The Immaculate Conception
Written by Neil Simon
As we approach the Lent of the Assumption of St. Mary (one of the five canonical Lents of the Orthodox Church), it is altogether appropriate that we spend some time exploring the role of the Virgin Mother within the Orthodox faith. Although it may not be fully appreciated by the laity, St. Mary’s place within Christianity is filled with disagreements; starting with the circumstances of her birth; to the nature of her son, Jesus; all the way to the manner in which she departed. Today, we shall focus on The Immaculate Conception, an idea that is canon in the Roman Catholic Church but has been rejected by the Orthodox Church.
According to Wikipedia (not the most reliable source, but very well-known and oft-referenced), The Immaculate Conception (which is commonly confused with the doctrine of the Incarnation and virgin birth of Jesus) refers to the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her mother’s womb free from original sin by virtue of the foreseen merits of her son Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that St. Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but God acted upon her soul at the time of her conception. In other words, since God knew that St. Mary was going to bear Jesus Christ, she was an early recipient of the Son’s redeeming grace. Just as the Ark of the Covenant, which contained manna, the Ten Commandments, and the staff of Aaron, was given the honor of being made of incorruptible wood, St. Mary was kept from corruption for being the new ark - who carried the real bread from heaven, the Word of God, and the high priest of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ. Additionally (although it is not canon), some Catholics argue that since the egg that would become Jesus resided in St. Mary from her birth, it is necessary that she be pure from the beginning of her existence.
At first glance, the ideas behind Immaculate Conception sound both reasonable and plausible; however, upon deeper investigation, it becomes obvious that this teaching is misguided. Let us immediately dismiss the argument (as promulgated by the Protestants) that the Immaculate Conception is false since it is not explicitly stated in the Holy Bible. While the Bible is the cornerstone of Christianity, it must also be supplemented by the teachings and traditions of the forefathers of our Church. The majority of our disagreements with Protestant teachings stems from this simple idea.
Regardless, if we were to closely examine The Immaculate Conception, we would quickly run into a logical conundrum. For if it was required for St. Mary to be pure in order to bear Jesus (or she was granted grace since she would bear Christ), would not the mother of St. Mary, Anna, also be required to be pure (or be granted grace). And if Anna was required to be pure, would not St. Mary’s grandmother? And so on, and so forth. In Hebrews 7:9-10, it says, “Levi…paid tithe through Abraham for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.” Levi is the great-grandson of Abraham, thus, St. Paul implies that one must go back through the generations to trace the origin of a seed. Likewise, in order to trace the seed of Jesus, one would need to trace the lineage from St. Mary back to Adam and Eve. On the contrary, if it is to be argued that it is sufficient that only the seed of future St. Mary be purified; by that logic, would it not be sufficient to just purify the seed of future Jesus Christ, thus removing the requirement that St. Mary be born without sin.
Even if we were to disregard the previous argument, there is a fundamental flaw in the teaching of the Immaculate Conception. If God is willing to redeem a human being outside of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, what was the point of sending His only begotten son to suffer through His passion, crucifixion, death, and ultimately arise victorious in resurrection? Is there a parallel path to redemption for humans, one that has only been offered to St. Mary? The argument could be made that St. Mary was still redeemed by Christ, but in “anticipation” instead of after the fact like everyone else. However, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most prominent forefathers of the Catholic Church, found the idea of someone in the flesh being redeemed in “anticipation” impossible to accept, since the “immunity from condemnation was first to appear…after His Incarnation.” If St. Mary truly had an immaculate birth, she is no longer human and becomes equal to Jesus Christ who is among the Trinity.
Obviously, this position is untenable. Instead, the Orthodox Church holds that St. Mary became free from all sins from the time she conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit. We do not place any special significance on the nature of her birth, for any conception caused by human involvement merits bequest of the original sin that descended from Adam. When St. Mary states that “Henceforth all generation will call me blessed,” (Lk 1:48) she is affirming that her blessedness is not due to any pre-existing condition, but solely due to the ‘Overshadowing of Holy Spirit’ that led to the conception of Jesus Christ.
None of this, however, is meant to deny the significance of St. Mary to our Church. As a child, her devotion to the Lord is undeniable, for the Angel says “Hail, thou that are highly favored, the Lord is with thee; bless are thou among women.” (Lk 1:28) Her humility is on full display as she proclaims “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38) Just as we recognize Christ as the Second Adam, we exalt St. Mary as the Second Eve. For what the Eve lost by disobedience, Mary regained by her unconditional obedience. Eve conceived in sin a humanity that was doomed to sin but St. Mary conceived through the Holy Spirit and gave birth to Jesus, who liberated humanity from the bonds of sin. Therefore, she is rightly honored above all of the prophets and Apostles, second only to Jesus Christ himself. As we approach the Lent of the Assumption, let us observe this lent seeking her blessed intersessions and consolation of her gentle compassion.
Christian Righteousness – An Orthodox Perspective by Rev Fr K.K. John