jesus who is a "real human" but not a "mere human" because He is the Incarnate Son and Word of God - are born into a fallen, death-bound, demon-riddled world whose "form is passing away" (I COR. 7:31). We are all born mortal and tending toward sin. But we are not born guilty of any personal sin, certainly not one allegedly committed "in Adam." Nor are we born stained because of the manner in which we are conceived by the sexual union of our parents. If sexual union in marriage is in any sense sinful, or the cause in itself of any sinfulness or stain, even in the conditions of the "fallen world," then as even the rigorous Saint John Chrysostom has taught, God is the sinner because He made us this way, male and female, from the very beginning. (The Winter Pascha, pp. 42-43)

This is an excellent example of how various "dogmas" are interconnected with others, or at least with the basic presuppositions of a particular Church's teaching. As Orthodox, we believe that there are major misleading elements embedded in the Roman Catholic and Protestant understanding of "original sin," including the teaching "that the transmission of the stain of original sin is by way of the manner of human reproduction through sexual intercourse." (The Winter Pascha, p. 42, note 3) Thus, a faulty notion of one key teaching can "logically" lead to the development of a faulty dogma. The Virgin Mary and Theotokos was conceived like we all are, and she died as we all die, and she was saved through Her Son's Death and Resurrection as we all are. Once more, from Fr. Thomas Hopko:

Mary is conceived by her parents as we are all conceived. But in her case it is a pure act of faith and love, in obedience to God's will, as an answer to prayer. In this sense her conception is truly "immaculate." And its fruit is the woman who remains forever the most pure Virgin and Mother of God. (The Winter Pascha, p. 43)

To become "more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim," the Theotokos did have not to be specially "preserved" or "exempt" from being like us in her human origins. It was a matter of hearing the Word of God and keeping it in her heart, to be pondered and practiced with the intensity that comes through great faith and trust in God's mercy, providential care, presence. and love.

Fr. Steven

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