Ukrainian Orthodoxy Orthodoxie ukrainienne

 

The Immaculate Conception

Question: 

Hello.  I am a Greek Orthodox, yet growing up, I attended a Catholic school.  My parents taught me about the Greek Orthodox religion at home so that I would not drift away from my own church.  Today, I consider myself a devout Orthodox person; I am always longing to learn more about the life of Jesus, Mary and the saints. This "thirst" to learn more about our Lord has led me to discover some wonderful books on the lives of some Catholic saints, (Sr. Faustina of the Divine Mercy; Sr. Teresa, the Little Flower of Jesus; Padre Pio; the apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Lourdes, Medjugorie, Fatima,and more). 
 The reason I am telling you the above is because throughout my reading, I have come across a Catholic term for the Blessed Mother called The Immaculate Conception.  From what I understand, the Catholics believe that Mary was spared from original sin from the moment of her conception;  she was conceived without sin because God had chosen her amongst all people to give birth to his Son. 
The Orthodox, on the other hand do not have this term, The Immaculate Conception; we feel it is not necesary to appoint Her this term.  PLEASE explain why the Orthodox church does not have Mary as being immaculate upon her birth.  I feel that if God chose Mary, amongst all women, to be the vessel in carrying his son, then Mary must surely have been given more graces and favors from God.  It makes sense to me that She should be lifted by God and annointed with more blessings than any other woman, and therefore be immaculate (spared from original sin).  It seems to me that in this respect the Catholics show her more adoration than the Orthodox.
Your answer to this question would be very appreciated.  I love the Blessed Mother and am always reading all information I can regarding her life (I am presently reading the "The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos").

Answer: 

You raise a very important question and issue that often comes up in discussions between Orthodox and Catholics regarding the Most Holy Mother of God.

There are two sides to this matter, however. One is the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the other is the way in which it impacts the veneration of the Mother of God in the Church. The Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic dogma that was proclaimed in the nineteenth century by the Pope of Rome. It states that, from the moment of Her Conception in the womb of St. Anne, the Mother of God was preserved free of the "stain of Original Sin." The Orthodox Catholic Church of the East does not hold this doctrine.

This does not mean that the Orthodox East believes that the Mother of God, who was chosen by God to give Flesh to His Son and our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, was, at any time, somehow stained by sin. No, not at all!

The difference between the Roman and Orthodox Churches on the subject of the Immaculate Conception relates to their differences on the issue of Original Sin.

The Roman West, following Blessed Augustine of Hippo, came to the conclusion that original sin is the actual sin of Adam that is transmitted to all humanity. This means that when you and I were conceived, we had Adam's sin on our souls. The Orthodox Church of the East and of the West, North and South teaches that Adam's sin is not transmitted to us, but the CONSEQUENCES of that sin i.e. death and a morally weakened human nature etc. Also, how may other people share in a sin that I commit and am personally responsible for?

Until the pope decided the matter in the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic church was divided into two theological camps on the issue of original sin and the Mother of God. Thomas Aquinas and others were against the Immaculate Conception of our Lady which meant that Christ did not allow His Mother to be tainted with any sin, including the sin of Adam. Others were in favour of the Immaculate Conception, especially as set out by the Roman theologian John Duns Scotus Eriugena, and spread veneration to it. As we saw, the Immaculate Conception developed as a theological and devotional need in Roman Catholics who believed it to be inconceivable that the Mother of God could be said to ever have been in sin.

The same need did not exist in the Orthodox Church due to its different theology of Original Sin as we have seen. It is clear from the great liturgical heritage of the Orthodox Church that the Most Holy Mother of God has always been given the highest possible veneration owing to Her position in our salvation. In other words, unlike in the Roman Catholic church where the view that She had Adam's sin on Her Soul was allowed until recently, the Orthodox Church lauds Her as"Most Immaculate" and "Ever-Immaculate." 

The Nativity or Birth of our Lady is celebrated by the Orthodox Church which means that She was born full of the Holy Spirit and great Divine Grace as only feast days of Saints are allowed to be observed. Our tradition has also says that John the Baptist was filled with the Grace of the Holy Spirit while in the womb of his mother and so His Nativity is also celebrated. 

The Orthodox Church's devotion to the Most Holy Mother of God is second to none! The liturgical offices are of extreme beauty, the akathists, canons and prayers to our Lady are superb and magnificent. There are literally hundreds of Miraculous Icons of our Lady, as you know from your own Greek tradition: Tinos, Koukouzelissa, Portaitissa etc. each of which has its feasts and offices. The recitation of the Hail Mary on our prayer ropes is also a tradition in Orthodoxy as it is in the West.

You have come into contact with some western religious literature and I don't believe there is anything wrong with that. You should know that Our Lady of Lourdes has long been venerated by Russian Orthodox people in France, that there is an Orthodox Icon of Our Lady of Fatima and that the saints you mention are popular as private devotions in the homes of some Orthodox.

I think you should guard against any proselytistic tendencies that sometimes appear in that literature. For example, the Fatima devotion is used by Roman Catholics who believe Our Lady's prophecies about revivifying Christianity in Russia is about bringing the Orthodox to Rome.

As an Orthodox Christian, you can show the western people the high beauty and holiness of the Orthodox Church's rich devotional treasury of veneration for the Mother of God, summed up by that beautiful prayer in the Divine Liturgy following the Epiclesis: "Especially for the Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed, our Glorious Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary!" We need to grow and develop in our liturgical spirituality and prayer and deepening our devotion to our Lady in this way is an excellent way of doing this. The Orthodox Church prays more frequently to the Mother of God, with more beautiful and theologically sound devotions than in the West.

Even the current Pope of Rome, John Paul II is recommending to Roman Catholics the Akathist hymn and other Eastern liturgical prayers. Let's remember that the Pope's favourite Icon, Our Lady of Czestochowa, is a Ukrainian Icon in the Byzantine style taken to Poland by Vladislav Opolski from Western Ukraine. It is said to have been written by St. Luke himself. 

The Virgin and Child on it are black and many people wonder why this is so. The East has a wonderful theology of Our Lady being the "Mother of Light" as we find in the Matins service. To show this iconographically, some Icons of the Mother of God present Her with dark skin. When we place an object in front of the sun, it becomes black and this is the artistic reasoning behind this style honouring the "Mother of Light." So, you see what a highly mystical theology of the Mother of God the Orthodox Church has. May She keep you under Her Protective Mantle always!

Dr. Alexander Roman alex@unicorne.org