“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for someone else?”

The Gospel narrative tells of a question which John the Baptist, who was in prison, put to the Lord through his disciples. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for someone else?”

John himself was in no doubt about the matter. Even from his mother’s womb he had recognized Jesus, and at the Jordan he had borne his testimony; but he sent this embassy for two reasons.

In the first place, John wished to instruct his disciples. He knew that his own death was imminent and, like the good leader and teacher he was, he made provision for his disciples, to ensure that they would have a teacher and protector. He wanted to see them safe under Christ’s wing and in his care.

John’s second and paramount motive, however, was to draw attention to Christ. He knew that he had been sent to bear witness to Christ, and although he had given his testimony at the Jordan, few had accepted it.

Knowing now that his death was near he devised a profitable and very prudent plan: he would put this question to Jesus publicly and thus bring him into the limelight, so that in replying to the question Jesus would at the same time bear witness about himself, and thereby reveal himself to the people. John knew that the Lord’s reply was bound to be very fruitful, and events proved him right.

The disciples approached Jesus, and in front of the crowd put to him the same question which the Jews had put to John. Everyone eagerly awaited his reply, for there had already been a rumor among the people that he might indeed be the Messiah.

The Lord gave no immediate answer, but delayed a little, and in their presence worked wonderful, mighty miracles.

Then he invited them, “Go and report to John what you have heard The blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking, lepers are cleansed the deaf hear, the dead rise again, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

He did not give an answer to them in so many words, but pointed to his deeds, as much as to say, “The works that I am doing are my witness. These are the works I am performing; judge for yourself whether I am the Messiah.”

This was an admirable reply, for he not only claimed by means of his works that he was the Messiah; he also proved it.

Isaiah had uttered three prophecies about Christ.

  • The first was this: “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unsealed and the lame man will leap like a stag. ” (Is 35:5-6A)
  • The second was: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … he has sent me to announce good tidings to the poor.” (Is 61:1)
  • The third declared: “He will be a stone for stumbling over, and a rock of scandal as well, for both houses of Israel.” (Is 8:14)

The Lord fulfilled these prophecies before their eyes, and implicitly quoted them in his reply: the first, by saying, “The blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking … the deaf hear;” (Mt 11:5) the second in his claim that the good news is proclaimed to the poor; and the third by saying,”Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me (Mt 11:6).”

St Thomas of Villanova

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The Sinner and the Victim

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St Gennadios Scholarios on Prayer and God’s Providence

by Matthew C. Briel, Ph.D.

A couple of weeks ago I had a late night discussion with two senior colleagues who asked me about my work on Gennadios Scholarios (1400-1472) and his reconciliation of the Thomistic and Palamite accounts of God and the concommitent ideas of providence. I argued that, ba­sically, Scholarios’ and Thomas’ accounts of providence come down to primary and secon­dary causality. If God is being itself, or, in Dionysius’ language, the cause of being itself, then God is involved in every action, for every action involves being. And yet, God wants creatures to be true causes. In this account, unlike some medieval Muslim and later Christian accounts of causality, the natural world is respected by God and creaturely causes are true secondary or instrumental causes.

Thomas’ idea of secondary causality is based on his concept of the analogy of being, which itself depends on divine simplicity and the complexity of all creatures, in which their essence is not their existence. A problem arises, however, when a Palamite such as Scholarios wants to make use of Thomas’ analogy of being, for the Palamite distinction between the divine essence and energies cannot be understood simply as a notional distinction, and this would seem to present a different notion of the divinity than that presupposed by the analogy of being. Scholarios overcomes this impasse by suggesting that the distinction be understood as one that is notional but with a foundation in reality. Consider, for instance, the distinction between the intellect and the will in the soul. The two, intellect and will, seem to be different in the same way that two faces of the same mountain differ, yet are still the same mountain. The two thinglets (realitates) exist in one thing (res).

Scholarios’ modified Palamism allowed him to maintain the Thomistic analogy of being that undergirds his notion of providence. When this framework is applied to the question of providence over human affairs, it is possible, in a way, to preserve the antinomies of divine providence in a strong sense and human freedom. God really is the cause of all things, but he does not cause human actions stemming from the will in a way that forces human actions, even if he causes them in a necessary way. And so all things are predeter­mined to such an extent that Scholarios, following Aquinas, can say that it is appropriate, in a way, to call God’s providence fate, although the term, according to both theologians, is misleading because it implies that God forces human beings to actions when, in fact, we are free creatures.

Scholarios briefly addresses the question of the role of prayer in his fifth tract on provi­dence in volume one of his complete works (1928). This tract has not been translated into any language and has been overlooked by scholars and therefore the broader. My brief analysis furthers the work in my forthcoming book from UND Press, A Greek Thomist, in which I track the development of Scholarios’s theology of providence from his earliest writings through his first tract on providence.

Grounded in the analogy of being, Scholarios’ account is similar to Aquinas’ in Summa contra Gentiles 3.95. Let me now walk through Scholarios’ treatise on prayer, highlighting the most salient points.

In his first paragraph Scholarios clarifies that although some think that the fulfillment of prayers (and he has in mind here probably healings of the all-too-common Byzantine illnesses) are random on God’s part, in fact not all prayer is equal, for the prayers of the unjust are not heard by God, and he explained in earlier tracts that this is because the unjust (or the unprepared to participate in grace) do not cooperate with God’s providence.

Next, in paragraph 2, Scholarios repeats the metaphysical presupposition for his under­standing of providence, namely, that beings other than God do not have their being from themselves, for only one being is self-generating. All creatures have their being from God.

And foreknowing is to arrange [things] for the good end that is proper to foreseeing and thus to be foreknown is to be arranged towards the good. And if it is not the case beings come into being and exist in vain [randomly], then each being must be arranged towards its proper end, and consequent­ly towards the last end that is common to all, which is the most com­mon and final end [namely, God]. But we do not need to examine the final end here except to say that it is necessary that all beings be arranged towards their proper good, and as such an end it is the source of their coming to be and their existence, but it did not come about from them, nor are they driven by themselves towards their proper end, but rather they are arranged by the God who created them.

All things, then, are directed towards God (paragraph 3). Indeed, “divine foreknowledge embraces all the works of God” (paragraph 4). God foreknows even sins and the actions of sinners, but does not will them. Divine providence, in the sense of both God’s foreknowl­edge and his loving kindness, is especially shown towards the just, and less so to the unjust:

Only those who have been formed by faith and manner of life receive the benefit of providence properly so called, for to them who use the body as an instrument and tool is there an important concern for eternal life and use the present life like a passage. For God foreknows them according to their own proper inclinations, collaborating in everything with them towards the end, co-preparing them without overlooking their lives and, further­more, God considers their proper end which they seek. (paragraph 5)

Human beings determine their lives, and if they determine their lives in a good way, God acts in their life. God, foreknowing human action and the good collaboration that a human being will do (for God exists outside of time and so when he acts he is predetermining all actions of collaboration) is involved in every good action. And here Scholarios uses the language of logoi in the mind of the one who is both creator and foreknower:

For clearly the pre-establishment of all the creatures that do not yet exist are eternally present as eternal logoi in the intellect of the one who is both the creator and the foreknower. (paragraph 5)

Scholarios continues in paragraph 6:

And so it is clear how the divine predetermination is a part of divine fore­knowledge, for it runs through all human beings but distinguishes them according to the order and worthiness of each of them, and predetermi­nation concerns only those who are predetermined for eternal life, which is the goal of this life here below, and they are determined by their own zeal and divine assistance, and just as providence concerning human beings is a part of the providence concerning all beings, and just as they are some part of the totality of beings, all of which are known (for the logos of [God’s] own foreknowledge concerning them [human beings] eminently comprehends the foreknowledge that concerns the other creatures), and in the same way providence concerning those who are predetermined for eternal life is a part of the providence concerning all human beings, but it [providence regarding human beings] is not a lesser and circumscribed part of that [providence more generally] because it is the skopos and end of the entire foreknowledge of God for all of the other beings came into being and exist for the sake of human beings, and human beings exist for the sake of being predetermined and saved. But those creatures that lack a will by the divine skopos render service unto human beings since they are set apart by nature for such a service, while human beings are honored on account of free will, which is the greatest of the gifts [given] to them. While the great refusal is a withdrawal from God, which is their proper end according to both nature and grace, nevertheless few are the predetermined and saved in juxtapo­sition with those who are rejected, except that it is greater simply and conquers in terms of the complete number.

In paragraph 7 Scholarios states that God organizes our life here below to bring us to our goal, which is heaven. Our prayer to God to grant us his aid is a kind of collaboration in his accomplishing our salvation and since God always knows what he does (and he exists outside of time), our prayers and their fulfillment are predetermined from our perspective, but from the divine perspective simply are determined, and not forced.

In paragraph 8 Scholarios concludes that real prayer is for the kingdom both in the next world and in this world. Real prayer is doxology, not prayer for freedom from temptation, for temptations serve a purpose in that they strengthen us and prepare us for salvation.

After this brief summary, it seems appropriate to circle back to that late night discussion from two weeks ago. It seems that Scholarios’ account of prayer and divine providence evades my friend Paul’s critique. But is it an honest evasion? Ultimately, for Scholarios, prayer does not change God’s providence but rather is a way to participate in that provi­dence, the goal of which is our salvation. Both Thomas and Scholarios argue, basically, the prayer does not move the immutable God. However, as with all secondary causes, human prayer is a participation in being, and real prayer, directed towards our end, is a participa­tion in God’s guidance of our lives and the world. In the case of grace and divine provi­dence, human beings can refuse to participate in this grace, and we can fall into non-being and away from our goal, union with God in heaven. In the end, God fulfills the desires of a rational creature only to the extent that they are good. Perhaps, ultimately, this is an eva­sion of Paul’s question. But then, Scholarios’ answer is a theological answer rather than a strictly philosophical one. Scholarios must maintain the seeming contradiction of human freedom and divine omnipotence and omniscience. In Scholarios’ account the two dimen­sions of providence and prayer, namely, the human and the divine, may be seen as two different perspectives on the same reality of the human participation in divine grace, which is, of course, theosis for Scholarios.

* * *

Matthew C. Briel is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University in 2016 where he benefited from his time with the Orthodox Christian Studies Center. He specializes in Byzantine theology, especially in its relationship to Roman Catholic theology, and has a book on Gennadios Scholarios, A Greek Thomist, forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press.

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“Nature has been defeated by grace and stands trembling, no longer ready to take the lead”

But why has the Virgin Mother been born from a sterile woman? For that which alone is new under the sun, the culmination of miracles, the way had to be prepared by means of mira­cles, and what was greater had to advance slowly from what was more humble. And I have another more exalted and divine reason. Nature has been defeated by grace and stands trembling, no longer ready to take the lead. Therefore when the God-bearing Virgin was about to be born from Anna, nature did not dare to anticipate the offshoot of grace; instead it remained without fruit until grace sprouted its fruit. For it was necessary for her to be the first-born, she who would bear the “Firstborn of all creation” in whom “all things subsist” (Col 1.15,17).

O blessed couple, Joachim and Anna, all nature is indebted to you! For through you it has offered a gift to the Creator which is more excellent than all other gifts: a holy mother who alone is worthy of the Creator. O most all-blessed loins of Joachim, from which a wholly unblemished seed was sent forth! O renowned womb of Anna, in which slowly, with additions from her, an all-holy infant grew, and once it had taken shape, was born! O belly that contained within itself a living heaven, vaster than the immensity of the heavens! O threshing floor which contained the heap of life-giving grain, since Christ himself declared: “Unless a grain of wheat which falls into the earth dies, it remains just a single grain …” (John 12.24). O breasts that suckled her who fed the Feeder of the world! O marvel of marvels and miracle of miracles!

For it was necessary that the ineffable and condescending incarnation of God should be prepared by means of miracles. But how shall I advance further? My understanding is confounded, while fear and longing have divided me. My heart quakes and my tongue has been paralyzed. I cannot bear my happiness! I am overcome by miracles! I am possessed by longing! Let longing be overcome! Let fear be banished! Let the harp of the Spirit sing, “Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth exult!” (Ps 95[96].11).

St John of Damascus


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The Immaculate and Predestined Mother of God

“Most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.” Panagia, Achrantos, Theotokos, Aeiparthenos—the titles abound, not only in the private prayers of Eastern Orthodox Christians but in the public liturgies and offices. A prayer to the Theotokos in Small Compline begins with these words: “O spotless, unde­filed, incorrupt, immaculate, pure Virgin, Lady Bride of Christ.” In the Divine Liturgy, after the solemn consecration of the Holy Gifts, we sing the Axion Estin:

It is truly meet and right to bless you, O Theotokos,
Ever-blessed and most-pure mother of our God.
More honourable than the Cherubim,
And beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim,
Who without corruption gave birth to God the Word,
True Theotokos: we magnify you.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is first among the saints, the most holy and pure, beloved by God above all creatures. Her icon is prominently located to the immediate left of the Royal Doors. The original Akathist Hymn, composed by St Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century, is devoted to her. Mary is the Mother of God and Mother of the Church. Many of the Eastern liturgies conclude with words of supplication to her: “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

A profound veneration of the Holy Virgin unites Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers, yet in the eyes of most Orthodox this common faith has been tragically broken by the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, solemnly promulgated in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. Yet must this dogma divide the Churches? Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis, monk and philosopher, believes that it should not. Whatever concerns we might have about the specific formulation of the Latin dogma (what does the “stain of original sin” really mean? to what extent does the definition require an Augustinian understanding of original sin?), he believes that a crucial truth is hidden in the dogma.

Is the Virgin Mary without sin or not?with this question Manoussakis moves the discussion beyond East/West polemics about original sin and returns us to the depths of the Church’s devotional faith. We cannot, of course, prove the Virgin’s life-long sinlessness by a grammatical-historical reading of Scripture. Though the maiden is hailed by the angel as “full of grace,” this declaration does not guarantee her sinlessness, either before or after the Annunciation. Nor can the question be settled by appeal to the Church Fathers, for their testimony is not unanimous: St Basil the Great suggested that the Blessed Virgin doubted when she heard the prophecy of Simeon, St John Chrysostom thought that at the wedding at Cana she may have displayed vanity and pride, St Cyril of Alexandria conjec­tured that at the foot of the cross she may have entertained the possibility that Jesus had been deceived about his divine identity and mission. But there are many other patristic voices that speak of the immaculate holiness of the Theotokos, and in these voices the catholic Church came to recognize her own voice. As Vladimir Lossky writes:

The Church’s unlimited veneration of the Mother of God which, viewed externally, might seem to be in contradiction with the scriptural data, is spread far and wide in the Tradition of the Church and is the most precious fruit of Tradition. But it is not only the fruit of Tradition; it is also the germ and the stem of Tradition. We can find a definite relationship between the person of the Mother of God and what we call the Tradition of the Church. (“Panagia,” In the Image and Likeness of God, pp. 198-199)

From the depths of her liturgical and mystical experience, the Orthodox Church acclaims the luminous righteousness of the Panagia, the New Eve. Manoussakis writes:

Is the Virgin Mary without sin or not? The doctrine that proclaims that the mother of God was sanctified at her conception comes to declare simply what every Christian, Orthodox or Catholic, has always believed about the person of the Theotokos, namely, that in her we find the most perfect human being—better yet, in her we see the true nature of a human person, a nature unaf­flicted by any sin, including the original sin … The person of the Theotokos, affirmed as free from every sin, becomes an affirmation of humanity’s original capacity to be without sin, or at least it assures us that we could have been without sin; it reveals to us that sin, contrary to our experience, is not necessary. It is this and nothing more that the doctrine of the immaculate conception declares. And it declares it in unity and har­mony with the other great Marian feast, that of the Dor­mition or the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. How to explain what Christians have celebrated since at least the fifth century, that is, that Mary, even though she dies, is not dead; that her body does not see corruption but, together with her soul, experiences already the eschatological blessedness? How to explain all this without recourse to the exceptional and singular grace that the Virgin Mary received as the Mother of God? In the feast of the Dormi­tion—perhaps the most popular feast in the hearts of the Orthodox—we find the key to how the Orthodox could accept doctrinally what they already confess liturgically, namely, the sinless nature of the Mother of God. (Manoussakis, “Mary’s Exception,” For the Unity of All, pp. 5-6)

Clarification: when Manoussakis refers to “original sin,” he is thinking of the propensity to evil that we all share and from which Mary was, by the prevenient action of God, protect­ed. But this is not to say that she did not experience temptation; rather, she conquered it by her cooperation with divine grace.

In response to the papal promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Ortho­dox theologians have asserted the Annunciation as the moment of Mary’s sancti­fication and rebirth in the Spirit. Patriarch Bartholomew explained this position in a 2004 interview:

The Catholic Church found that it needed to institute a new dogma for Christendom about one thousand and eight hundred years after the appearance of the Christianity, because it had accepted a perception of original sin—a mistaken one for us Orthodox—according to which original sin passes on a moral stain or a legal responsibility to the descendants of Adam, instead of that recognized as correct by the Orthodox faith—according to which the sin transmitted through inheritance the corruption, caused by the separation of mankind from the uncreated grace of God, which makes him live spiritually and in the flesh. Mankind shaped in the image of God, with the possibility and destiny of being like to God, by freely choosing love towards Him and obedience to His commandments, can even after the fall of Adam and Eve become friend of God according to intention; then God sancti­fies them, as He sanctified many of the progenitors before Christ, even if the accomplishment of their ransom from corruption, that is their salvation, was achieved after the incarnation of Christ and through Him.

In consequence, according to the Orthodox faith, Mary the All-Holy Mother of God was not conceived exempt from the corruption of original sin, but loved God above all things and obeyed his commandments, and thus was sanctified by God through Jesus Christ who incarnated Himself of her. She obeyed Him like one of the faithful, and addressed herself to Him with a Mother’s trust. Her holiness and purity were not blemished by the corrup­tion, handed on to her by original sin as to every man, precisely because she was reborn in Christ like all the saints, sanctified above every saint.

Her reinstatement in the condition prior to the Fall did not necessarily take place at the moment of her conception. We believe that it happened after­wards, as consequence of the progress in her of the action of the uncreated divine grace through the visit of the Holy Spirit, which brought about the conception of the Lord within her, purifying her from every stain.

One might reasonably dispute the Ecumenical Patriarch’s description of the Latin under­standing of original sin (see my article “The Ecumenical Stain of Original Sin“). Questions for His All Holiness: Was Mary ever an unregenerate sinner under the dominion of Satan? Was she ever a prisoner of the passions? Did she ever experience the darkening of the nous? Even posing these questions feels blasphemous. The logic of ancestral sin would seem to drive us to affirm the sinfulness of Mary, however minor, yet Orthodox piety resists the logic.

Yet clearly Mary experienced what the Fathers referred to as the blameless passions— hunger, weariness, grief, pain. She lived under the conditions of the fallen world. She suffered and she died. Thus Lossky:

From St. Justin and St. Irenaeus onwards, the Fathers often have drawn attention to the contrast between the “two virgins,” Eve and Mary. By the disobedience of the first, death entered into humanity. By the obedience of the “second Eve,” the author of life became man and entered into the family of Adam. But between the two Eves lies all the history of the Old Testament, the past from which she who has become the Mother of God cannot be divi­ded. If she was chosen to take a unique part in the work of the Incarnation, that choice followed and concluded a whole series of other chosen ones who pre­pared the way for it. It is not for nothing that the Orthodox Church, in her liturgical texts, calls David “the ancestor of God” and gives the same name of “holy and righteous ancestors of God” to Joachim and Anna. The Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception seems to break up this unin­terrupted succession of Old Testament holiness, which reaches its fulfillment at the moment of the Annunciation, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Virgin to make her fit to receive the Word of the Father in her womb. The Orthodox Church does not admit the idea that the Holy Virgin was thus exempted from the lot of the rest of fallen humanity—the idea of a “privilege” which makes her into a being ransomed before the redemptive work, by vir­tue of the future merits of her Son. It is not by virtue of a privilege received at the moment of her conception by her parents that we venerate the Mother of God more than any other created being. She was holy and pure from all sin from her mother’s womb, but still this holiness does not place her outside the rest of humanity before Christ. She was not, at the moment of the Annuncia­tion, in a state analogous to that of Eve before the Fall. The first Eve, “the mother of all living,” lent her ear to the words of the seducer in the state of paradise, in the state of innocent humanity. The second Eve—she who was chosen to become the Mother of God—heard and understood the angelic word in the state of fallen humanity. That is why this unique election does not sepa­rate her from the rest of humanity, from all her fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, whether saints or sinners, whose best part she represents.

Like other human beings, such as St. John the Baptist, whose conception and birth are also feasts of the Church, the Holy Virgin was born under the law of original sin, sharing with all the same common responsibility for the Fall. But sin never could become actual in her person; the sinful heritage of the Fall had no mastery over her right will. Here was the highest point of holiness that could be attained before Christ, in the conditions of the Old Covenant, by one of Adam’s seed. She was without sin under the universal sovereignty of sin, pure from every seduction in the midst of a humanity enslaved by the prince of this world. She was not placed above history in order to serve a special divine decree but realized her unique vocation while in the chains of history, sharing the common destiny of all men awaiting salvation. And yet, if in the person of the Mother of God we see the summit of Old Testament holiness, her own holiness is not limited thereby, for she equally surpassed the highest summits of the New Covenant, realizing the greatest holiness which the Church can attain. (pp. 203-204; also see Virginia Kimball, “Orthodox Tradition and Mary“)

Lossky is walking a fine line. He wants to insist upon the solidaric unity both between Mary and Israel and Mary and fallen humanity, while also claiming that “sin never could become actual in her person.” The Virgin is the summit of Old Testament holiness, yet in her theosis she also transcends it.

Would Manoussakis disagree with Lossky? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if Roman Catholic theologians would disagree with him. Lossky dissents from the Latin doctrine of the Immac­ulate Conception because, in his mind, it distances the Blessed Virgin from Israel; yet her exceptionality still needs to be explained, for she, and she alone, was found worthy to be the Birthgiver of the eternal Son. In the words of St Jacob of Sarug:

Our Lord descending to earth beheld all women; He chose one for himself who among them all was pleasing.

He searched her and found humility and holiness in her, and limpid impulses and a soul desirous of divinity.

And a pure heart and every reckoning of perfection, because of this He chose her, the pure and most fair one.

He descended from his place and dwelt within the glorious one among women, because for her there was not a companion comparable to her in the world.

She alone is humble, pure, limpid and without blemish, so that she was deemed worthy to be his mother and not another. (Hom. I.620 in On the Mother of God)

How is it that of all the daughters of Israel, Mary alone was worthy to become the Mother of God? Whence her existential freedom from the power of sin? Eve fell from grace in Eden, yet Mary lived the entirety of her life in perfect communion with God in a world oppressed by evil and death. Neither Patriarch Bartholomew nor Vladimir Lossky offers a satisfactory explanation.

Manoussakis finds the solution in the wonderful homily of St John of Damascus, “On the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos” (in Wider Than Heaven). When I read this homily, I was struck by the profound union between the Virgin and Jesus. John cannot speak of Mary without immediately speaking of the uncreated Deity whom she bore in her womb, and he cannot speak of the incarnate Christ without immediately praising the holiness of the woman who was found worthy to receive into her the eternal Word. It is as if the mother participates in the immaculate sanctity of her son even before he was conceived within her womb.

Mary was not an accidental product of history, nor is her motherhood accidental to her identity. In that timeless moment when God determined to become Jesus of Nazareth, he predestined Mary to be Theotokos. She is eternally the Immaculate Virgin and Mother of God:

O ever-virginal little daughter who needed no man to conceive! He who has an eternal Father was borne in the womb by you! O earth-born little daugh­ter who carried the Creator in your God-bearing arms! The ages compet­ed as to which one would be exalted by your birth, but God’s will, which had been determined beforehand, defeated the competition of the ages—God having created the ages [in any case]—and the last became first and were in happy possession of your nativity. Truly you became more precious than the whole of crea­tion. For from you alone the Maker received a share, [that is], the first-fruit of our dough. For his flesh is from your flesh, and his blood is from your blood, and God suckled milk from your breasts, and your lips were united with the lips of God. O incomprehensible and ineffable matters! The God of all things, having known in advance your worth, loved you; and because of this love, he predestined you, and “at the end of times” (1 Pet 1:20) he brought you into being and revealed you as Theotokos, Mother, and Nurse of his own Son and Word. (Sermo in Navitatem 177; empha­sis mine)

The sanctity of the Panagia must ultimately be traced back to her election by God before the ages. Predestina­tion raises for the Orthodox all sorts of Augustinian flags, yet it cannot be helped. There is no resolving the mystery of divine agency and human freedom (though it would probably help if we junked the “pre-” and “fore-” prefixes). The entirety of Mary’s life is grounded in the eternal plan of the Creator. That is the point of the pre­destinarian language. The election of Mary was not a matter of God surveying, in Molinist fashion, all possible-world scenarios and discovering the one lucky woman willing and able to perfectly submit to the divine will. Eastern constru­als of divine predes­tina­tion in terms of divine fore­knowledge often veer dangerously close to a Pelagian synergism (see “Divine Agency and Human Free­dom“). Yet neither may we think of the divine fore­ordination as in any way violating Mary’s freedom. With St Nicholas Cabasilas we must insist that she freely cooperated with the Holy Trinity, thereby making possible the enfleshment of God:

The Incarnation of the Word was not only the work of the Father, of his Power [the Son], and of his Spirit—the first consenting, the second descend­ing, the third overshadowing—but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh that she consciously wills to offer him. Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent. (Quoted in Kallistos Ware, “Beyond All Holiness,” p. 5)

The critical point: when God eternally wills the Incarnation, he simultaneously wills as his mother the holy daughter of Sts Joachim and Anna. The sanctity of the Theotokos both flows from the divine election and is its precondition. Manoussakis emphasizes the former:

The Damascene’s laudation expresses clearly that God did not choose Mary because she was holy—for grace would not have been grace anymore—but rather she is made holy because she was chosen to become the Mother of God. It is also expressly stated that Mary’s sanctification did not take place later in her life, neither at the foot of the cross nor by the greeting of the angel, but she was sanctified by God when God preordained the mystery of the human­ization of the Logos: before all ages. (Manoussakis, p. 11; cf. Edward T. Oakes, “Sola Gratia and Mary’s Immaculate Conception” and “Predestination and Mary’s Immaculate Conception“)

But does assertion of predestinating grace imply that Mary does not need the salvation of Christ? In the 13th century Duns Scotus famously argued that by his atoning sacrifice on the Cross, Christ “merited to take away this most heavy penalty [of original sin] from his Most Blessed Mother.” Ahead of time, as it were, Mary is redeemed from sin by her son, the incarnate Son. Manoussakis advances an analogous explanation, with an eschatolog­ical twist. Note how the Damascene puts it: “The ages competed as to which one would be exalted by your birth, but God’s will, which had been determined beforehand, defeated the competition of the ages—God having created the ages [in any case]—and the last became first and were in happy possession of your nativity.” Mary belongs not to the old age but to the Eschaton. Manoussakis calls her an “eschatological person.” The Blessed Virgin is the first-born of “the first born of creation” (Col 1:15):

Mary gives birth to Christ, but in another, more profound sense, it is Christ who “gives birth” to Mary and, through her, to all humanity. The concept of prevenient grace implies that God’s grace is not restricted by time, or at least by our conception of forward-moving time. Eschatologically speaking, an event of the past can be caused by what happens in the present, or even by what has not yet taken place. It is this paradox that the Fourth Gospel expressed in the formula “the hour is coming is now here” (John 4:23; 5:25). Christian eschatology has indeed such a retroactive effect. Is not, for exam­ple, the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mt. Tabor the prolepetic enactment in the “already” of that which, for us, is “not yet”? Is it not the Lord’s resurrec­tion the result as much as the adumbration of the common resurrection at the end of times. In the Virgin’s birth, as well in her death, we see the light of the end of times breaking into history and transforming its categories. (p. 13; also see “The Anarchic Principle of Christian Eschatology“)

Perhaps we might even say that from the future of his Kingdom, the risen and glorified Son ordains Mary to be his immaculate Mother. Pre-destination becomes post-destination becomes eschato-destination. We are confronted with a mystery we can neither fathom nor adequately state. In the end we rest upon the simple words of St Gregory Palamas: “God predestined Her before the ages for the salvation and reclaiming of our kind.”

(20 September 2015; rev.)

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“Understand that it is in hope of our conversion that he spares us, for he desires no one’s damnation”

The Gospel tells us that some people were rebuked by the Lord because, clever as they were at reading the face of the sky, they could not recognize the time for faith when the kingdom of heaven was at hand. It was the Jews who received this reprimand, but it has also come down to us.

The Lord Jesus began his preaching of the Gospel with the admonition: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mt 4:17).” His forerunner, John the Baptist, began his in the same way: “Repent, ” he said, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mt 3:2).” Today, for those who will not repent at the approach of the kingdom of heaven, the reproof of the Lord Jesus is the same. As he points out himself, “You cannot expect to see the kingdom of heaven coming. The kingdom of heaven,” he says elsewhere, “is within you (Lk 17:21).” Each of us would be wise therefore to take to heart the advice of his teacher, and not waste this present time.

It is now that our Savior offers us his mercy; now, while he still spares the human race. Understand that it is in hope of our conversion that he spares us, for he desires no one’s damnation.

As for when the end of the world will be, that is God’s concern. Now is the time for faith. Whether any of us here present will see the end of the world I know not; very likely none of us will. Even so, the time is very near for each of us, for we are mortal. There are hazards all around us.

We should be in less danger from them were we made of glass. What is more fragile than a vessel of glass? And yet it can be kept safe and last indefinitely. Of course it is exposed to accidents, but it is not liable to old age and the suffering it brings. We therefore are the more frail and infirm. In our weakness we are haunted by fears of all the calamities that regularly befall the human race, and if no such calamity overtakes us, still, time marches on. We may evade the blows of fortune, but shall we evade death? We may escape perils from without but shall we escape what comes from within us? Now, suddenly, we may be attacked by any malady.

And if we are spared? Even so, old age comes at last, and nothing will delay it.

St Augustine of Hippo

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St Mark Eugenicus and the Immaculate Burning Bush


We jump from St Gregory the Theologian in the 4th century to two Byzantine theologians in the 15th century—Joseph Bryennius, a vigorous supporter of hesychastic theology, and St Mark Eugenicus, the resolute voice of Orthodoxy at the Council of Florence. Both men witness to the Byzantine tradition of the prepurification of the Theotokos but now deep­ened by the Mariological reflections of St Gregory Palamas and St Nicholas Cabasilas.

Joseph Bryennius

Consider these two passages from Bryennius’s homily on the Annunciation:

On one hand, no other woman has been honored above her. Since, while God foreknew all other women, he hallowed the maiden worthier than the rest of women, who was about to come into existence from a sterile moth­er’s womb. On the other hand, he eschewed all unworthy items with respect to this [Mary], as was reasonable; [Mary] had acquired for herself a supe­rior virtue above all virtues and [had acquired for herself] to have been prepared as a fit receptacle of the unapproachable divinity, which had been prepurified [to prokatharthenai] through the Holy Spirit. (Quoted in Christiaan Kappes, The Immaculate Conception, p. 90)

He says: ‘Yet on one hand, how did another Mother of God not come about?’ But, on the other hand: ‘Had she some sort of virtue/excellence, because of which she was honored above all women?’ First, another woman was not chosen over her, because while God foreknew all women, he sanctified the future woman from her mother’s womb, purer than other women, who were going to come to exist; but he eschewed all unworthy persons with respect to her, as is reasonable. But she procured for herself the excellence superior to all men and [procured for herself] to be prepared as a contain­ing receptacle of the divinity, which was prepurified [to prokatharthenai] by the Holy Spirit; O what a marvel, indeed! (p. 91)

Note how Byrennius, following St John Damascene, explicitly affirms Mary’s sanctification by the Spirit in the womb of Anna. The grammar of the passages, Kappes claims, intimates Mary’s superior possession of the virtues in “the most remote past that is possible in Greek,” to the very beginning of her existence (p. 92). Why this development in Byzantine Mariol­ogy? Kappes reasonably conjectures that the development is grounded upon the Eastern liturgical celebration of the conception of the Theotokos since the 7th century:

From the perspective of Orthodox dogmatics (given Bryennius’ de facto authority), Bryennius (and even Theophanes) justifies the application of “prepuri­fication” to any significant mystery of Mary’s life prior to the incarnation. The Conception, Presentation, and Annunciation of Mary happen to all coincide with important liturgical feasts in the Byzantine calendar. This strongly suggests that preincarnational liturgical mysteries of the Blessed Virgin Mary can be correctly referred to as moments of “prepuri­fication.” These moments of external glory serve to increase the intensity of her deifying participation in the interior life of grace in anticipation of her “seedless pregnancy.” (pp. 92-93)

Kappes is not anachronistically claiming that Bryennius is asserting an immaculate con­ception of the Theotokos, as formuated and defined by the Latin Church. He is proposing, rather, that by the 15th century the Byzantine Church had comprehended the entirety of the Blessed Virgin’s existence within the eternal plan of God and the charismatic activity of the Holy Spirit. For over a millennia the Eastern Church had taught that the Holy Prophet Jeremiah and St John the Forerunner had been sanctified by the Spirit while in the wombs of their mothers (see St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 3.6). This blessing is now extended to Mary. At no time was she bereft of the Spirit; at no point did she live in a state of spiritual death. She is always alive unto God. Even at her conception, God is prepar­ing her for the containment of infinite divinity. “O what a marvel, indeed!”

St Mark Eugenicus

St Mark Eugenicus studied with Joseph Bryennius and may well have been introduced by him to Latin anti-Palamite theology and the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. In the late 1430s he wrote his First Antirrhetic against Manuel Kalekas, responding to the attacks by Kalekas upon the essence-energies distinction formulated by Palamas. Within the course of his defense of Palamas, Eugenicus addresses the question of Mary’s contact with the divine essence during the nine months of her pregnancy. He quotes Palamas: “so that the spaceless one indeed fittingly might—by means of a begotten nature—be given space and be given [it] as much as it is of no threat” (p. 120). How is it possible for a mortal to hold within herself the uncreated Word without being consumed? Only, Eugenicus asserts, by an act of divine omnipotence:

Nevertheless, let one remove every rational account with respect to that which concerns the Theotokos, who alone is the most supernatural marvel among supernaturals realized from eternity, who is also higher than all rational discourse; for in a true way God wished His own omnipotence to be manifested in this woman. (IC, p. 128)

The patristic conviction that creatures cannot see the essence of their Creator, either in this life or the next, underlies this statement. The Byzantines appealed to Moses’ encounter with the LORD on Mount Sinai. When Moses asks the God to reveal his glory, the LORD demurs: “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). God then hides the prophet in the cleft of the rock and permits him to see his backside. In the Byzantine tradi­tion, Moses became a principal example of the direct experience of divinity. God grants Moses to see him, but only in the mode of his energeia, not in his transcendent essence. Only infinite intellect can fathom infinite being. Comprehension of the LORD would require the apotheosis, and thus destruction, of the finite human intellect. Hence the warning: “man shall not see me and live.” Whereas the saints have been given to apprehend the uncreated Light, the privilege of the Theotokos is greater still. Kappes elaborates:

The only thing that can capacitate a human nature for an experience (exceeding all natural mental capacity) must be the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit. For Mark, this description of deification aptly applies to Mary’s created nature, which was predestined to glory before the ages. Once again, Mark’s correction of Manuel Kalekas lurks in the background. Kalekas claims for human nature the capacity to see the essence of God, while Manuel rejects Palamas’s alleged “energy made Flesh” Christology. Mark could object to direct theovision by noting that if one can see the divine essence clearly, a fortiori one sees the divine conceptions of such an essence. Yet, Mary’s abso­lute predestination means that her being itself is higher than the capacity of discursive reasoning to grasp. Ergo no one can see the essence of God or else the mystery of Mary could be known by the human reasoning.

For Mark, the Spirit miraculously capacitates the human natures of Moses and the Apostles to “contemplate” the “impersonal” divine light of Tabor, yet the concepts behind Mary’s existence rest near the really infinite perfec­tions of divine being. Mary’s human nature per se excels all other created natures, even the actualized natures of those who possess theovision…. One can infer that the Trinity’s contingent plan, from its inception, for the Blessed Virgin Mary was for her to be the paragon of human nature gifted with the grace of theovision (i.e., Tabor light) in virtue of her spotless nature. As such, she has per se the perfection of the Blessed and is, ex necessitate, sinless and immac­ulate in body and soul. The Ephesine cannot help but justify the Blessed Virgin Mary as an incomparable pensée mère of the divine mind, for she is the meeting place for the disjunctive transcendentals of divine being. (pp. 131-133)

The surpassing excellence and sanctity of the young Theotokos is demonstrated by the fact though she is the place where the created and uncreated meet in ineffable union, she is not destroyed. She has become, as the Orthodox Church sings, the living burning bush:

The miracle that Moses witnessed on Sinai in the burning bush
Foretold your virgin childbearing, O pure Mother.
We the faithful cry to you:
Rejoice, O truly living bush!
Rejoice, O holy mountain!
Rejoice, O sanctified expanse and most holy Theotokos!

Given the fiery union of divinity and humanity in her womb, the necessity of Mary’s sanctification by the Spirit becomes manifest. “But he did so with her,” Mark writes, “after he prepurified her through a most profuse grace by means of the protecting Holy Spirit and divine power” (IC, p. 137). Her prepurification was not a cleansing from sin but rather deifying preparation for the miracle of the divine conception.

In his wonderful homily on the Annunciation, St Gregory Palamas refers to the vision of the prophet Isaiah, where the seraphim, with a pair of tongs, takes a burning coal from the holy fire and touches the lips of the prophet. He then states that the tongs are identical to the burning bush seen by Moses on Mount Sinai, both typologically prefiguring the Theotokos:

Surely it is obvious to anyone that the Virgin Mother is both the burning bush and the tongs. She conceived the divine fire within her and was not burnt, and an archangel ministered at the conception, and through her the Bearer of the sins of the world was united with the human race, purifying us thor­oughly by means of this indescribable bond. The Virgin Mother, and she alone, is the frontier between created and uncreated nature. All who know God will recognize her as the one who contained Him who cannot be con­tained. All who sing hymns to God will praise her next after Him. She is the cause of the benefits which preceded her, the protectress of those which came after, and through her those good things which are eternal shall be received. She is the theme of the prophets, the first of the apostles, the support of the martyrs, the dais of the teachers. She is the glory of those on earth, the delight of those in heaven, the adornment of the whole creation. She is the beginning, fount and root of the hope stored up for us in in heaven. (Hom. 14.15, in Mary the Mother of God, pp. 58-59)

Eugenicus and the Immaculate Conception

What did St Mark of Ephesus think about the Immaculate Conception? As far as we know, he never attacked or refuted the Latin doctrine, which is a bit odd, as he never hesitated to name the multiple heresies of the Roman Church. Eugenicus undoubtedly knew of it. It had been vigorously debated by Dominicans and Franciscans at the Council of Basel, and this inter-Latin debate would surely have continued, at least informally, at the Council of Ferrara-Florence. And yet Mark appears to have remained silent. Why the failure to cite the Immaculate Conception doctrine as yet another Latin innovation? Perhaps, suggests Kappes, Eugenicus did not see the innovation as being quite the innovation modern Orthodox think it to be.

Modern Orthodox frequently cite the Augustinian doctrine of corporate guilt as a driving reason for opposition to the Roman doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (see “The Ecumenical Stain of Original Sin“). But in the 15th century, as Eugenicus well knew, competing construals of original sin existed within the Western Church (as they do today). According to the Franciscan school, Adam alone is personally guilty for his sin: “Original sin is purely a case of a privation (by divine decree) of a deiform and supernatural grace, which carries with it negative corollaries in the human body” (p. 162, n. 340). St Thomas Aquinas would have agreed, contra St Augustine, that the guilt of Adam is not transmitted to his descendants. Original sin is understood as a privation of sanctifying grace. Byzantine Christianity, on the other hand, understood original sin as the inheritance of death and its corrupting consequences. For this reason it never felt it necessary to dogmatize an immac­ulate conception of the Theotokos. As John Meyendorff writes: “The Mariological piety of the Byzantines would probably have led them to accept the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as it was defined in 1854, if only they shared the Western doctrine of original sin” (Byzantine Theology, p. 148). It is sufficient to confess the prepurification of the Theotokos.

Given the Byzantine traditions of the Prokathartheisa and Mary the Burning Bush, perhaps the Atlas of Orthodoxy might simply have shrugged his shoulders and remarked, “Of course Mary is the All-Immaculate, Ever-Immaculate, Most Immaculate Sinless Mother of God the Word Incarnate. We acclaim her holiness in every Divine Liturgy. Scholastic formulations are unnecessary and quite beside the point.” Mark quotes a troparia composed by St John Damascene:

O divine, bridal nymph,
a bush unburnt by fire on the mountain
and a dewy-aired Chaldean furnace forescribes you clearly;
for you have received the divine consuming fire
in your material belly unburnt!

(14 September 2015; rev.)


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