Author's Note: Originally the following article was to be placed in the Marian Doctrine INDEX. However, after careful consideration, it is best placed in the Ecumenism and Eastern Othodoxy INDEX, since the main import of the article addresses and answers Eastern Orthodoxy's objections and dissent to the Catholic Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Catholics, can also learn from reading and reflecting on this important issue.
Writing in 1986 Prof. George S. Bebis, professor of patristics at the Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, expressed the basic doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox communion concerning the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Christian economy of salvation:
"There is no doubt that the Orthodox Church holds the Virgin Mary in a position of the highest honor. But this is done always in association with Christology. In other words, the Theotókos cannot exist and cannot be venerated out of context from the doctrine of the Incarnation. Also, it should be added that the Orthodox Church accepts the personal holiness of the Virgin Mary and places Her in the highest place after the All-Holy Trinity. The Virgin Mary has an eschatological message for us because She already lives in the eschaton; She enjoys the delightful fruits of the heavenly church of which we should become members through Her intercession. She is not a goddess – this would have been a blasphemy – but through Her active and voluntary participation in the divine plan of salvation, She is our loving mother and intercedes for all of us. This is why the monks of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is called the "Garden of the Theotókos"), while praying the Jesus Prayer, also pray wholeheartedly to the All-Holy Mother of God for the salvation of their souls. Orthodox theologians today, following the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, speak about the great mystery of the Incarnation and the great mystery of the Virgin Mary because beyond and above the beautiful, poetic language of ecclesiastical hymns, and aside from the splendid rhetorical schemes of the homilies, the mystery of the Incarnation has been experienced only by the Virgin Mary Herself. It is because of this great mystery, incomprehensible to the human mind, Orthodox theology stands with awe before the icon of the Virgin Mary. All of us should pray that we may become imitators of Her purity, humility, obedience, and Her love for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, from Whom alone our regeneration, resurrection and deification springs forth and becomes indeed a blessed reality." (1)
This was the belief in which I was raised in a Greek Orthodox family and accepted as reflecting the tradition of the Fathers and Councils of the ancient Church. This belief I considered identical with the doctrine of the Catholic Church concerning the Mother of God who is greeted 16 times in the beautiful Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and five times as the "All-Holy, Immaculate, most highly blessed, our glorious Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary" – her greatest titles. In reading and studying Catholic literature before my own conversion to Catholic Unity in 1952, I found the exposition of Marian doctrine in such writers as the Abbe Anger to be in total conformity and harmony with what I already believed concerning the "All-Holy Mother of God." I was not in agreement with Dr. Bebis' further statement that "The Church is careful to note that the Mother of God was subject to the original sin, and had an inclination towards sin; however, at the Annunciation she was completely purified and cleansed" (2). It was unthinkable to me that the "Second Eve" and "New Creation" shaped by God Himself to give the Son of God a human nature would Herself ever have the least trace of sin or be soiled by the original stain. To my mind, as a young University student, the Abbe Anger in his classic and magnificent work on the "Mystical Body of Christ" (originally written in 1910) had summarized beautifully the relationship between Christ and His Mother. I could not agree more with the Abbe Anger's observing that:
Christ the Son of God became man that, by His life, passion and death, He might merit, in the strictest, most rigorous sense of the word, in Himself every heavenly good; so that it may be said that in justice He put God in His debt. Mary, the Mother of Christ, His associate, the new Eve, the co-Redemptrix, merited all these same goods by a merit of fitness, which fitness was due to the divine kindness and generosity... All cooperation on the part of Mary draws its value from the work of Jesus Christ. Mary, co-Redemptrix with regard to all others of humankind, is Herself the first of the redeemed by the Redeemer, Her Son. She is the greatest triumph of the Redemption. But Christ, Who alone can be the one Redeemer, the one Mediator, the one Priest, has willed that Mary be, with Himself, Redemptrix, Mediatrix, and Victim. Christ Jesus has joined Mary with Himself in all His work. He has united Her with Himself in the common work of reparation and of sanctification. Working in Her own sphere, secondary, dependent and requiring the work of Christ, as a true cause, secondary, subordinate, derived from Christ, Mary gives of Her own in this labor common unto both Christ Jesus and Herself. Christ Jesus has willed that She give a true additional, though accidental, value to the Redemption... Mary is this predestined mediatrix without equal. She has fulfilled... and will ever fulfill with unique perfection, that office. Alone, and to the exclusion of all the other saints, She co-operated in the Redemption: in the winning of graces unto salvation. This unique co-operation assures Her a unique co-labor also in the distribution of divine favors (3).
Thus, before my own reconciliation with the Catholic Church, it seemed to me eminently clear and true that:
- the Theotókos had been immaculately conceived,
- that She was the All-Holy and Immaculate Mother of the Lord to be venerated as Mediatrix and Intercessor for the Christian people,
- and indeed entitled to be heralded as Co-redemptress of the human race.
Such doctrinal teaching concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary seemed to me to be in conformity with the testimony of the Scriptures, the general sentiment of the Fathers of the Church, and the witness of the Byzantine Liturgy and Services – all of which were full of the most devout piety towards the Mother of God as especially predestined by and consecrated to the Holy Trinity from the beginning of Her personal existence.
I was aware of the reservations expressed by various theologians and prelates and the polemical contestation engaged in by some Eastern Orthodox against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as defined by Blessed Pius IX in 1854 but such criticisms appeared to me only to severely detract from the praise and honor due the Mother of God as expressed in the Liturgy of the Byzantine Church and in the popular piety of the Greek people towards the "Panaghia" who (to my mind) was surely always "full of grace" – and this from the beginning of Her existence. The theory of some Eastern Orthodox writers that the Theotókos had been cleansed from original sin at Her birth or at the Annunciation was not satisfactory. It was NOT credible that the All-Holy Mother of God could have been even for an instant under the power of the devil, if at the beginning of Her existence in this world Her soul had been soiled with the stain of original sin. Nor were criticisms that Her Immaculate Conception exempted the Mother of God from being human any more convincing:
- Had She not been absolutely sinless and without moral defect in Her life (by the grace of God)?
- If Our Blessed Lady's being free from actual sin (which Eastern Orthodox generally believe) did not "make Her an exception to the human race" and destroyed Her "essential solidarity with the rest of mankind," why would Her Immaculate Conception have done so?
- Was She not the "Second Eve" and the highest of the Trinity's creatures? And did not the "first Eve" come into existence without the "ancestral sin"?
- Would the Blessed Virgin ("the Second Eve" lauded by the Fathers of the Church) have come into the world conceived in sin, and thus inferior in sanctity to the "first Eve"?
The 1895 encyclical of the Patriarch Anthimus of Constantinople and his Synod of 12 bishops which replied to the overture of Pope Leo XIII for the Reunion of the Churches, stating (among other offensive comments) that the Immaculate Conception was a "novel dogma... unknown to the ancient Church" struck me as inexact and excessive, ignoring some positive testimonies among the Fathers as well as medieval Byzantine theologians supporting the doctrine, and denying a legitimate doctrinal development taking place in the patristic and medieval Church. It was distressing to see that the Patriarch and his bishops had even misunderstood the meaning of the dogma, thinking that it meant the virginal conception of Mary! Then, too, there was the example of the great Russian Saint Dimitri of Rostov and other Greeks and Russians in the 17th and 18th centuries who had expressed explicit belief in the Immaculate Conception. Consequently, belief in the doctrine could not be summarily dismissed as an unheard-of "innovation." These were some of the considerations, as a Greek Orthodox, which had prompted my own personal adherence to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
The present doctrinal position of the Eastern Orthodox churches concerning the Immaculate Conception has been fairly presented by Bishop Kallistos Ware who belongs to the patriarchate of Constantinople. He reveals that the Eastern Orthodox are, in fact, seriously divided concerning the truth of the doctrine:
"The Orthodox Church has never in fact made any formal and definitive pronouncement on the matter. In the past individual Orthodox have made statements which, if not definitely affirming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, at any rate approach close to it; but since 1854 the great majority of Orthodox have rejected the doctrine, for several reasons:
- They feel it to be unnecessary;
- they feel that, at any rate as defined by the Roman Catholic Church, it implies a false understanding of original sin;
- they suspect the doctrine because it seems to separate Mary from the rest of the descendants of Adam, putting Her in a completely different class from all the other righteous men and women of the Old Testament.
From the Orthodox point of view, however, the whole question belongs to the realm of theological opinion; and if an individual Orthodox today felt impelled to believe in the Immaculate Conception, he or she could not be termed a heretic for so doing." (4)
It is gratifying to note that the 1895 encyclical of Patriarch Anthimus and his Synod (and a few other similar Statements by Eastern patriarchs) with their criticism of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception are without dogmatic authority. Nevertheless, the view that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception constitutes an essentially heretical innovation is repeated "ad nauseam" among those Eastern Orthodox writers most opposed to the restoration of unity with the See of Peter. Among recent detractors of the Immaculate Conception (who do not avoid serious misconceptions of Catholic teaching and/or engage in outright incoherence of thought) are such writers as:1. Michael Pomazansky (5)
- For Fr. Pomazansky, the Orthodox Church does not accept the Latin system of arguments concerning original sin... "The Most Holy Virgin was born as subject to the sin of Adam together with all mankind, and with him She shared the need for redemption... The Orthodox Church... has not seen and does not see any grounds for the establishment of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the sense of the Roman Catholic interpretation, although it does venerate the conception of the Mother of God, as it does also the conception of the holy Prophet and Forerunner John." (6)
- The Archbishop who had a certain reputation for
sanctity and regarded as a modern "fool for Christ" unfortunately tragically departs from
the common Tradition of both East and West concerning Our Lady's Holiness. He mistakenly
believed that none of the ancient holy Fathers say that God in miraculous fashion
purified the Virgin Mary while yet in the womb... "The teaching that the Mother of
God was preserved from original sin, as likewise the teaching that She was preserved by
God's grace from personal sin, makes God unmerciful and unjust; because if God could
preserve Mary from sin and purify Her before Her birth, then why does He not purify other
men before birth, but rather leaves them in sin? It follows likewise that God saves men
apart from their will, predetermining certain ones before their birth to salvation... The
teaching of the complete sinlessness of the Mother of God does not correspond to Sacred
Not only for the Archbishop is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception false but also to be rejected are all the other teachings which have come from it or are akin to it... "The striving to exalt the Most Holy Virgin to an equality with Christ ascribing to Her maternal tortures at the Cross an equal significance with the sufferings of Christ so that the Redeemer and "Co-Redemptress" suffered equally, according to the teaching of the Papists... is a vain deceit and a seduction of philosophy."
Needless to say, the arguments of the Archbishop are based on erroneous presuppositions, are without serious merit, and furthermore distort the teaching of Catholic theologians on Our Lady as Co-redemptress.
- Interestingly, Fr. Azkoul took to task the Russian
Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky for supporting St. Augustine's notion of original
sin, and rejected Bishop Kallistos Ware's opinion to "suspend judgment on the matter" of
the Immaculate Conception. Fr. Azkoul's view is uncompromising (as well as erroneous):
"In truth, there is no 'original sin' as the inheritance of Adam's guilt, and
therefore, the Immaculate Conception is just another episode in a comedy of Latin errors.
It is a dogma signifying nothing."
It should be pointed out that Fr. Azkoul also rejects the concept of dogmatic development in the Church as proposed by such eminent theologians as Cardinal John Henry Newman and accepted by the Catholic Church.
- This recent American Calvinist convert to Eastern Orthodoxy retains the residue of old Protestant prejudices against "Romanism" and "Mariolatry" and follows Archbishop Maximovich in objecting to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception on the grounds that it naturally leads "to the exaltation of the Mother of God on a par with that of God Himself." Not surprisingly, in his fanatical opposition to many Catholic doctrines, he declares: "Calling Mary Co-redemptrix is not simply wrong, it is blasphemous and heretical."
- This Dean of Russian Orthodox theologians in the West
(and who was to influence more ecumenically-minded Russian theologians as Fr. John
Meyendorff) may have taken a softer line with regards to the Immaculate Conception but
similarly rejected the Catholic dogma.
"The Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary is a noble attempt to suggest a solution (on how to reconcile the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception with the universality of original sin). But this solution is valid only in the context of a particular and highly inadequate doctrine of original sin and does not hold outside this particular setting. Strictly speaking, this "dogma" is an unnecessary complication, and an unfortunate terminology only obscures the undisputable truth of the Catholic belief: the "privileges" of the divine Motherhood do not depend upon a freedom from original sin."
- In his seminal work on one of the most important Byzantine theologians of the 14th century, Fr. Meyendorff observed that many passages in Palamas' writings concerning the Mother of God's holiness and purity should lead some authors to suppose that Palamas held the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. "Christ's humanity is a humanity without stain, and She who gave Him this humanity "resembled Him in all things," as Palamas says, that is to say She possesses by special grace original purity. It is indeed probable that Palamas' very striking piety with regard to the Virgin would have led him to accept that doctrine, if he had shared the Western conception of original sin. However... Palamas' view of the sin of Adam and the way in which it was transmitted, cannot be reconciled with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as defined by Rome... (For him) original sin was above all a hereditary mortality, leading the individuals of the human race to commit sins, but not implying any guilt for the actual sin of the First Father." (12)
- The last witness presented here to demonstrate modern
Eastern Orthodoxy's deviation from its own best traditions concerning the Holy Conception
of the Mother of God is one of the Greek Church's major dogmatic theologians. Panagiotis
N. Trembelas wrote in 1959 an excellent work on dogmatic theology which was thought
worthy of translation into French by the Benedictine scholar Pierre Dumont in 1967 (13).
In the second of his three volumes, Trembelas wrote that there was "no support in
Scripture or Tradition" for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. "In the Catholic
Church, before the 12th century, no serious mention was made of the Immaculate
Conception." The opinion of the Greek Church he declared to be that "the Theotókos
has been as guilty of the original and ancestral fault as all other men, and that the
holy Fathers, when they interpreted the words of the angel to the Virgin "the Holy Spirit
will come upon you," remark that He had descended upon Her previously in order to purify
Her and prepare a tabernacle worthy of the dwelling of the Word. In effect, She had need
of being purified." (14)
Interestingly, the learned professor falls back on the writings and authority of the 17th-century patriarch of Alexandria Metrophanes Kritopoulos (+1639) who had studied in England (at Oxford), Germany, and Switzerland, was sympathetic to Protestantism, and especially encouraged opposition to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception among the Greeks. He spread the opinion that the Theotókos was purified from original sin at the Annunciation.
From all the above, it is apparent that:
- Despite much evidence demonstrating centuries of support for the truth of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception among the Byzantines even into the 19th century, opposition to the Catholic doctrine sadly characterizes modem theological writing among Eastern Orthodox theologians, prelates, and popular writers. Criticisms of the doctrine particularly increased after the Papal definition of 1854.
- Polemical attacks on the doctrine are usually based on erroneous understanding of the doctrine that is itself based on such mistaken assumptions as:
- the Blessed Virgin did not need Redemption;
- the Blessed Virgin was thereby arbitrarily detached from the rest of fallen humanity subject to sin;
- the conception of the Blessed Virgin was virginal (without human seed);
- Her Immaculate Conception would exempt Her from death;
- the Blessed Virgin has been made by "the Latins" a feminine counterpart to Christ, and even elevated to the status of a Redemptress who is equal to Christ.
It should be noted that much of the difficulty encountered by Eastern Orthodox regarding the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception admittedly results from an inadequate and restrictive understanding of the nature of original sin. Their theologians and writers emphasize the effects of original sin: concupiscence, ignorance, pain, suffering, death, and the corruption of the body. They tend, however, to ignore what constitutes the essence of original sin. As we have seen, such leading theologians as Georges Florovsky and John Meyendorff viewed original sin as "above all a hereditary mortality, leading the individuals of the human race to commit sins, but not implying any guilt for the actual sin of the First Father (Adam)." In this view Adam's personal sin and personal guilt were proper to Adam alone. No descendant of Adam inherits by a "sin of nature," Adam's guilt. The Theotókos, therefore, could hardly be preserved from something She did not inherit. However, it is to radically impoverish the meaning of "the ancestral sin" as understood by Tradition to reduce it to an hereditary mortality with its consequent concupiscence (inclination to sin).
In Catholic doctrine the essence of original sin lies rather in the privation of original justice, the principal part of which was deifying (or sanctifying) grace; it should not be confused with its aforementioned effects. Fortunately, there are dissident theologians who can be readily quoted as in basic agreement with Catholic doctrine that the loss of grace by Adam involved the loss and transmission of that original holiness and righteousness in which God created man and that it is this spiritual death of the soul which has been transmitted with wounded human nature to all mankind (making fallen men and women "children of wrath," Eph. 2:3). Thus, everyone descended from Adam (with Catholic dogma excepting the Blessed Virgin Mary who received the special grace of a preservative redemption), is conceived in a state of sin, thereby needing redemption by the God-man. The Anglican theologian Dr. Frank Gavin noted that the 19th-century Greek theologian Androutsos believed that "the punishment of sin in the fact of having an impaired nature presupposes the existence of inherited sin and guilt." (15)
Similarly, in his "Our Orthodox Christian Faith" published by the Brotherhood of Theologians ("O Sotir" ) in 1985, Athanasius S. Frangopoulos has written that the saddest and ugliest aspect of original sin is its transmission from the first man to his descendants and from generation to generation to the entire human race: a hereditary transmission as a state and sickness of human nature and as a personal guilt of every man. That is to say, not only Adam sinned but in his person all his offspring, all men who were to be descended from Adam. This means that Adam did not sin only as an individual but as progenitor and representative of the human race. For this reason God imputed upon all men the sin of the one... "Wherefore," says the divinely inspired Apostle, "as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Rom. 5:12); that is, in the person of Adam all his descendants were included and all inherited the sin of Adam and the results of that sin which are guilt, corruption and the depravity of our nature, the tendency and inclination towards evil and finally death. (16)
The designations of "corruption" and "depravity" are not, of course, to be understood as total (as in the Calvinist sense). What is clear, however, from this exposition of Orthodox belief is clear acknowledgment by some Eastern Orthodox (e.g., Androutsos and Frangopoulos) that Adam's Fall indeed resulted in the loss of grace (and the loss of friendship with God) for all descended from him and that this tragic sinful state was remedied by the "restoration," "refashioning" and "re-creation" of fallen man accomplished by the Savior in the flesh (17). The "death" inflicted upon Adam and his descendants was "chiefly and primarily spiritual death, i.e., separation from God, complete estrangement from God and removal from God – from knowledge of Him and from His love... First came spiritual death and then physical death: the separation of the soul from the body and the deterioration and dissolution of the body". (18)
The verdict of Hilda Graef written some years ago remains significant:
If the Orthodox Church held the same views on original sin as the Latin Church, it could hardly be doubted that its theologians would be as anxious to exempt Her from it as the defenders of the Immaculate Conception in the West. For it is hard to see how they could regard Her as purer than the angels, an expression that occurs again and again in their writings. The divergence of views between East and West in this matter, as on some other points, seems more to the underlying systems of theology than to a real difference of faith. If these divergences of thought were cleared up, it would probably be found that Orthodox and Catholics were at one in their definition of the purity of the Theotókos (19).
In the foregoing account of the negations of various Eastern Orthodox theologians, one can only be struck by the misunderstandings expressed of the Catholic doctrine, the puerility of their theological objections, and the obstinate ignoring of evidence from their own Byzantine tradition of openness toward and even explicit favor for the Theotókos being created without sin because She had been predestined from all eternity for Her unique dignity as the Mother of God. Those Byzantine theologians who directly treated the Conception of the Theotókos in the womb of Her mother St. Anne such as the 15th-century George Scholarios (later the anti-unionist patriarch of Constantinople who rejected the Council of Florence) and Elias Meniates (+1714), author of a famous polemical work against the Papacy (Rock of Scandal), are among the dissident Byzantine theologians who expressly taught that the Theotókos had been preserved from the stain of original sin. Scholarios with a theological precision superior to that of earlier Latin and Greek theologians declared that:
"as the future Mother of the Most Pure, She had to be pure from the very first instant of Her Conception... The grace of God delivered Her completely from the original sin... Because She was completely delivered of the original culpability and punishment, a privilege She alone, among men, had received, (She) became in body and soul the Sanctuary of God."
Meniates expressed his disagreement with those who claimed the Theotókos had been freed from original sin at the Annunciation:
"Can one doubt that a Virgin so pure, holy, and blameless has been exempt from all defilement, even of the original sin? Mary has been certainly conceived and born quite without the stain of sin. It is inadmissible, as others say, that she has been conceived with original sin and then purified by divine grace (at the Annunciation) in order to be born thus blameless and immaculate."
It was shameful that key passages in his Sermons expressing belief in the Immaculate Conception should have suffered suppression by a later editor in 1849 with the consent of the patriarch of Constantinople Anthimus IV (20).
Taking advantage of Pere Jugie's erudite research in Byzantine theology, Fr. Stephen C. Gulovich would note:
A Survey of Byzantine scholars and hierarchs will show that, as the Holy See gradually favored the champions of the Marian privilege, the opposition among the Dissidents increased and became more intransigent. Finally, when Pius IX proclaimed the dogma... a unanimous chorus of the Dissidents denounced the Pope as an innovator.
Nevertheless, it remains true for all those who pray and work for the doctrinal reconciliation of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox that there is no dogmatic definition binding upon all Orthodox declaring the dogma of the Immaculate Conception false and alien to Holy Scripture and Apostolic Tradition (21).
Thus, the way is open in these ecumenical days for the doctrinal incoherence in modern Eastern Orthodox thought to be overcome by a welcome return to the most authentic Byzantine tradition which affirmed the Theotókos divinized by the grace of God and made holy long before Her birth, and even from the very first moment of Her existence as a person. Certainly, in no way can the opinion of dissenting Orthodox theologians that the Blessed Virgin was conceived in original sin, be regarded as meeting the criteria of the famous Vincentian Canon (which they often invoke) of "having been believed everywhere, always, and by all" (Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus traditum est).
Mary as Mediatrix
It is to be observed how Eastern Orthodox theologians and spiritual writers are fulsome in their praise of Our Lady as Mediatrix, in his classic "My Life in Christ", John of Kronstadt who is regarded as a Saint by many Russians often declares the "entirely spotless Mother of our God, the highest of all creatures, the Mediatrix for the whole race of mankind" (22). In many of the beautiful and ardent prayers found in this work (which also suggest belief in the Immaculate Conception), he invokes Our Lady as "Queen of all the angels and men," "First Origin of spiritual renovation," "Sovereign Lady," "all merciful Mother of the all-merciful King," declaring of her: "Thou art the brightest Sun, Thou art Most-pure, Most-merciful, and speedy to succor; it is natural to thee to cleanse us, defiled by sins, as a mother cleanses her children, if we call upon Thee humbly for help; it is natural for Thee to raise us, who continually fall, to intercede for us." He asks: "Who, after the Lord, is like unto Our Lady, our all-merciful, all-succoring, and most speedy Mediatrix?" "The Virgin Mary," he writes, "is the most merciful sovereign of all the sons and daughters of men, as the Daughter of God the Father, Who is love; the Mother of God the Word, of our love; the chosen bride of the Holy Ghost, Who is love consubstantial with the Father and the Word. How can we do otherwise than have recourse to such a sovereign and expect to receive all spiritual blessings from her?" (23) He repeatedly calls upon Mary as Mediatrix and Intercessor to protect the believing Christian from every evil.
In John of Kronstadt's prayers we hear the echo of the many offices and services which honor our Lady as Mediatrix who distributes the graces of God to those who invoke Her. Thus one reads in said offices:
- "The Theotókos is come among us, mediator of salvation."
- "The Theotókos does stand before us, the mediatrix of salvation."
- "Hail, ye Joakim and Anna! Rejoice that the mediatrix of joy and salvation, even the Virgin, is born unto us today from a barren one."
- "Hail, thou, mediatrix of the ancient blessedness for the race of men."
- (Even before the Annunciation) the Virgin Mary was hailed as "already all-holy and most spotless" and as "the Theotókos, the mediatrix and help of all."
It would be redundant here to multiply the witness of Byzantine theologians and spiritual writers across the centuries proclaiming Mary as Mediatrix (or mediatress) of all the graces won by Our Savior on Calvary. They may be said only to repeat with St. Thomas Aquinas: "Mary has at Her disposal such a vast abundance of graces that not only is She 'full of grace' but She can bestow it on all mankind" (24). The fine paper by Fr. Michael O'Carroll, C.S.Sp., concerning Mary's universal mediation "Mary, Corredemptress, Mediatress, Advocate: Instrument of Catholic-Orthodox Unity" in the volume "Mary: Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate: Theological Foundations" (25) shows the solidity of the doctrine of Mary's universal maternal mediation in the Byzantine tradition.
Mary as Coredemptrix in the Byzantine Tradition
Though the precise terms "Coredemptress" or "Redemptrix" are not found among Eastern Orthodox theologians and spiritual writers (I have read that the title "co-redemptrix," interestingly, can be seen in the collection of Armenian hymns called the "Sharakan" ) the essence of this doctrine continues to be proclaimed in the hymnody of the Byzantine Church's Offices and Services, in the homilies of the most renowned medieval Byzantine theologians, and in the writings of those who acknowledge Christ's associating the All-Holy Theotókos in the work of our Redemption. The fact that She did really co-operate and collaborate and participate in a secondary, subordinate, and dependant manner in the Redemption by Her Divine Son is expressed in the beautiful poetic language of Byzantine hymns and prayers noting Her cooperation in all phases of the Redemption.
Thus, we hear sung on the various Feasts of the Byzantine Church:
- "O Panaghia, Theotókos, save us"
- "O Virgin, who has borne the Giver of Life, thou hast delivered Adam from sin, and to Eve thou has brought joy in place of sorrow."
- "Theotókos, salvation of man"
- "The Virgin, offspring of Joachim and Ann, has appeared to men, releasing all from the bonds of sin."
- "The Most Holy Virgin, having broken the bonds of the bareness of Ann, has come forth to men, bestowing remission (of sins)."
- "... Today is born of the seed of David the Mother of Life, who destroys the darkness. She is the restoration of Adam and the recalling of Eve, the fountain of incorruption and the release from corruption; through Her we have been made godlike and delivered from death."
- "Thou hast renewed our nature by Thy Child-bearing, O Mary. Thou hast released Eve from the ancestral curse... Thou has delivered mankind from the ancestral condemnation."
- "Thou art our deliverer from the sharp punishments of old, the restoration of our mother Eve, the cause of the reconciliation of our kind to God, the bridge that leads us to the Maker; Thee, then O Theotókos, do we magnify."
- "She (the Theotókos) is the salvation of the world, the Holy Place of God We cry out to Thee... Raise up the Christian horn and save our souls... You are the only hope we have."
- "We know Thee, O Pure One, that Thou art the Holy Tabernacle, and the Ark, and the Law of grace: for through Thee was redemption given unto those who are justified by the Blood of Him Who was made flesh through Thy womb, O All-undefiled One."
- "My sins are without number, O Theotókos, so to You I come for salvation, O purest Lady!"
- "Through You, O Ever-Virgin Theotókos, we share in the divine nature."
- "Ineffably Thou didst bear God in the flesh for us, and by Thy Childbirth didst Thou redeem our mortal nature from that corruption in which it had grown old."
It is apparent from these and previous brief excerpts of praise from Byzantine liturgical feasts and offices that not only was the Ever-Virgin Theotókos strongly indicated as "Full of Grace" from the beginning of Her existence (thereby initiating the Holy Trinity's "new creation" of humanity) but that She was also considered to have been in intimate solidarity with Her Divine Son in carrying out the very Redemption of mankind. With Christ the Second Adam, Mary the Second Eve was associated with and actively cooperated with Her Divine Son in His work of salvation of the human race – in the measure He had willed it. United to Him and with Him, the Theotókos through Her constant love and compassion (especially at Calvary) was especially involved in the mysteries of Christ and merited for us grace thereby assisting in the salvation of mankind. The title "Coredemptrix" may not be mentioned in Vatican II's magnificent Lumen Gentium, the document on the Church and Mary, but its meaning is certainly found in article 56:
Committing Herself whole-heartedly and impeded by no sin to God's saving will, She devoted Herself totally, as a handmaid of the Lord, to the Person and Work of Her Son, under and with Him, serving the mystery of Redemption, by the grace of Almighty God. Rightly, therefore, the Fathers see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely cooperating in the work of man's salvation through faith and obedience... This union of the Mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ's Virginal Conception up to His death (26).
In the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" we read with regards to Christ's redeeming sacrifice that His Mother who "gave Herself entirely to the Person and to the Work of her Son... in order to serve the mystery of Redemption with Him and dependent on Him"... "was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of His redemptive suffering" (27). Thus, redeemed by Christ-God in a most perfect redemption (not by being cleansed from original sin but BY BEING PRESERVED FROM IT!), the All-Holy Theotókos was enabled to concur in our salvation by the grace which comes from Christ's infinite merits.
The words of St. Athanasius to the heretic Arius and others objecting to the use of the term "consubstantial" may also be said to apply to those who would take umbrage with the title "Coredemptrix" being applied to the Mother of the Redeemer: "Does the novelty of the word offend you or is it that you likewise reject the truth of the matter which is given this name? It is indeed an ancient truth which has received a new name, and not something which we accept as true because of the name."
In conclusion: as has been noted, the sad legacy of the tragic Byzantine Greco-Slav schism is seen in those modern Eastern Orthodox who only give further expression to their "anti-Roman complex" by opposing the doctrine of Our Blessed Lady's Immaculate Conception and denouncing Her title and mission as "Coredemptrix." The charges that Catholics strive "to exalt the Most Holy Virgin to an equality with Christ ascribing to Her maternal tortures at the Cross an equal significance with the sufferings of Christ" (Archbishop John Maximovich) simply constitute another distortion of Catholic teaching and serve to place yet another obstacle to the longing of many God-loving Easterners for Unity with the See of Peter.
May Our Blessed Lady, Mother of the Church and Mother of Unity, hasten the day when old prejudices and doctrinal difficulties will be swept away and Catholics and Orthodox by the grace of the Holy Spirit will "be one" in the "one and only Church" established by Our Savior on the imperishable Rock of Peter.
Doxa soi, Christos o Theos,
Glory be to Thee, O Christ our God, Glory be to Thee!
Bibbliography and Footnotes
1 . Prof. George S. Bebis, New Catholic
World, November-December, 1986, p. 263.
2 . Ibid., p. 259.
3 . Abbe Anger, The Doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ: According to the Principles of the Theology of St. Thomas, N.Y. Benziger Brothers, 1931, pp. 243, 246-247.
4 . Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, revised 1993 Penguin Books edition, pp. 259-290.
5 . Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: a Concise Exposition, trans. by Fr. Seraphim Rose, Platina CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994; pp. 192-195.
6 . Ibid., pp. 193-194.
7 . Archbishop John Maximovich, The Orthodox Veneration of the Mary the Birthgiver of God, trans, by Fr. Seraphim Rose, Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994; pp. 38-45.
8 . Fr. Michael Azkoul, Once Delivered to the Saints: An Orthodox Apology for the New Millenium, Saint Nectarios Press, Seattle, WA, 2000; pp. 169-174.
9 . Carl Carlton The Truth: What Every Roman Catholic Should Know About the Orthodox Church, Regina Orthodox Press, Salisbury, MA, 1999, Chapter 5.
10 . Fr. Georges Florovsky, "The Ever-Virgin Mother of God" in Collected Works, Nordland Publishing Company, Belmont, MA.
11 . John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas London: The Faith Press, 1964.
12 . Ibid., pp. 234-235.
13 . Panagiotis N. Trembelas, Dogmatic Theology, trans. Pierre Dumont, Editions de Chevetogne, 1967.
14 . Ibid., Vol. II, pp. 230-231.
15 . Dr. Frank Gavin, Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Orthodox Thought, NY: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1923; p. 171.
16 . Athanasius S. Frangopoulos, Our Orthodox Christian Faith, Brotherhood of Theologians ("O Sotir"), 1985, pp. 124-125.
17 . Ibid., pp. 132-133.
18 . Ibid., pp. 119-121.
19 . Hilda Graef, "Byzantine Influences on Latin Mariology," in Eastern Churches Quarterly, Vol. xvi, no.3 (1964), p. 207.
20 . For the thought of Scholarios and Meniates and other Byzantine theologians supporting the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, see Martin Jugie's monumental work: L'Immaculee Conception dans L'Ecriture Sainte et dans La Tradition Orientale, Academia Mariana, Rome, 1952.
21 . See Fr. Stephen C. Gulovich's "The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in the Eastern Ecclesiastical Tradition," in Marian Studies, Vol. V, 1954, pp. 146-183.
22 . John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, 4th edition, tr. E.E. Goulaeff, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY, 1984, p. 579.
23 . Ibid., p. 170.
24 . Exposit. super Sal. Angel., opusc. 8.
25 . Fr. Michael O'Carroll, C.S.Sp., "Mary, Corredemptress, Mediatress, Advocate: Instrument of Catholic-Orthodox Unity," in Mary: Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate: Theological Foundations, ed. Mark I. Miravalle, S.T.D., Queenship Publishing, 1995; pp. 119-143.
26 . See "in toto," LG, 56-66.
27 . CCC, 494, 618.