On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX declared a dogma in the Roman Catholic Church called the Immaculate Conception. Every year since the memory of this dogma, a feast day has been celebrated in honor of its enactment. It is very much a major feast day for Catholics and a significant event that many churches and schools are named Immaculate Conception. Yet, what does this dogma declare?
It states: We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
Basically, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is built on the Latin Church's theology of the Original Sin. Among the several Latin Fathers who discussed this topic, St Augustine of Hippo claimed that humankind inherits the guilt of the Original Sin. This was his argument and for the Latin Church for infant baptism. Infants should be baptized as early as possible in order to wash away the guilt of the Original Sin.
However, the Orthodox Church has a different position. Saint John Chrysostom argued that the purpose of baptism was not to wash away the Original Sin but rather to be joined to Christ. Our baptism is our first death where we die to sin and rise with Christ.
When the priest holds up an infant at baptism, just before immersion, it signifies Christ on the Cross. The immersion into the water signifies His descent into Hades and His three days in the tomb. When the priest raises the infant from the font it signifies His Resurrection.
Orthodoxy teaches that humankind does not inherit the guilt of Original Sin but rather the consequence of it which is death. We inherit our fallen nature and sin because we are mortal. Again, this is a consequence of the Original Sin committed by our ancestors, Adam and Eve.
The differences in theology are based on the interpretation of Romans 5:12. The Vulgate used by the Roman Catholic Church translates into English from Latin as: Wherefore, even as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.
On the other hand, the Greek text translated into English, correctly states: Therefore, even as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and thus death passed to all men, on account of which all have sinned.
“On account of which” is referring to death. Thus, it is because of death why mankind sins. “In whom” in the former translation implicates that somehow all have sinned in Adam- i.e. they inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin.
So the dogma of the Immaculate Conception stems from the Latin Church’s doctrine of Original Sin. The same applies to the dogma of the Assumption, made on November 1, 1950 by Pope Pius XII which stated: By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
This dogma left uncertainty as to whether or not the Virgin Mary actually had a physical death or if Her body and soul were assumed into heaven. The Orthodox Church celebrates the Dormition of the Theotokos which is the belief that She died a physical death but that when the Apostles opened her tomb on the third day, it was empty. Thus, her body ascended into Heaven. If Mary was preserved free from the Original Sin, thus exempt from it then she would not be subject to the consequence of it which is death. This would explain the notion that in body and soul she was assumed into heaven. The Orthodox Church does not support such belief, rather that she died a physical death just like all mankind but because Her body was sacred, She ascended into Heaven.
There are other concerns about the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. If Mary was free from the Original Sin, thus purified from Her birth so that She might give birth to Jesus, then it would be necessary that Her parents be pure of the Original Sin and then their parents and so on. If this was true, then what is the reason for the Incarnation of Christ?
If all the ancestors had to be purified then Christ would not need to take on flesh and live among us. Is there need for redemption among the righteous? Obviously this dogma is not accurate. Certainly with Adam and Eve, they were not pure because their sin was the Original Sin. Thus, Christ took on flesh and lived among us in order to annihilate sin and to save us.
Furthermore, if Mary from the womb of Her mother was preserved by God’s Grace from every impurity and by that grace was preserved from sin even after Her birth, then why is she More Honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim? If She, without any effort and without having any temptations remained pure, then why is She crowned more than everyone else? There is no victory without trial and tribulation.
The Theotokos was just as much human and subject to the temptation of sin as any one of us. However, she did not commit any personal sins. It was due to Her purity and righteousness that She was deemed worthy by God to be the Theotokos, H Κεχαριτωμένη. There are Roman Catholic Saints such as Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clarivaux that rejected the teaching of the Immaculate Conception. So certainly there is division even within the Latin Church with this dogma.
Although the Orthodox Church does not uphold the dogma of the Immaculate Conception , It still celebrates the Conception of the Theotokos and Her mother, Saint Anna. What is miraculous about Her conception was that Joachim and Anna were old in age and childless for many years. Being childless was considered a curse or a punishment from God in Semitic culture. Yet, although Anna was barren, because of the fervent prayer of both Joachim and Anna and their promise to devote their child to God. Joachim and Anna found favor before the Lord who opened the womb of Anna and so she gave birth to Mary. As we hear in the Apolytikion of the Feast:
Today the bonds of childlessness are broken. For hearing the prayers of Joachim and Anne, God promised that against all hope they would give birth to the Maiden of God. He, the Uncircumsribed, would be born of her, when He would become man, and by the Angel’s example, He commands us to call to her: “Rejoice, Maiden full of the grace, the Lord is with you.”
It also says in one of the stichera from the Vespers of the Feast: He who made waters gush forth from the rock, permitted your womb to carry the ever Virgin Mary through whom our salvation will come.
In the Oikos of the Matins of the Feast we hear: He who kept your promise and by Your authority gave Sarah a son, the great Isaac, though she was very old; You, Almighty God, who opened the barren womb of Hannah, the mother of Your Prophet Samuel; look now on me and accept my prayers and answer my petitions.” Thus did the temperate and barren Anna say as she wept, and she was heard by the Benefactor. Therefore with joy she conceived the Virgin who bore the divine Logos, in ways passing speech and thought…
Intercede for us all, O Mother of the Theotokos, Saint Anna!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get a weekly reflection every Saturday!
BONUS: Y2AM has released a brand new ministry training course. And check out our "Be the Bee" episode on the Theotokos: