Mary Prokathartheisa: A Patristic Antecedent to the Immaculate Conception


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 Protoevangelium, 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)

fig-21_zpse78d01f8.jpg~original.jpegJesus, 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):

  • It is an exterior sign pointing to an outpouring of a grace on a person
  • It is an event which bespeaks a “special preparation” for personal merit

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 cited above from Oration 38: “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.

(10 December 2015; rev.)

(Go to “St Mark Eugenicus”)

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1 Response to Mary Prokathartheisa: A Patristic Antecedent to the Immaculate Conception

  1. Fr James Siemens says:

    I think Torrance is incidentally creating an artificial distinction between humanity’s fallen and “unfallen” nature. He seems to misunderstand “that which is not taken up is not healed”, as it clearing suggests there is nothing outside of human experience that is not comprehended by the Incarnate Logos. Consequently, when you ask, “Is Torrance right, and if so, how does it harmonize with the sanctification of human nature in the person of the Virgin Mary?”, I see no contradiction. The nature of the Virgin Mary, as a creature, is still assumed by Divinity like the rest of the human experience (see the ages of man and the orders of Christ). To be honest, there seems to be a significant hole in Torrance’s thought in this regard.

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