Conception of the Virgin Mary

Conception of the Virgin Mary

This Sunday, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin Mary. It is a great day and cause for celebration, because her mother, Saint Anna, had been barren. She and her husband, Joachim, were without children until old age. They prayed in faith, thought, and pledged to God that if he would help her to conceive, they would dedicate the child to the Temple. An angel of the Lord appeared to Anna and announced that she and Joachim would indeed become parents. Anna conceived according to the laws of nature and their child, Mary, was dedicated to the Temple. Mary, as we know, was fore ordained to become the mother of our Lord, the Theotokos.

This is a great miracle indeed!  However, it is not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Holy Day of the “Immaculate Conception of Mary,” which celebrates not only the conception of Mary by Anna, but in recent times added a meaning that is beyond the scope of Holy Scripture or Sacred Tradition. In 1854, Pope Pius IX at the first Vatican Council declared that Mary was conceived free from original sin. In proclaiming the Immaculate Conception of Mary as a dogma of the Roman Church, the pope expressed that Mary was conceived free from the stain of original sin, which from the Orthodox perspective is neither correct nor in any way a dogma of the Church. It remains one of the critical differences between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, as does the way in which it was proclaimed, through the presumed infallible proclamation of the papacy.

Why does the Orthodox Church object to this extrapolation?

In order to understand the position of the Orthodox Church on this teaching we must begin with understanding the Orthodox concept of original sin, as opposed to that which prevails in the Western Catholic Church.

The Western Catholic Church's teaching of original sin, is based in part on the writings of Saint Augustine, which state that each human being at the moment of conception shares in the guilt of Adam's sin of disobedience. In the medieval Western Catholic Church (and not in the Eastern Church), original sin was believed to be transmitted in a physical sense through conception. It thus became important to some in the West that Mary be viewed as to be preserved from this taint. Hence, despite objections of many scholars and saints, the erroneous teaching of the immaculate conception developed in the Western Church. It is significant to note that Saint Thomas Aquinas refused to concede the Immaculate Conception on the ground that, unless the Blessed Virgin had at one time or other been one of the sinful, she could not justly be said to have been redeemed by Christ. Also, Saint Bonaventure (d. 1274), second only to Saint Thomas in his influence on the Christian schools of his age in the West, hesitated to accept it for a similar reason. He believed that Mary was free from sin in her lifetime, but that she was not given this grace at the instant of her conception.

The Orthodox Church has kept alive the original understanding of the early Church as regards "original sin." The early Church did not understand "original sin" as having anything to do with transmitted guilt but with transmitted mortality. Because Adam sinned, all humanity shares not in his guilt but in the same punishment. In Orthodox eyes, there is simply no original guilt from which Mary need be spared.

Taken at face value, the Western doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is seen by the Orthodox as separating the Mother of God from the rest of the human race. If true, this would have made it impossible for Christ to become truly man, because Mary would therefore not be subject to the same conditions of humanity as those for whom Christ had become incarnate in order to save. Mary is human, and through her, God became fully human as well.

Parts of this are excerpts  from an article in "The Word" Magazine of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.