We’re celebrating a beautiful and rich feast today, but one that, alas, is also somewhat controversial. The mystery of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God is rejected by most Protestants, though it’s not my purpose to get into apologetics here (but if you want to, check this out). The title “Immaculate Conception,” and some of the underlying reasons for the use of that title, are unacceptable to many Orthodox as well, and we’ll take a brief look at that issue in a moment. The best thing to do, as far as I’m concerned, is to simply celebrate with love the all-holy Mother of God in this mystery of her conception in the womb of St Anne.
It is appropriate that this feast occurs during Advent, for it is part of the preparation for the coming of the Savior. This is really the very beginning in a concrete way—that is, not merely of prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, but the beginning of their actual fulfillment. For “she who is to give birth,” as the prophet Micah refers to her, has just been conceived. There’s no turning back now, if we can speak like that, of the plan of God for the incarnation of his Son, because his mother has just been created.
The Church’s reflection on this mystery, though formulated in different ways at different times and places, has always found something unique in Mary, the one chosen to be the Mother of the Son of God, the one who would be called “blessed among women,” “full of grace,” the one upon whom the Holy Spirit would come, overshadowing her with the power of the Most High God. In our liturgy we repeatedly affirm that she is ever-blessed and completely sinless. Perhaps the best way to sum up this mystery is to simply call her, as Eastern Christians often do, the Panaghia, the all-holy woman.
If we all believe she is the Panaghia, why would some Eastern Christians object to the title “Immaculate Conception”? It’s a complicated issue, but to generalize it we can say that it has to do with how original sin is understood. For to say Mary was immaculately conceived is to say she was conceived without original sin. It is difficult to get a clear consensus from the Fathers of the Church, because at that time there was no specifically eastern or western approach to this mystery, mainly because the issue of Our Lady’s conception rarely came up, and if it did it was in the context of some other issue or treatise.
The Orthodox tradition was clarified in a rather polemical way after the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Basically, the difference is this: the western tradition views original sin as sin—not actual, personal sin, yet sin that nonetheless imputes a form of guilt to the newly conceived. We must be cleansed of this inherited guilt through baptism. Our Lady, unlike the rest of us, was conceived without this inherited guilt, through the foreseen grace of the death and resurrection of Christ, for the purpose of creating a completely pure “vessel” for the incarnation of the divine Savior.
The eastern fathers generally viewed original sin not so much as inherited guilt, but the inheritance of a sin-inclined, mortal, and corruptible human nature. They didn’t stress the guilt, the “stain” of sin of which the Immaculate One (im-macula, without stain or blemish) was preserved from. Since she was conceived in the usual way (though in an extraordinary manner from a barren and aged couple), she was considered to be a child of Adam and Eve like the rest of us, though uniquely chosen and sanctified by God for the mission of her giving birth to the Savior (there’s at least as much emphasis in this feast on the joy of her parents as on Mary’s own holiness, so it’s not primarily about her “privileges”).
The point is, from this perspective, if there is not a “stain” of guilt to inherit in the first place, why call her the one without stain of original sin? It’s a logical question, given the accepted premise. But perhaps it does not do justice to the uniqueness of the person of Mary and God’s intervention on her behalf.
If the Eastern Churches call her holy and all-pure and “spotless” (identical in meaning to “immaculate,” but the word is studiously avoided), for the feast of her Entrance into the Temple (when she was but three years old), and if in the same feast it is said, “Before your conception, O pure Virgin, you were consecrated to God…” must we not see here some special divine intervention that makes her more than a mere child of Adam, even if the most highly favored? Even if there is a difference of theological opinion concerning the precise nature and meaning of original sin, can we not still agree that Mary is unique among all people as the all-holy and divinely-chosen dwelling place of the Son of God, and that no sin, in whatever form, ever marred her perfect holiness?
Our Lady has been called, in the tradition of both East and West, the New Eve, for her Yes to God cancelled Eve’s primordial No. But since the first Eve was originally created without sin, must we conclude that the New Eve bore the legacy of the fallen Eve? Or was she rather, as the personal “locus” of God’s unprecedented intervention in human history—the Incarnation of the Son—a new creature, the first-fruit of the Redemption, where the Son of Most High was wholly pleased to dwell? The Eastern fathers have affirmed that she gave birth without pain, which means that she alone was free from the curse laid upon Eve and her descendants. This unique birthgiving also testifies to Mary's perpetual virginity. The fathers say that at his birth, Christ passed through her virginal womb as light passes through glass, without breaking it.
The term “Immaculate Conception” may be unacceptable to some Easterners (perhaps, after years of polemics, as much emotionally as theologically so). But if, on the other hand, the usual name for this feast in the East—the Conception of St Anne—seems inadequate to the greatness of this mystery, perhaps we all ought to rename it the feast of the Conception of the Panaghia, the all-holy woman, and leave it at that. It preserves the meaning without tying it to one particular formulation of it. This mystery, like all divine mysteries, is far too profound to be adequately described in human formulations anyway, so once we have a basic understanding of the essentials—what is necessary for true faith unto salvation—perhaps we could decide to forego all bitter polemics and the invocation of our favorite fathers to defend our point of view. Is it argument that is supposed to result from this divine gift or rather celebration?
Let us, then, celebrate the all-holy Mother of God in the mystery of her conception in the womb of St Anne for our salvation! We celebrate her, not primarily because of the wonders the Almighty has worked in her—though this is cause enough for rejoicing—but especially because, as we sing in the proper hymn for her nativity: “from you rose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God, who cancelled the curse and replaced it with his blessing, confounding death and giving us eternal life.”So, as we continue with this feast of the Conception of the Panaghia, let us conclude with a prayer that all the Apostolic Churches can agree upon, one that we pray often in our liturgies: "Remembering our all-holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God."