The Immaculate Conception as perceived from the Christian East

ιωακειμ και αννα 8

The sad reality of our life is the fact that, from the moment of our conception, we are subject to death. Every minute of our development is a minute closer to our demise, and there is nothing we, or anyone, can do about it. That this is as true of infants as it is of the elderly has nothing to do with something either has done; it is simply a result of biological imperative. Indeed, this would hardly provoke disagreement even from theologians divided by ecclesiological allegiance, as neither Greeks nor Latins have any interest in denying nature. The theological interpretation put on it, though, often constitutes a different story entirely.

The question of the Conception of Mary is one that arose in the Church very early on, and as with all questions in the Church, garnered different approaches from different quarters. The Latin West, with its understanding of Original Sin derived from Tertullian, Ambrose, and Augustine (among others), as a stain inherited from Adam, developed a notion that Mary must have been preserved from this stain even from the womb. From this point of view, the Immaculate Conception is logical insofar as Mary, in order to have been greeted by the Angel Gabriel with any such words as ‘full of grace’, would have needed to be free of anything that could separate her from grace, as the stain of Original Sin would have. The Greek East, however, seeing Original Sin not as an inherited stain that marred grace, but as human subjection to death—that is, a ‘reverberating result’ of the actions of our first parents—approached the Conception differently.

It is possible, from an Eastern point of view, to understand death itself as the mark of Original Sin. In other words, because God did not create his children to die, but rather death was brought into the world through sin, that all creation undergoes death is the legacy of sin. Creation is infused with grace by virtue of its Creator, but that it also dies is a result of the law of nature set in motion by Adam’s disobedience. And if so, then some form of inheritance must necessarily be attached to Original Sin.

While it may be that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a Latin device for dealing with the problem posed by inherited guilt, if we concentrate on the idea that from the beginning God decreed that Mary, as Theotokos, should not have to pass through the process of death in the manner of all flesh, then it would mean that hers would be a conception free from natural liability. That the Roman Church should call this the Immaculate Conception then becomes a matter of semantics. In fact, the Immaculate Conception and its corollary doctrine, the Assumption, can make particular sense when conditioned by an Eastern ‘corrective’: if, by God’s decree, Mary is conceived free of the inevitable effect of Original Sin, then the idea that she should take her place as Queen of Heaven by means of the same mysterious manner that both Moses and Elijah passed from this world, is hardly surprising. The earthly dénouement of the Theotokos is simply a natural extension of her progenation. This is distinct from a ‘raw’ Latin interpretation insofar as, from the Latin point of view, the Immaculate Conception is necessitated by an understanding of sin and grace that gives precedence to the former over the latter in the course of human generation. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Rome defines it, is then isolated as an honorific event, as if it has no light to shed on anything other than Mary’s moral status. But I think that would only be apparent.

Indeed, I normally hesitate to leap to conclusions that offer easy solutions in the face of complex debates, but in terms of the Immaculate Conception, as much as the Roman definition may be reflective of presuppositions regarding grace and sin that do not resonate in Eastern ears, there is little in the end result that cannot be reconciled with an Eastern way of thinking about both issues. An Orthodox friend of mine once said to me with all respect that ‘it isn’t that to an Orthodox mind Rome is necessarily wrong; it’s just that she never seems to know when to shut up. For instance, we both believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. But Rome has to go on and describe in forensic detail precisely how it happens.’ Indeed, my friend might well have been talking about the mode of Mary’s entry into heaven or, of greater significance here, the nature of her conception. The thing is, it seems to me that even while the Latin tradition will have an interest in defining certain ideas central to the Faith as distinct from the interests of the East, these definitions need not always represent a stumbling block to rapprochement. As in the first centuries of the Church, when there were diverse ways in which the Person and work of Christ were understood yet communion upheld, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception says a great deal about the Church’s understanding of a range of theological questions, all of which may beg further questions and warrant further debate. But, it might be argued, not only would the debate not represent grounds for separation, the differences in perspective might even be grounds for mutual enrichment.

Postscript

I am well aware of the limits of a 900-word entry on a blog as a medium for dealing with complex theological issues. As always, I advance what I do above simply as a starting point for discussion and as an alternative to the polemical viewpoints readily accessible elsewhere. That said, I am emboldened to have read, just before going to press, the words of Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, on the elasticity of communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and the fact that we need not be coy in identifying those points where doctrinal divergence is either not so great as it at first may seem, or no grounds for ultimate separation in the case where the divergence is more significant. With thanks to SK for drawing it my attention the first place.

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7 responses to “The Immaculate Conception as perceived from the Christian East

  1. Thank you for this essay. I appreciate the saying that Rome never shuts up, primarily I think, because of the influence of Roman laws. I think the Eucharist is simply “The Great Mystery,” and am happy not to further define it. I studied at the master’s level in a Roman seminary and thought the study of Transubstantiation v. Consubstantiation v. what ever else was unnecessary. I was more than happy to say a miracle happens here, we don’t know why but thank you Jesus. The same is true about Mary. Mary, for some strange reason was asked to be the Theokotos. It is another mystery why God chose her to be Jesus’ mother and there isn’t a real good definition of that. I appreciate the Orthodox understanding about Original Sin. Our legacy of human’s disobedience is death. Jesus sacrifice destroys death and grants us passage to eternal life,

  2. Thanks to both of you for your comments. Please keep them coming, whether you agree with what I have written or not. I should add that this article was written in response to another commentator on this blog, Steve, who had originally asked about the doctrine of purgatory, and then suggested I follow that article up with one on the Immaculate Conception. So thank you as well, Steve.

  3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church on original sin: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p7.htm

    “It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” – a state and not an act.”

    The sin of Adam is the cause of the loss of original holiness and justice for the rest of mankind – there is not some other entity or cause within us that is the cause of this loss.

  4. \\we concentrate on the idea that from the beginning God decreed that Mary, as Theotokos, should not have to pass through the process of death in the manner of all flesh, then it would mean that hers would be a conception free from natural liability.\\

    This is not true. The decree of PIus XII dogmatizing the Assumption of the Theotokos says that it was always the tradition of the Church that she suffered physical death. The office promulgated at the same time, in the fifth Matins lessons, quotes St. John of Damascus saying this in so many words.

    All of the Eastern Churches, Catholic, Orthodox, and non-Chalcedonian, say that the Virgin’s indeed separated from her body, which was placed in a tomb. The Byzantine office, especially, affirms this, in the pre-festal, festal, and post-festal texts.

    Many people think that the Assumption says that Mary never died, but this, I repeat, is NOT the teaching of the church.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Father. You are indeed correct, which is why I was careful to say ‘the process of death in the manner of all flesh’.

  5. Thanks for this article Father. It was very clear and balanced, which I am glad for. I find it hard to find information on the Eastern Catholic perspectives on many subjects, since there is often heated debate between East and West.

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