Mary Prokathartheisa

In his monograph Immaculate Conception, Fr Christiaan Kappes advances a controversial thesis: invoking prokathartheisa (prepurified) as a title for the Theotokos, “the Greek Fathers—in the line of the Nazianzen until the introduction of Byzantine Thomism in the 14th century—never vacillated about the all-immaculate status of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her existence until her glorious assumption into heaven” (pp. 196-197).

Now I confess I had never heard of Mary’s prepurification. When I read through the Festal Orations of St Gregory the Theologian a couple of years ago, I passed right over the references to her prepurification:

And in every way He became a man, save sin; for He has been conceived from a virgin, after she had been prepurified (prokathartheisa) with respect to soul and body through the Holy Spirit (for it was necessary that His birth be honored, and virginity be honored prior to that); and every way He was born a man, save sin. (Or. 38.13; trans. Kappes)

Here is the passage as translated by Sr Nonna Harrison. I’ll start two lines earlier:

He approaches his own image and bears flesh because of my flesh and mingles himself with a rational soul because of my soul, purifying like by like. And in all things he becomes a human being, except sin. He was conceived by the Virgin, who was purified beforehand in both soul and flesh by the Spirit, for it was necessary that procreation be honored and that virginity be honored more. (p. 71)

Kappes notes that when Rufinus translated the Nativity oration into Latin in the late 4th century, he rendered the Greek word prokathartheisa by the Latin word immaculata.

To what event or process does this prepurification by the Spirit refer? Gregory does not specify, as Kappes acknowledges. My immediate thought is that Gregory must be referring to the events of Mary’s childhood, as described in the 2nd century document the Protoevangelium of James—or as Frederica Mathewes-Green names it, the Gospel of Mary. Was not Mary miraculously conceived in the barren womb of Anna in response to prayer? Was she not blessed by the priests when she was one-year old and taken to the Temple when she was three, where God poured grace upon her as she danced in his presence? And did she not dwell in the Temple for nine years and receive food from the hand of an angel? When one reads the “Gospel of Mary,” one cannot but be impressed by the young maiden’s purity and holiness of spirit. It thus seems reasonable to understand the totality of her pre-Annunciation existence as a sanctifying preparation for her virginal conception of Jesus. Jeremiah and John the Baptist both received the prophetic Spirit while in the womb. Is not the Theotokos greater than they? Such, I think, is the logic driving Kappes’s analysis.

Gregory also speaks of the Blessed Virgin’s prepurification in one of his dogmatic poems:

Nor was a moral man fashioned by the flow of a mortal seed: yet, thus, He’s from flesh.
That non-bride faithful Mother, the Spirit purified prior,
As man, a confined mortal, He came: but He was purified.
(Carmina IX; trans. Kappes)

Here is Peter Gilbert’s translation (On God and Man). Again I include some extra lines:

Emptying himself of his glory as the immortal God the Father’s motherless Son,
he appeared for me himself, without a father, a strange son;
yet no stranger, since from my own kind came this immortal, being made
man by a virgin mother, so that the whole of him might save the whole of me.
For it was, again, the total Adam who fell, through that illicit taste.
Therefore, humanly, and not after human custom,
in the hallowed womb of a maid inviolate he took flesh. …

Neither by man’s seed did he become man, but it was from that flesh
which the Spirit had hallowed before hand, of an unwedded, cherished mother
that he came, a self-made man: and he was purified for my sake.
(pp. 68-69)

But an objection immediately arises: Does not purification suggest purification from something, specifically, from ritual pollution or moral fault? But Fr Kappes has a ready reply. Consider how Gregory speaks of the baptism of Christ:

So then, a little later, you will see too Jesus purified (in place of my purification) in the Jordan; but better, He was making holy the waters by purification (for indeed He was in no need of purification, since He is the one taking away the sin of the world). (Or. 38.16; trans. Kappes)

So shortly you will also see the purification of Jesus in the Jordan for my purification; or rather he is cleansed for the purification of the waters, for he indeed did not need purification, who takes away the sin of the world. (Or. 38.16; trans. Harrison)

Jesus, too, undergoes a purification, though Gregory immediately goes on to qualify this statement. The incarnate Son does not, of course, need purification and cleansing; but he submits to the purification of John vicariously on our behalf. If he who was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary can undergo purification in the Jordan and be baptized in the Spirit, thus demon­strating that “purifi­ca­tion” need not be understood as a cleansing from pollution or sin, perhaps the same extended meaning might be applied to Mary. “We find ourselves constrained,” argues Kappes, “… to admit that only the following meanings of ‘purification’ are possible in the overall context” (p. 26):

a.) It is an exterior sign pointing to an outpouring of a grace on a person

b.) It is an event which bespeaks a “special preparation” for personal merit

But I do not yet feel constrained. I will not say that Fr Kappes’s proposal is exegetically implausible; but it needs to be tested against the Nazianzen’s understanding of Incarnation and atonement. Is it compatible, for example, with the famous Gregorian maxim “What has not been assumed has not been healed” (Ep. 101)?  Some scholars, notably Thomas F. Torrance, argue that in the Incarnation the eternal Son assumed fallen human nature.  Torrance cites the following passage from St Gregory of Nyssa:

Although Christ took our filth upon himself, nevertheless he is not himself defiled by the pollution, but in his own self he cleanses the filth, for it says, the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not overpower it. (Adv. Apol. 26; quoted in The Trinitarian Faith, p. 162)

God the Word saves and deifies us, asserts Torrance, by penetrating to the depths of the human condition, uniting our disordered human nature to himself  and thus healing it within himself.  He believes this is the teaching of St Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers. Is Torrance right, and if so, how does it harmonize with the sanctification of human nature in the person of the Virgin Mary?

In his book Mary and the Fathers of the Church, Fr Luigi Gambero comments on the text from Oration 38 cited above: “From this doctrine of Mary’s purification before the conception of Christ emerges an intuition of that truth which, in 1854, the Church would define as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception” (p. 163). But it is a long road from 4th century Cappadocia to 19th century Rome.

(Go to “The Immaculate Burning Bush”)

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12 Responses to Mary Prokathartheisa

  1. A wise old Dominican theologian once told me that the purification of the Blessed Virgin was like the purification of the vessels after Holy Communion, namely, a kind of return to normalcy after touching the Divine. This might be a helpful way to understand purification FOR rather than purification FROM.


  2. I don’t see how Christ could not have assumed a fallen human nature. Scripture tells us that he was tired, that he was ignorant of certain things, that he sorrowed, that he wept, “that he learned obedience through what he suffered, and being made perfect…” (Heb 5:8-9). Human nature was not perfected in Christ until the Resurrection. For an immensely helpful book in seeing this, F.X. Durrwell, The Resurrection: A Biblical Study.


  3. Maximus says:

    If one holds to the Immaculate Conception, then how could Christ be fallen? That would leave us with the Virgin free from ancestral sin and Christ liable to it, bearing its weight and under its necessity. Christ willingly took on thirst, fatigue, fear, etc for our sakes. We suffer these things because we must, He suffered them freely and in a lordly manner. In the Exact Exposition Bk. 3.20, St. John Damascene says it explicitly:

    “Of a truth our natural passions were in harmony with nature and above nature in Christ. For they were stirred in Him after a natural manner when He permitted the flesh to suffer what was proper to it: but they were above nature because that which was natural did not in the Lord assume command over the will. For no compulsion is contemplated in Him but all is voluntary. For it was with His will that He hungered and thirsted and feared and died.”

    Fr. Georges Florovsky explains further:

    As St. John Damascene says, in the Incarnation “three things were accomplished at once: the assumption, the existence, and the deification of humanity by the Word.” It must be stressed that in the Incarnation the Word assumes the original human nature, innocent and free from original sin, without any stain. This does not violate the fullness of nature, nor does this affect the Savior’s likeness to us sinful people. For sin does not belong to human nature, but is a parasitic and abnormal growth. This point was vigorously stressed by St. Gregory of Nyssa and particularly by St. Maximus the Confessor in connection with their teaching of the will as the seat of sin. In the Incarnation the Word assumes the first-formed human nature, created “in the image of God,” and thereby the image of God is again re-established in man. This was not yet the assumption of human suffering or of suffering humanity. It was an assumption of human life, but not yet of human death. Christ’s freedom from original sin constitutes also His freedom from death, which is the “wages of sin.” Christ is unstained from corruption and mortality right from His birth. And like the First Adam before the Fall, He is able not to die at all, potens non mori, though obviously He can still die, potens autem mori. He was exempt from the necessity of death, because His humanity was pure and innocent. Therefore Christ’s death was and could not but be voluntary, not by the necessity of fallen nature, but by free choice and acceptance.

    A distinction must be made between the assumption of human nature and the taking up of sin by Christ. Christ is “the Lamb of God that taketh the sin of the world” (John I:29). But He does not take the sin of the world in the Incarnation. That is an act of the will, not a necessity of nature. The Savior bears the sin of the world (rather than assumes it) by the free choice of love. He bears it in such a way that it does not become His own sin, or violate the purity of His nature and will. He carries it freely; hence this “taking up” of sin has a redeeming power, as a free act of compassion and love.


  4. Natures don’t exist; rather, a nature exists insofar as there subsists an individual instance of a nature. The Word assumes a human nature in the concrete Person of Jesus of Nazareth; he is not drawing from the ether some nature floating around somewhere. By uniting himself with human nature by the Incarnation, a single instance of human-ness is thereby made intrinsically immaculate, incapable of sin, etc., by the simple fact that we cannot predicate moral privation of God. To say Jesus assumed a fallen nature is precisely to say that the Incarnation elevates human nature to the divine, makes a man exist with the Divine Being itself. Christ hungered, thirsted, suffered, and could die because he chose not to partake in the original gifts with which Adam was created. In Christ we have “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb 5:15). Of course he does all this by his free choice of love. He knows who he is; he understands the prophets to be foretelling of him; he knows that he is the Son of the Father and upon him rests the Spirit.

    Maximus above asks, how could Christ be fallen, if one holds to the immaculate conception. No one is saying that Christ is “fallen.” Fallen human nature, when hypostatically united to the Word, becomes divine! Christ is therefore not fallen, but now through him human nature learns obedience through suffering, is put to death, and is gloriously raised. Now, unfortunately, for Roman Catholics (at least) the dogma of the IC doesn’t answer any questions we might have. It only supposes that Mary was preserved immune from the stain of original culpa. It doesn’t define any of those terms!

    The only solution to Mary’s immaculate conception/prepurification/whatever in relation to happening before Christ’s Incarnation that I can think of is to consider the Eucharist. Christ offered himself as food and drink at the mystical supper BEFORE the resurrection. The Eucharist is, by definition, eschatological Bread (epiousios). Perhaps Mary, by being chosen by God as his own mother, is, from the very moment of her existence, drawn into the eschatological mystery so that her flesh might be transformed by the epiclesis of the Holy Spirit into the very immaculate flesh of Christ.


    • Maximus says:

      I agree with what you are attempting to say in this: “Christ hungered, thirsted, suffered, and could die because HE CHOSE not to partake in the original gifts with which Adam was created.” I love the importance you placed on His High-Priestly willingness, however, God Himself is the gift (grace) which Forefather Adam was endowed with. St. Macarius the Great says that righteousness “is the Lord Himself” and the “suprasensible light” that Adam was clothed with “is God” according to St. Gregory Palamas. As God Incarnate, Christ possesses these gifts always and the Transfiguration reveals that He hides His glory under the veil of holy life-giving flesh. He chose not to reveal the glory (Adamic gifts) in which He fully, essentially and eternally participates and He chose to partake of the blameless passions: hunger, thirst, fatigue, fear, etc.


      • Maximus, yeah, I don’t think we are actually disagreeing here. You see, I’m a recovering Thomist, having recently started to delve into Eastern theology; I’m still thinking in Latin terms. I’m trying to noodle through original sin, the Immaculate Conception, etc., and, while I’ve been a lurker here for a long time on Fr. Aidan’s blog, these recent discussions have gotten me to starting thinking out loud.

        I think what might be lacking in your presentation above is that Christ is not simply restoring human nature to what it was before the Fall. I think this is the sense of Rom 5:10. Personally, I believe in the absolute primacy of Christ, namely, the Word would have become incarnate regardless of the fall in order that he might give us the fullness of what Adam would have received had he been obedient. To think that Christ only restored to us what was lost (only) seems to eviscerate the Resurrection.


  5. Maximus says:

    I agree totally. Adam fell but Christ did not resurrect him to stand upon earth again, in Christ, Adam’s feet stand above the highest heavens.


  6. In thinking about this discussion, I’m wondering if it is possible to say that essentially what has taken place then, is a transition from the original “Creationism” – of the Soul / Spirit, [not to be confused with creationism as a belief about the origin of the material universe] in Adam, into a kind of post-Fall “Traducianism” generationally through and up until the Incarnation, which then re-establishes the “Creationism ideal” [Adamic soul State] in that “All” men are now saved through a sinless “Traducian life” lived [via Mary hypostatically] then necessarily ‘hypostasisically’ coexistent unto Resurrection and Universal Parousia (?)

    Even if “Taducianism” were true, one has to deal with mortal beings potentially making immortal souls in the interim between Adam and Christ.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dave, I hate to reveal my ignorance, but could you elaborate on your thoughts here. I don’t understand.


      • It will be a “Balmy day in The Antarctic” when you’re possibly ignorant of anything theological that I might put out there – Ha!

        But yes, my thoughts are kind of muddled here on this and after reading the discussion between Maximus and Alienus, I had some ideas that need some clarification.

        Basically Adam is given the “breath of life” – but not necessarily the Holy Spirit; he’s a being created without a sinful nature essentially living in a perfect world, viz. Eden. Some speculate however, that if he had had the Holy Spirit as part of his constitution in those perfect conditions and yet still sinned, then it demonstrates the fragility of creaturely freedom, which then stood in opposition to God’s will. Likewise, if he had the “breath of life” and not The Holy Spirit and still sinned (as one does), it then clearly demonstrates that even a “perfect man” without the Spirit to guide him, would in fact sin.

        If one holds to the “Creationism” – of the Soul / Spirit in which God creates a soul for each body that is generated, than that would be true for Mary as well as her parents, etc… “Theotokos” then wouldn’t deny her humanity, but rather reaffirm it, in that by giving birth to the ‘Godman’ – a beautiful hypostasis ontologically separate from all other beings, as The Creator to creation: she does not obviously supply the Divinity, since Mary is “in” Adam – 1 Cor 15:22. She contributed genetic matter, but not genetic “Sin” to the human form God took in Jesus. Her “Aeiparthenos” is more problematic for multiple reasons though – Galatians 1:19, Mark 6:3, etc… Her response – “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” does not indicate that she took a prior vow of perpetual virginity before the Annunciation.
        Possibly ?

        If in following “Taducianism” where the parents themselves impart the life & soul of the individual – thus “Original Sin”, then one would place all the emphasis on Jesus continually submitting his human sinful nature to the divine half within him [in perfect obedience] thus resulting in a kind of “Nestorian” bi-polarism (?)

        I’m absolutely not arguing for anything here other than some smoothing out!


        • elijahmaria says:

          The tempting of Eve, it seems to me and some others, is a clear message about the strength of the natural appetites that are a part of our created nature and therefore must, inherently, be good. It is not that Eve was inclined, at this point, toward sin. It is that her natural appetites were strong enough to be stirred into a passion that landed her in a heap of sorrow!! She trusted the old deluder instead of the Holy Spirit.


          • Thanks for the reply. I completely agree. In thinking about her temptation and the machinations of “The Fall” in general though, I’ve always considered the possibility (if taken literally…and you know that’s a big “IF”) that verse 6 in Genesis 3 potentially infers a bit more than just what’s there on the surface. So, I apologize for my imaginative eisegesis beforehand.

            Could it be that after Eve is naively somewhat a victim of subterfuge by the serpent, she then reaches up, plucks a fruit, takes a bite and at that moment literally nothing happens! She feels absolutely nothing different, neither physically, spiritually or otherwise initially. But….. she does then begin to immediately wonder “why” nothing has happened and what was all the fuss about staying away from ‘This Tree’? Could God have lied to them? Was He wrong? What’s going on? At that moment, Adam then appears, who was not very far off at the time but didn’t actually hear the conversation with the serpent. He approaches Eve, sees her standing there with the fruit in her hand with clearly a bite out of it and immediately discerns what has happened (or ‘thinks’ that he does) He sees the forbidden fruit, knows they’re under “The Tree”, obviously Eve has taken a bite but nothing has actually happened. He’s frightened at first, then perplexed. If it was hands off and not to be messed with (colloquially speaking) then why hasn’t anything occurred? He then questions God’s instructors in his mind and potentially thinks, “Why if this is not allowed, does everything seem to be alright?” He trusts his eyes and ears, sense of smell, etc.. and reasons to himself, “Well, either God lied to us or He just doesn’t know what He’s talking about?”

            He therefore intentionally rationalizes, “Well then, it must be safe” – He is not encouraged by Eve or verbally persuaded as some have speculated but rather, goes with his own instincts, trusts his own mind and dismisses God’s instruction – after all, Eve looks perfectly fine to him!

            Well, he then does take a bite – there’s a moment of perfect pause and stillness and then…… all Hell breaks loose – literally!

            In my imaginative spiel, however ignorant it might be, It has been understood that that they are biologically, as well as metaphysically ‘linked’ and it’s not until they “both” actually eat of it, that any apparent change takes shape in either of them or their world – second half of verse 6. Adam and Eve are in this together and are judged together. I think the serpent knew that he would not be able to persuade Adam to disobey God outright…. but that he could circuitously get to him, through Eve. I think Satan see’s Adam’s love and affection for Eve and is jealous and then is enraged to try and do something about it. His fallen cohort will obey him but they don’t love him and secretly hate him and he knows it.

            So in a direct way, by perfectly obeying the angel’s instructions and not entering into a physical relationship with her husband prior to conception via the Holy Ghost, Mary symbolically counteracts Eve’s transgression, just as Christ (symbolic of the second Adam) perfectly follows the will of the Father and defeats Sin and ultimately Death itself! The [metaphorical] fact that Eve physically came out of Adam and that Jesus physically in a sense comes out of Mary, is a profound reversal of our biological and spiritual conundrum.

            I’m definitely not trying to reinvent the wheel here and much of this is whimsical speculation on my part but I have to agree with you that “Natural appetites” as you’ve mentioned are powerful tools which can be put to the service of loving others with cruciform-like love or they can be as used as weapons against us in our own self-destruction by the enemy.

            I am aware of the controversy involving the Hebrew prepositional phrase עמה (pronounced immah) in verse 6 which means “with her” and that some translations leave this phrase out. Supposedly, Tertullian has been quoted as stating –

            “You are the one who opened the door to the Devil. You are the one who first plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree, you are the first who deserted the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, namely, man” (Cult. fem. 1.1) So, possibly much of this derived from 1 Timothy 2:13 -14 –

            “For it was Adam who was first 1created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.”

            Some theologians have put forward that the “The Christian canonization of such a misogynist interpretation has guaranteed its place in exegetical history.” Unfortunately, 1 Timothy has also been used by many others to assert that women are morally inferior and more gullible than men – which is not what I was suggesting just to be clear – Ha!



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