THE CHURCHES OF EAST AND WEST generally commemorate the saints on the day of their death, their “heavenly birthday,” as some describe it. In addition the Church remembers three conceptions: those of Christ (the Annunciation, March 25), of His Mother (December 9), and of St John the Forerunner (September 23). We celebrate these days as festivals recognizing that each was sanctified even before their birth in view of the tremendous role they played in salvation history: Christ by virtue of His divine nature and Mary and John by the grace of God given them.
In the Byzantine calendar, as in that of the West, Christ’s conception is celebrated exactly nine months before the festival of His birth. With the Theotokos and the Forerunner the nine months are not exact. Mary’s conception is remembered on December 9 and her nativity on September 8. St John’s conception is remembered on September 23 and his birth of June 24. This is a way of saying that the three conceptions were not identical: Christ’s was unique.
The Story of Mary’s Conception
The conceptions of Christ and the Forerunner are recorded in chapter 1 of the Gospel of Luke. The story of Mary’s conception is not found in the canonical Scriptures but in the mid-second century Protoevangelium (or Pre-Gospel) of St James. This text tells that, for many years, Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, were childless and the couple suffered much reproach as a result. When they were in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice to God, the High Priest, Issachar, upbraided Joachim: “You are not worthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands.” Both spouses gave themselves to fervent prayer, and the Archangel Gabriel announced to each of them separately that they would be the parents of a daughter who would bring blessings to the whole human race. The icon of the feast shows Saints Joachim and Anne embracing, after each had run to share the news of their daughter-to-be. The icon also very prominently displays a bed to indicate that this conception took place by the usual physical means, unlike the conception of Christ.
The first record of this feast being celebrated is from fifth-century Palestine. It spread to southern Italy during the eighth century and from there to England, France, Germany, and eventually Rome. In the East this feast has always been called “the Conception (or Maternity) of St. Anne,” stressing Anne’s conceiving of the Theotokos, just as the conception of Christ is revered as “the Annunciation to the Theotokos.” In the West the feast came to be called “the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary” and later “the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
The Unique Holiness of Mary
All the Churches of East and West have always believed that the Virgin Mary was, from her conception, filled with every grace of the Holy Spirit in view of her calling as the Mother of Christ our God. This belief is even professed in Islam. Muslim lore records a hadith or tradition, which states that the only children born without the “touch of Satan” were Mary and Jesus, for God imposed “a veil” between them and Satan.
In the Middle Ages increasing devotion to the Mother of God in the West saw the rise of opinions on the holiness of Mary. Some came to believe that she was even conceived without human intercourse, as Christ was. Finally, in the 17th century, Pope Benedict XIV formally condemned this opinion. While it was generally believed that the Theotokos was filled with divine grace from her conception, there was no general understanding on how this happened. The Eastern Church calls Mary achrantos (spotless or immaculate), but has never defined exactly what this meant.
Following St. Augustine’s thought on original sin, the Western Church gradually came to accept the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.”
The Orthodox Churches rejected the dogmatic nature of this teaching pronounced by the pope as an act of piety on his own authority. Many also objected to it because it defines Mary’s holiness in terms of a certain understanding of original sin. What does “all stain of original sin” mean? Was the Mother of God exempted from the consequences of the ancestral sin (death, corruption, the effects of sin)? Some Western Catholics still believe that Mary did not (in fact, could not) die, but this has never been taught by their Church.
The “stain of original sin” was described by the sixteenth-century Council of Trent as “the privation of righteousness that each child contracts at its conception.” There is no such understanding in Eastern theology, and so to say that Mary was free of it has little meaning in the East. Perhaps this is why many Eastern Catholics, when they hear of “the Immaculate Conception” assume that it refers to the conception of Christ.
East and West agree that the Theotokos was fully human like the rest of us: what Fr Thomas Hopko calls “mere human,” unlike her Son who is a “real human” but not a mere human because He is the Word of God incarnate. In his book The Winter Pascha Hopko writes, “We are all born mortal and tending toward sin. But we are not born guilty of any personal sin, certainly not one allegedly committed ‘in Adam.’ Nor are we born stained because of the manner in which we are conceived by the sexual union of our parents.”
The Byzantine Churches celebrate the fact of Mary’s conception on December 9, but commemorate her holiness on another feast: that of her Entrance into the Temple (November 21) In the kondakion for that feast we sing “The most pure Temple of our holy Savior, and the most precious and bright bridal chamber, the Virgin, sacred treasury of the glory of God, openly appears today in the Temple of the Lord, bringing with her the grace of the Most Holy Spirit. Wherefore, the angels of God are singing: This is the heavenly Tabernacle!” She did not become holy in the temple – she brought the grace of God with her. When and how did she acquire it? Human reasoning does not help us there. Nevertheless, we ceaselessly proclaim her as our “all-holy, immaculate, most highly blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever- virgin Mary.”
Veneration of the Theotokos
The historic Churches, Eastern and Western, reverence the Theotokos as blessed and ever-virgin and ask her to intercede with God for us. Most Protestants do not, in the view that there is no warrant in the Bible for such activity. Reverence for the Virgin Mary arose in the early Church in view of its growing belief that her Son, the Lord Jesus, is truly God and Man. By the second century thinkers like St Justin the Philosopher were describing Mary as the “new Eve,” in much the same way that St Paul spoke of Christ as the new Adam: “Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary conceived faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her” (Dialogue with Trypho, 100). As Eve took part in Adam’s sin, Mary was seen as somehow taking part in Christ’s reversal of Adam’s fall.