By Daniel Joseph Barton
"The Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved pure from every stain of original sin in the first instance of her conception through a singular gift of grace and priviledge of Almighty God with a view to the merits of Christ, the Redeemer of the human race."
(Doctrine proclaimed as "Dogma of the Church" by Pope Pius IX in 1854)Eastern Catholics are urged by Rome to return to authentic Eastern customs and tradition.
My purpose here, as a Byzantine Catholic, is to defend this doctrine that is not an official part of Eastern Orthodoxy (the majority of Eastern Christianity). One must first ask, what does Orthodoxy say about the Immaculate Conception doctrine? In the words of Timothy Ware (known as Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos) in The Orthodox Church, (1993 edition, Penguin Press, pages 259-260) he states:
"The Orthodox Church calls Mary all-holy, immaculate, free from actual sin. The Orthodox Church has never made any formal and definitive pronouncement on the matter of the Immaculate Conception. In the past, individual Orthodox theologians have made statements that, if not definitively affirming the Doctrine of Immaculate Conception, at any rate closely approach it. But since 1854, the great majority of Orthodox reject it as necessary; as implying a false understanding of original sin; as suspecting the doctrine because it seems to separate Mary from the rest of the descendants of Adam and Eve, putting her in a different class. However, if an individual Orthodox today felt impelled to believe it, he could not be termed a heretic for doing so."Bishop Kallistos is a Spaulding Lecturer of Eastern Christianity at Oxford University of England. He has not been "corrected" by his Patriarchs (presently, His Holiness Bartholomew), or the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, for his words. Other Orthodox theologians have stated that the doctrine of Immaculate Conception might be an unrevealed mystery within the Church; that is, a "theologeuma". There has never been a definitive pronouncement by the seven original Ecumenical Councils (the only ones Eastern Orthodoxy recognize as "Ecumenical") declaring this long-known theology a heresy.
I shall first explain why each reason listed in Bishop Kallistos' book, as well as others, can be rejected. Then I shall give other reasons and logic why I believe the doctrine. Let us examine the stated reasons for not believing the doctrine. I use the common phrase of "Catholic" to indicate the Catholic Church in communion and unity with the Pope of Rome.
A."..reject it as necessary.." Certainly it is not as necessary as in believing Jesus Christ is Lord & Savior. It is true that the Catholic Church defines the belief as a dogma (meaning it MUST be believed by Catholics). The Eastern & Oriental Orthodox claim that dogma must be Christ-centered, but one can easily sidestep such by simply asking if the perpetual virginity of Mary is Christ-centered (Mary's perpetual virginity after Jesus' birth was proclaimed as dogma for the Catholic Church at the Third Ecumenical Council of Constantinople of AD 681). Within the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, we often proclaim "ever-Virgin Mary", which adds a liturgical tradition to this subject.
B. "...implying a false understanding of original sin.." This is certainly the biggest stated reason why Eastern Orthodox cannot accept the doctrine of Immaculate Conception of Mary. Original sin is that suffering the consequences/effects of Adam and Eve's separation from God; that is, mankind deprived himself/herself from the sanctifying grace of God. (Original sin must not be confused with actual sin - those committed by a person after having entered this world, under his own free will, for even Adam & eve had free will before being tainted by the original sin). It also has been described as a "stain or taint" on the soul. The Western tradition lists it more as an inherited "tainting" or a "stain"; whereas much Eastern tradition lists it more as an "inheritance of consequences/effects".
Both East and West accept that physical death results from original sin. Both views still need the sanctifying grace of God to overcome original sin, its taint on the soul and its effect of death (because we recognize that there is no spiritual death if we're sanctified by God). However, the terms "taint" or "stain" as to sin, are not foreign terms to Orthodoxy. St Maximos the Confessor (580-662) wrote about "the mark of original sin on all". St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) wrote, "We are all born sinners from our forefather Adam who sinnedÖ subject to the curse and death from him who was subject to the curse and death". St Cyprian of Carthage (d.258) wrote about the "contagion of original sin passed to us from Adam". So itís certainly an inheritance, but is it also an effect, a taint, or both? Maybe St Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) answers this when he wrote about the Mother of God, as "Mary without stain" (of sin).
A thought shared by some Orthodox and Protestants is that Mary would not have had need of Jesus' redemption if she was not tainted by original sin. However, neither Mary nor Early Church doctrines have claimed that Mary never needed the sanctifying grace of God. In fact, she herself stated, "My spirit rejoices in God my savior" (Luke 1:47). It is important here to refresh our memory that God the Holy Trinity has always existed. Jesus as the Word, existed before being conceived in the womb of Mary to become human. Jesus is the salvation of all mankind, and not limited only to those born after Jesus' crucifixion. All those people physically dead in the grave were spiritually awaiting Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. God transcends space and time, and the Hebrews/Jews have shown this to us via the points on the Star (Shield) of David, ("north, east, south, west, up, down" and "past, present, future"). Jesus' grace and merits given specially to Mary, His own mother, even at the time of her being conceived, does not violate the "time dimension" of God the Trinity, which has and does exist in all time-frames (past, present, future).
Here's an analogy of Mary's Immaculate Conception: You are walking on a jungle path, and are approaching a covered up and camouflaged pit which is right in front of you. You fall in, and after awhile a stranger comes by, reaches in, and pulls you out. You have mud all over your feet due to mud in the bottom of the pit. But the stranger had a bucket of water to wash your feet for you. On another path also with a hidden pit, a woman is walking. Just at the verge of tumbling over the edge of the pit, the same stranger grabs her and pulls her back from the edge. She too is saved from the pit and the mud, but in anticipation instead of after the fact. Both of you were saved from the pit and the mud (original sin) and both of you had a savior (God). But in the woman's case, she was saved before being tainted. Hence Mary has every right to proclaim "God my savior", even though she did not know about God's special love for her.
Mary was the chosen handmaiden of God...He knew she would not refuse even though she had free-will to do so (this statement does not mean we can accept some "Christian" beliefs that everything is pre-destined, an unacceptable doctrine to us...we recognize that God knows all, yet He allows all humans to have free-will). We must accept that God fully knew that Adam and Eve would suffer the Fall.
The usual listed consequences of original sin includes an inheritance of "death", coming from Genesis 3:19. Orthodox claim that if Mary was not tainted by original sin, she would not have died. They point to the Council of Carthage (AD 419), which rejected the Pelagian heretical thesis of Adamís "created mortality" (ie that he would have died even if he had not committed Original Sin) (see Canon CIX of the African Code). The Canons of this Carthage Council were explicitly adopted by the "Quinisext" Council (aka Council of Trullo of 692 AD), which is the font of Eastern Canon Law, and later "affirmed" by an Ecumenical Council of Constantinople.
We must remember that these Eastern thoughts do differentiate between physical death and spiritual death. God's statement "You are made from dust and will return to dust" (to Adam and Eve after they had sinned), cannot have meant spiritual death (eternal separation from God). It meant physical death, because since God is timeless, we realize that God the Father knew His Son would atone for Adam & Eveís sins, thereby defeating spiritual death even for them as for us. In Eastern iconography, we even have an icon that shows Jesus trampling down the doors of death and giving a hand to Adam & Eve.
We must also realize that the Blessed Mary had total conformity to her Divine Son, even to physical pain (Luke 2:35). He died - had to die. Therefore she died - had to die. Adam and Eve died, so Jesus (the NEW Adam - 1 Cor 15:45) and Mary died, and so we die the physical death. Jesus died and ascended, and Mary (the NEW Eve) died was assumed into life in Heaven, so that we may know that we can have spiritual life in Heaven after physical death. Mary died the "physical death" because she was fully part of the human race as per Godís plan, but not the "spiritual death" (something we ourselves also overcome by Baptism & Chrismation, regular partaking of the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Confession/Forgiveness, and perseverance in following God's Commandments). Further, anyone who claims Mary did not die a physical death would therefore be placing her on a level higher than Jesus (who had to die the physical death per God's plan).
Some people mistakenly believe that the Catholic Church teaches that Mary did not die. Catholic doctrine is that there is no proof anywhere as to her physical death, but that the physical death of Mary is by people's (therefore the Church's) tradition of faith. The Catholic doctrine of Maryís Immaculate Conception stresses that she, from her very beginning, was preserved from the estrangement from God, an unmerited gift from God, a special grace, an exception to the law which no other created person received. Catholic teaching is that all human beings are subject to death (the inheritance from Adam/Eve), but for those justified by grace (ie Baptism) death loses its penal character and becomes a mere consequence of the first sin. However, in the cases of Jesus and Mary, because of their freedom from sin, death was not even a consequence, but was a natural ending based on the will of God.
In fact, the Vatican II Council document Lumen Gentium is pretty clear as to Mary dying. It states: "For these reasons, Mary is immaculate, all-holy, spotless, most highly blessed and ever virgin from her conception, through all her earthly life, death (my emphasis) and Assumption into Heaven and for all eternity." Pope John Paul II also reiterated in 1997 that Maryís ending of her time on earth was a peaceful death, a falling asleep (ie: Dormition) that was free of any pain, and an act of love by God so that she could enter into immortality body & soul with her Son. He fully stated that wherein some Catholic theologians have tried to claim that Mary did not die a physical death, that such is a mistaken notion.
The Catholic Church does see two possible locations, Jerusalem and Ephesus, as places Mary may have been when "her physical time on this world ended" (the phrase the Church prefers, differentiating between "normal physical death" and "death without a penal character, based on a natural ending by God's will"). In ref Mary's temporary tomb, the Catholic Church points to Sts Irenaeus and Eusebius, who wrote about St John, saying that he went from Jerusalem (after the Council of Jerusalem - 49 AD), to Ephesus, to govern the community of Christians there sometime after St Paul left Ephesus in AD 60. Since the city of Jerusalem was destroyed in 69-70 AD, we can certainly surmise that St John would not have stayed in Jerusalem! Since St John was entrusted with the care of the Virgin Mother, we must assume that she went with him wherever he went.
Simply, there is no written history, the Catholic Church points out, that mentions a tomb of the Blessed Virgin in Jerusalem, prior to the 6th century. The Church then points to an apocryphal text, attributed to St Melito of Sardis (2d cen) which dates the Assump-tion only two years after Christís Ascension, and places it at Ephesus, where there is a house venerated by Christians and Muslims as the home of St Mary. It may have been deemed apocryphal due to its claim of the Assumption happening only two years after Christ's death, or it may have been based on the listed location of Ephesus, the reasons seemingly have been lost to history. But in any case, the ruins of the St John Basilica, which held his tomb until the 4th century, is at Selcuk, near Ephesus, and certainly supports the thought of Mary living in Ephesus.
Ironically, however, there is the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Dormition (in Jerusalem), which means the "falling asleep", a euphemism for "dying". Indeed, since Mary is the only person to have a special holyday of Dormition, this indicates that the East especially has held that her death was a special death, closely tied in fact to her Assumption. In all my travels, I have never anywhere else encountered a Roman Catholic church named after the Dormition (but one regular comes upon Roman Catholic churches named after the Assumption).
Eastern Orthodox tradition teaches that Mary physically died and was laid in a Jerusalem tomb, concluding she had to die since death is an effect of original sin. Some Fathers of the Church believed that Jesus, if not having been crucified, would not have died a human physical death because He was not tainted with original sin, just as the Council of Carthage had taught about Adam. Therefore, Orthodox common thought is that even though Jesus was truly human, He would not have died a natural physical death (if not crucified).
The discussion truly remains a Mystery of the Church since He was crucified, and not around to die a natural physical death. Common thought also is that He made Himself die by His last words of "I entrust my soul to you, Father" and "It is done". Jesus certainly did not suffer a taint of original sin on the soul, but He suffered the consequences of a human world tainted with original sin, to include pain, hunger, injuries and death. In Eastern Orthodox eyes, these suffered effects come from the original sin, rather than a "stain" on the soul, but yet no Orthodox will claim that Christ was imbued with original sin! If one can accept that Jesus had no original sin but had physical death based on the will of God, then why is it so hard to accept the same for the Blessed Virgin Mary as part of God's will?
Yes, many Orthodox reject the possibility that original sin could be a stain or tainting...yet both of us proclaim in the Creed, "one Baptism for the remission of sin". Since we baptize babies, and babies cannot have sinned (actual sin), in essence we are having the taint/mark of original sin remised (washed away), as well as restoring God's grace to our soul. St Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386) writes in his Lectures of the Holy Mysteries (2d Lecture on Baptism) that "Baptism is not simply the remission of sin and gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit, but also that it is a counter-part of Christís sufferings" (dying to this life and being born-again by coming out of the water as Christ came out of the grave). Adults being Baptized obtain remission of original sin as well as a washing away of any actual sins committed up to that point. Since infant babies could not have done actual sin, they have only original sin remised by virtue of grace as well as undergoing the symbolic death (to sin) and rebirth (born again) which represents Christ's death and resurrection. Baptism remitting sin is already proclaimed by St Peter in Acts 2:38.
Baptism does not eliminate free-will to do actual sin at a later date in the personís life. Baptism restores the sanctifying grace of God, and we Easterners loudly proclaim that "all who have been Baptized in Christ have put on Christ." This happens on a plane higher than our physical senses allow us to understand and see. Hence Baptism rightfully remains a Mystery. One must be Baptized in Trinitarian-formula (In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - as Jesus told us to do) before partaking of any other Sacraments (Mysteries), it is the Gateway to the Church. We know the sanctifying grace of God has been given in Baptism, but cannot be sure how God gives His graces outside of the Catholic and Orthodox contexts. Within the Christian context, Orthodox may or may not come to the conclusion that any Christian Trinitarian-formula Baptism is valid and grace-giving (as the Catholic Church teaches).
I disagree with the many Orthodox who claim a non-Orthodox Baptism is merely an empty shell which is filled with grace only after being Chrismated into the Orthodox Church. Indeed, Orthodox call Emperor Constantine (d.337) as "Saint and Christian", but he only accepted Baptism near his death, and then it was done by a heretical Arian bishop...leading one to understand that "economia" (a phrase Eastern Christians use which means "through God's grace for the good of the whole Church") gave Constantine's Baptism validity and grace. In essence, can anyone fully claim to know and understand all the mysterious effects of Baptism? The answer is, of course, no.
The whole traditional Eastern Orthodox point is that Mary must have died a physical death, therefore she must have been tainted with original sin and vice versa (a circular argument). But I can see wherein God does as He pleases and actually caused Maryís "time on earth" to end. Again, original sin can be called an estrangement from God, which humanity inherits from the sin of Adam & Eve. Yet we know that St John the Forerunner was sanctified while still in the womb of St Elizabeth (Luke 1:15 & 41) and the Church Fathers confirm this. Could the All-Holy, the Ever Virgin Mother of God have been granted less a privilege than St John? I say that she was granted even more of a privilege, sanctified and free of original sin at her conception!
C. "...seems to separate Mary from the rest of the descendants of Adam/Eve.." Orthodox and Protestants who reject Immaculate Conception often point to "all have sinned" (Romans 3:23 & 5:12). But Christ Jesus was fully a human man, and yet he did not sin. Ortho-dox and Catholics believe that Mary led a sinless, immaculate life per her own choice by her own strong will. Certainly she had the constant struggle between the two forces of natural desires of the flesh, and the delight one finds in obedience to God's Laws (St Paul's writings in Romans 7). We must also admit that infants and very small children do not sin, and if they die at that tender age, then they "never sinned".
Since the Bible does not lie, one must search for proper interpre-tation. Since the Bible canons of the New Testament must have been written after Jesus' death, and most likely after Mary's death, it's quite possible the writers never meant that Jesus and Mary were to be added to the "all have sinned". Even though the writers did not exclude Jesus, we would have to disagree with any Christian who tried to claim that Jesus must have sinned since He was not literally excluded in the text (Muslims have used this text to downgrade Jesus to mere human, in discussion with me).
Some Biblical translations lists the phrase as "both Jew and pagan have sinned" which puts this into a corporate sense, and that St Paul means that both Jews and pagans can be saved by Christ's death. Clearly, Paul believes, however, that not each individual person has sinned as he states in Romans 5:14, "death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those that had not sinned.." Surely he included the Blessed Virgin Mary here. Also, the "all have sinned" Biblical phrases could be understood as "all are subject to free-will to sin", or "all are subject to the effects of original sin". One can be subject to it on this earth, but not tainted or stained on the soul by it (ie as Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary were not).
Some Orthodox believe that Mary, before her Annunciation, was a woman who sinned just as all other humans, but that after the Annunciation she was without personal sin. These Orthodox point to the Catholic statement of: "Mary was not conceived like others, at a distance from God, but was wholly encompassed from the beginning by God's love and grace, a grace which helped her in her later life to live without personal sin However, "later life" here should be interpreted to mean "life after being born". But again, the traditional thought by both Orthodox and Catholic alike is that she led a sin-less life even before the Annunciation due to her own strong and God-fearing free-will. She was chosen by God to be the Mother of God (recognizing that Jesus is God the Son, part of the Trinity) because God knew that she would be totally faithful, even before she was born! And, she was raised body and soul into Heaven at the time of her death here on Earth!
All of this sounds like a very special and different lady to me, since no other human has been chosen by God for so much. I understand Elijah and Moses were probably raised body and soul as the two appeared to Jesus at His Transfiguration. Muslims claim their prophet Mohammed was raised body and soul. The point is, someone has to have been considered special by God to be raised body and soul into Heaven. Mary surpassed even these men in glory by being chosen by God the Father as the birth-giver of God the Son.
In reality, Mary's Immaculate Conception and sinless life (via her own Free Will) made her perfectly human in the way Adam and Eve were intended to be perfectly human. Mary is called the "New Eve", yet she was no less human than the rest of us. Her rejection of sin under her own free-will, and her total obedience to God, glorifies her as Mother of the Church, Mother of God and Queen of Heaven. She's the New Eve, being fully human as the Old Eve was meant to be, just as Jesus is the New Adam, His human nature being what the Old Adamís human nature was meant to be. St Anselm of Canterbury (1033 - 1109) points out her uniqueness when he stated: "O woman marvelously unique and uniquely marvelous." Interestingly, the Latin phrase "Ave Maria" shows the significance of Mary as the New Eve. "Ave" backwards is "Eva", Latin for "Eve"!
This covers my rebuttals to the reasons listed by Bishop Kallistos as to why the majority of Orthodox refuse to accept the belief. In my various readings of other Orthodox writers whom reject the belief, I have begun to see a set-group of stated reasons, which I shall recount next.
(Continue to Part II)
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