“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, a truth that Orthodoxy cannot abandon.
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 I 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 Mary 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.)