Melkite Greek Catholic Church
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.
AT EVERY DIVINE LITURGY as well as at Vespers and Matins (Orthros) the priest mentions in the dismissal “the holy ancestors of God Joachim and Anne.” They are Christ’s ancestors because they are the parents of the Theotokos: not just His ancestors but His only grandparents – the mother and father of the Theotokos. The Gospels make no mention of the Virgin’s mother and father, so where do we first hear about them? Their story is told in the second-century Protoevangelium of James, sometimes called the Birth of Mary, the Gospel of James or his Infancy Gospel. According to the text itself, this work was authored in Jerusalem by James, the Brother of the Lord (cf. Protoevangelium 25:1). Many commentators, however, beginning with Origen, have seen it as a later composition. A number of scholars today feel that the version we have was written around AD 120-145. Widely known in the early Church, the Protoevangelium of James is a kind of prequel to the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. It describes the birth of the holy Virgin, her perpetual virginity and her betrothal to Joseph, the father of James and his brothers, as well as offering some explanations of the annunciation, the birth of Christ and the massacre of the innocents not found in the canonical New Testament. Like the Gospel infancy narratives it contains midrashic devices designed to teach dogmatic truths through stories.

The Conception of Mary

The Protoevangelium begins by citing “the histories of the twelve tribes of Israel” (1:1) which tell about a certain Joachim who was reproached by another Jew for not having children. To this day Orthodox Jews are expected to have children in order to continue their lineage and also on the chance of giving birth to the Messiah. Joachim was troubled and fasted in the desert for forty days and nights, saying: “I will not go down either to eat or drink until the Lord my God visit me. Prayer shall be my food and drink” (1.2). Anne (in Hebrew Hannah or “grace”), lamenting her childlessness and seeming widowhood, isolated herself from her neighbors. Then “an angel of the Lord appeared, saying unto her: ‘Anne, Anne, the Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive and bear a child who shall be spoken of in the whole world’” (4:1). Joachim was also visited by an angel who sent him home with the news that Anne was going to conceive a child. When Joachim arrived Anne “ran and hung upon his neck, saying: ‘Now I know that the Lord God has greatly blessed me: for behold, I am no longer a widow or childless’” (4:4). This picture of Joachim and Anne embracing at the door of their house is the source of our icon for the feast of the Maternity of St Anne (December 9) as well as for many prayers of this feast, such as the following troparion: “Today the bonds of barrenness are loosed; God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anne. He has promised against all hope the birth of the Maiden of God from whom the Infinite Himself is to be born as a man – He who had ordered the angel to cry out to her: ‘Hail, Full of grace, the Lord is with you!’”

Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple

The Protoevangelium is also the source of the story that Mary was presented to God as a yound child. After describing the scene, the Protoevangelium continues: “And Mary was in the temple of the Lord like a dove that is being nurtured: and she received food from the hand of an angel” (8:1). This passage is the source of our Great Feast of her Entrance into the Temple (November 21). The image of the Virgin receiving food from an angel, often represented in our icon of the Feast, points to the spiritual environment in which Mary was raised and which would prepare the holy Virgin for her future role as Theotokos. Joachim and Anne do not figure in the remainder of the Protoevangelium which is concerned with the betrothal of the Virgin to Joseph when she was twelve years old, the annunciation, the birth of Christ and the flight into Egypt. These passages focus on the holiness of the Virgin and her unique status as the Mother of God. One such vignette describes Mary as weaving a curtain for the Jerusalem temple with several other girls. Icons of the annunciation often show the Holy Virgin weaving when the angel appeared to her. The temple veil was like a giant patchwork quilt with each girl assigned by lots to weave a portion, each using different colors. The Virgin was given the most precious colors, scarlet and true purple. Our iconography designates these colors to represent divinity. Christ wears a scarlet or purple tunic with a blue cloak over it. This symbolizes that His divinity (scarlet) put on His humanity (blue) in the incarnation. In icons of the Theotokos the colors are reversed. Her humanity (a blue tunic) took on divinity (a scarlet cloak) when she conceived the Lord.

The Feasts of St Anne

Our liturgical calendar includes three feasts of St. Anne. On December 9 we celebrate the Maternity of St Anne, recalling her conception of the Theotokos. On September 9 the day after Mary’s Nativity, we observe a synaxis (liturgical gathering) in honor of her parents. The second day of a Great Feast often celebrates those closely associated with the event remembered on the feast itself. On July 25 we recall the Dormition (or falling asleep) of St Anne. We sometimes associate the word Dormition with the Virgin Mary exclusively, but this is a misunderstanding. Most saint’s days are observed on the day of their death (dormition) because it is their “heavenly birthday,” the day on which they entered eternal life. The term dormition usually occurs in the title of the feast only when the saint has a number of commemorations during the year. The Feast of St. Anne’s Dormition dates from the fifth century when a shrine was built in her honor in Constantinople. The feast became popular in the West beginning in the thirteenth century. There it is kept on July 26, because the feast of St James the Apostle was already observed on the 25th.
From the Canon of St Anne’s Dormition
She who had been named for “grace” has passed on to that divine Joy conceived without seed by her spotless daughter. As she stands confidently by Christ, she intercedes for our salvation. Having lived a blameless life, you gave birth to the Virgin Theotokos who blamelessly conceived the Word of the Father; and you have gone to Him in glory, truly divinized by your communion with God. Shining with the radiant light of your divine virtues, you have departed today to the eternal Light of life. Thus, as is right, we call you blessed. The mother of the Mother of God, the barren one who became the grandmother of Christ, is stripped of life as she was once stripped of sterility; and she cries aloud in the land of the living, “O works of the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever.”

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