St. John Maximovitch, perhaps the greatest of twentieth century saints of the Orthodox Church, known for his gifts of healing and wonderworking, offers The Orthodox Veneration of Mary: The Birthgiver of God, a concise guide to the theology and veneration of Mary in the tradition of the Orthodox Church.
2. The Early Church’s Practice as Described in Scripture and the Fathers
Since its beginnings, the Orthodox Church has called the Virgin Mary a blessed and great example to all believers of faith, purity, and obedience to Christ. This has been in accordance with Mary’s Magnificat, where she proclaims, “henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luk 1:48). The Orthodox Church also praises Mary as “highly favored” and “full of grace,” in the same way that the Archangel Gabriel did in the Annunciation (Luk 1:28) (the original Greek charitou being translated alternatively as “full of grace” or “highly favored one”). She is praised by the Orthodox Church as filled with God’s spirit and fully submitted to God’s great plan for the salvation of humanity. This is the continuation of nearly two millennia of tradition, where Mary would be constantly alluded to in the Ecumenical Councils as “glorious” and “holy” and the Church Fathers would praise her purity and grace. The Epistle of Ignatius to St. John the Apostle puts it most beautifully when he writes that “there is in Mary the mother of Jesus an angelic purity of nature allied with the nature of humanity” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I. The Apostolic Fathers).
3. “Zeal not According to Knowledge”
3.1 St. John Maximovitch’s Defense of the Ancient Tradition
Yet there are some in Christendom today who take this veneration to the next level. They attribute to Mary that which is attributable to God alone: complete purity and sinlessness. St. John Maximovitch deals with this controversy in his book The Orthodox Veneration of Mary, in chapter VI, which he titles “Zeal not According to Knowledge,” where he argues that the view that Mary was without sin is contrary to Scripture and Tradition.
The view that Mary was without sin was formally instituted in the Roman Catholic Church in 1854 as “the Immaculate Conception,” which holds that the sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) has held to the sinlessness of Mary ever since the beginning of the Church. Concretely, the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception states that “the All-blessed Virgin Mary in the first instant of Her Conception, by the special grace of Almighty God and by a special privilege, for the sake of the future merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt for all stain of original sin” (Bull of Pope Pius IX) (p. 47). The Orthodox Church, upholding the traditions of ancient Christianity as recorded in the Scriptures, the Ecumenical Church Councils, and the Fathers, concludes that only Christ is without sin. Bishop Brianchaninov spoke for Orthodoxy when he wrote that “sin and eternal death manifested their presence in Her” (p. 64). St. John Maximovitch, while venerating Mary as ever-blessed, holy, and pure, defends this Orthodox position by gathering together a heavy arsenal to support his case, which is summarized below (page references are to his book; if his book is not cited, I have cited the original source as a further example that supports Maximovitch’s ideas). St. John Maximovitch argues that the teaching of the complete sinlessness of Mary:
(i) Does not “correspond to Sacred Scripture, which states that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) and that “all [are confined] under sin” (Gal 3:22). St. John the Apostle (and Evangelist) says that if we say that we have no sin, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1Jo 1:8). These writings all reiterate a doctrine that was infused in the Jewish tradition. Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes that “there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin” (7:20).
The Scriptures repeatedly mention the “sinlessness of the One Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ (I Tim. 2:5); and in Him is no sin (I John 3:5); Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth (I Peter 2:22); One that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15); Him Who knew no sin, He made to be sin on our behalf (II Cor. 5:21). But concerning the rest of men it is said, Who is pure of defilement? No one who has lived a single day of his life on earth (Job 14:4). God commendeth His own love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…. If, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life (Rom. 5:8-10)” (p. 57-58).
(ii) Contradicts Sacred Tradition. Maximovitch quotes St. Basil the Great, who writes that “There is none without stain before Thee, even though his life be but a day, save Thee alone, Jesus Christ our God, Who didst appear on earth without sin” (p. 58). Likewise, in the writings of the ante-Nicene Fathers, we find a reference to the “only spotless and sinless Christ” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I. The Apostolic Fathers, “Dialogue of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew”).
Several of the Church Fathers of the West, such as St. Bonaventure, as well as other prominent voices in the Catholic Church, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, rejected the doctrine. Bernard has written, “I am frightened now, seeing that certain of you have desired to change the condition of important matters, introducing a new festival unknown to the Church, unapproved by reason, unjustified by ancient tradition. Are we really more learned and more pious than our Fathers? You will say, ‘One must glorify the Mother of God as much as possible.’ This is true; but the glorification … demands discernment. This Royal Virgin does not have need of false glorifications” (p. 56). Maximovitch concludes that “the ancient teachers of the Church testify that in the West itself the teaching which is now spread there was earlier rejected there” (p. 56).
Clearly the giant voices of Christianity have asserted that Christ alone is without sin. Yet one may argue that, although the doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness appears to have been rejected by the early church, Holy Tradition is “living” and the Church’s understanding today may be more complete than the understanding of the Church of the first centuries. The Orthodox Church rejects this reasoning. Truth may not change from generation to generation; it may only be clarified. In light of the clear teachings of the Scripture and the Fathers on the sinlessness of Christ alone, it cannot accept that Mary was immaculately conceived or that she was without sin. Rather, the Orthodox Church sings at Pascha every year that Christ alone was singless and, at its funeral services, acknowledges that “there is no man who lives and sins not.”
(iii) Contradicts reason. If it is true, as Catholics say, that it would not be possible for God to enter the womb of a woman unless that woman is wholly without sin, then what are we to say of Mary, who entered into the womb of her mother, who did have sin? If Mary was to be born of sin, then wouldn’t it be necessary for her parents also to be without sin, “and they again would have to be born of purified parents, and going further in this way … to all [Christ’s] ancestors” (p. 59)? The fact that Catholics could accept that Mary, pure and sinless, was able to be born of a mother who was not uncorrupted by original sin, would lead to the conclusion that Christ could also be born of a woman who was not uncorrupted by original sin.
(iv) 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 their birth, but rather leaves them in sin?” I. 59). It seems contrary to the nature of God, who creates all men and women with the freewill to sin or obey. It may be argued that the Mary as understood by the Orthodox Church as “born in the sinful human race but … ‘more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim’” (p. 68) is worthy of greater honor than Mary as taught in the Catholic tradition, since Mary in the Orthodox Church achieved true purity and holiness despite the original sin she inherited.
3.2 Negating the Need for a Savior
Furthermore, it should be pointed out that if, as is taught in the Catholic tradition, Mary neither committed personal sin nor inherited original sin, then she would have no need of a Savior. Christ came into the world to save sinners (1Ti 1:15); those who have not sinned need no Redeemer. It is sin that leads to man’s eternal separation from God; without sin, man is never separated from God. Thus, had Mary truly been without sin, she would be in no need of a Savior. Yet she cries out to Christ as her Savior: in Luke 1:47, she exclaims that her spirit “has rejoiced in God my Savior.” Furthermore, it is recounted in Luke that Mary, in obedience to Jewish law, offered “a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luk 2:24). The passage refers to the law recorded in Leviticus 12:6-8, which required “two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean” (Lev 12:8). If Mary had committed no sins, the Jewish ritual would have been unnecessary for her. Yet because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), Mary, like all Jewish mothers, brought her sin offering.
That Mary was in need of salvation—not only in the sense of salvation from death of the body, but also, salvation from the death of her soul because of through sin—is supported by the Church Fathers. Accordingly, St. John Chrysostom points out Christ’s concern “over the salvation of [Mary’s] soul” (p. 67); Mary, like all of humanity, was in need of salvation.
3.3 The True Beauty of Mary
Considering Mary in this way, as having been an ordinary human being who inherited original sin and struggled with temptations, and yet rose above the flesh in an extraordinary and exemplary way, becoming a pure example of holiness, is a far more beautiful conception than the view that plucks her out of sin’s snares by attributing to her an immaculate conception that removed her from the struggle of original sin. Is there not something more praiseworthy of one who inherits the disease of sin and yet boldly overcomes it through daily faith and obedience? St. John Maximovitch sums this up beautifully when he writes “There is no intellect or words to express the greatness of Her Who was born in the sinful human race but became ‘more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim’” (p. 68).
4. Did Mary Ever Commit Personal Sin?
Yet it must be pointed out that there are some in even the Orthodox Church who err by proclaiming Mary to be sinless. Although they concede that she was born with original sin, they claim that she had never committed personal sin for which she was culpable. This view holds that Mary needed Christ only for salvation from death, not for salvation from her sins, since she had never committed any personally. Is this view in accordance with Orthodox Holy Tradition? Certainly, there are sayings by some of the Fathers and recent saints that could be read to support such arguments. Yet as will be shown presently, to interpret the Fathers as supporting such a proposition would be to misinterpret them.
4.1 St. Ambrose
One may argue, for example, that some of the writings of the Fathers support the idea that Mary was sinless. For example, St. Ambrose, writing that Mary “did not allow any unclean thought” (p. 64), may be interpreted as meaning that Mary overcame every temptation and thus never sinned. Yet this reading must be incorrect, in light of Ambrose’s other writings, where he stated that “God alone is without sin” (p. 65); and that “Of all those born of women, there is not a single one who is perfectly holy, apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, Who in a special new way of immaculate birthgiving, did not experience earthly taint”; that “God alone is without sin. All born in the usual manner of woman and man, that is, of fleshly union, become guilty of sin. Consequently, He Who does not have sin was not conceived in this manner”; and again, that “One Man alone, the Intermediary between God and man, is free from the bonds of sinful birth, because He was born of a Virgin, and because in being born He did not experience the touch of sin” (quoted by St. John Maximovitch, p. 55).
4.2 St. John Maximovitch
As another example, St. John Maximovitch writes that Mary “repulsed from Herself every impulse to sin” (p. 65). Should this be taken to mean that Mary never sinned? It should not, given that Maximovitch also said that “The more pure and perfect one is, the more he notices his imperfections and considers himself all the more unworthy” (p. 65). This implies that complete sinlessness is never truly possible among men (with the exception of Christ, of course), for as one approaches Christ’s perfection, he becomes more aware of his sins. The holiest of men thus recognize that they are sinners. Who then can be said to be without sin, besides Christ?
The view of holiness that Maximovitch articulates supports the Scriptures in that it shows that even those who appear to have no sin are indeed also sinners, for as one draws closer to Christ and comes to reflect who He is, he becomes more conscious of his own sinfulness. In light of this, the sayings of some of the saints that may be read to support the idea that Mary or any other saint had never sinned—such as St. John Chrysostom, who wrote that Mary “overcame all temptations”—must be read in light of the Scriptures’ clear teaching on the sinfulness of all people. Although we believe that Mary was an example of purity, and that she very well may have attained a level of perfection where she consciously chose God over all of the temptations of the flesh, it cannot be said that she, or anyone else besides Christ, had never committed any sin.
4.3 St. Ephraim the Syrian
St. Ephraim the Syrian appears to offer clarification to this question. He wrote that “The Light abode in Her, cleansed Her mind, made Her thoughts pure, made chaste Her concerns, sanctified Her virginity” (p. 66). The Light that is being referred to was the indwelling of Christ. Thus, St. Ephraim can be understood to mean that after Mary was illuminated by grace through Christ’s entering into Mary and abiding in Her womb, she was made perfect by the presence of God within her. This can thus be reconciled with the Scriptures that teach that all have sinned. In the case of Mary, she was born with an ordinary sinful nature, but after the Light abode in her, her nature was cleansed, and she became perfectly obedient, turning away from all sinful passion.
5. The Worship of Mary?
Despite all of the foregoing, there is a tendency among some in the Orthodox Church to erroneously attribute to Mary godlike powers and a godlike status. Even St. John Maximovitch comes close to this when he states on p. 67 that she “stands and will stand, both in the day of the Last Judgment and in the future age, at the right hand of the throne of Her Son. She reigns with Him” (p. 67). Such language is misleading, for God alone is the Governor and Ruler of the earth: “All power is given unto [Christ] in heaven and in earth” (Mat 28:18) and “to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him” (Dan 7:14).
5.1 Intercessor? Mediator?
Furthermore, one Orthodox service refers to Mary as the “Intercessor of the Christian race” (p. 68). It is easy, reading this description, to be led astray into believing that Mary is the mediator between God and man, bringing man into a relationship with God. Such a view is absolutely unscriptural, as the Scriptures proclaim that there is but “one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1Ti 2:5). Rather, by “Intercessor of the Christian race,” it is meant only that Mary prays for Christians. Her intercession is through the prayers that she offers to God, prayers that are only different from the prayers of ordinary Christians, only because they are offered up by a more righteous vessel, and the “fervent prayer of the righteous avail much” (Jam 5:16). Yet all Christians have the potential of emulating her obedience and similarly achieving a level of effective, fervent prayer after attaining righteousness.
Even more gravely problematic language lies in Eikos 3 of the Akathist to our Most Holy Lady the Mother of God, which refers to Mary as the “access of mortals to God” (p. 74). As we have just seen, his must be understood in its context and submitted to 1 Timothy 2:5, which declares that “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” Thus, Mary is not meant as access to God in the sense of mediator. Mary can thus only be viewed as the “access of mortals to God” through her prayers, which seek to bring man to God through praying that man would repent of his ways and turn to God. They can also be understood in the sense that Mary was a door to God in that through her obedience to God, she brought to the world God incarnate, the access of all men to forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
5.2 Forgiver of Sins? Most Pure?
Yet there is language in the “Prayer to our Most Holy Lady the Mother of God” on page 82 that I find to be simply over the top, and surely a trap that will lead Christians into the unwitting worship of Mary, giving language to her that Christ alone merits: “Thou knowest my offence; forgive and resolve it as thou wilt. For I know no other help but thee, no other intercessor, no gracious consoler but thee, O Mother of God, to guard and protect me throughout the ages” (p. 82). One wonders if the author of this prayer knew Christ as God, the forgiver of sins, and helper and protector. Apparently not, since he writes that he knows of “no other help.”
How can such a passage in an Orthodox service to the Virgin Mary be defended? Hardly any defense can be offered for it, but an insight that Fr. Eusebius Stephanou once raised in one of his books may be helpful. He highlights the tendency of the Greek language to exaggerate all of its points in order to make some point clear. For example, if a Greek hymn wishes to honor the Virgin Mary by calling her “holy,” it will not call her “holy,” but rather, “most holy.” In like manner, if it wishes to emphasize her obedience to Christ, it will not call her “obedient, but rather, sinless.” If it wishes to emphasize the effectiveness of her prayers in invoking God’s protection and help towards us, it will call her our “only helper and protector.” However, when the phrase becomes translated into English, the exact wording of “most holy” or “sinless” is given to us, which in the English language is read literally, and therefore as unscriptural and heretical. Yet this is not because the literal translation is not faithful to Scripture, but rather, it is because the literal translation is not faithful to the meaning of the original, untranslated text, due to cultural differences in the use of words in the two languages.
Thus, in the English-language services, references to Mary as the “Most Pure One” (p. 68) cannot be read literally. Of course, the Scriptures teach Christ was the holiest of all men and the only to have never sinned; “all have sinned” (Rom 3:23), but Jesus “did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (1Pe 2:22). By “Most Pure One,” the text is emphasizing the purity of Mary, but it does not intend to imply that she was holier than Christ Himself.
5.3 “Mother of God”?
Another potentially problematic term is the title given to the Virgin Mary—Theotokos or “Mother of God.” The term was adopted in 431 AD in the Council of Ephesus in order to repudiate the views of Arius who held that Christ was not fully God. The title was adopted in order to proclaim the dual nature of Christ: he was both man, for he was born of the woman Mary, as well as God incarnate. Because Christ was God, and Mary was his mother, Mary was therefore the mother of God. It is a Christological statement that speaks to the divine nature of Christ.
The problem with the term is that it can easily be understood to mean that Mary was the mother of both Christ’s uncreated (Divine) nature as well as of his incarnate (human) nature. Of course, this is a theological error, for Christ was present at the creation of the world, long before Mary was born: He “was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made” (Joh 1:2-3). Orthodox Christians must be mindful of this when venerating Mary as the Mother of God, assuring that they do not slip into any doctrinal errors as to who she was as she related to Christ.
5.4 The Risk of Idolatry
When worship begins to attribute to Mary those qualities that Christ alone can give—forgiver of sins, mediator between man and God, etc.—a grave danger arises: veneration turns into worship and the Christian falls into the grave sin of idolatry. Few sins invoke the wrath of God as idolatry does. When Mary is worshipped, Orthodox Christianity is perverted into a religion that is uncannily similar to those religions that have traditionally worshipped a mother figure with child, such as the goddess mother Isis of Egypt and her child Horus; the goddess Ashtoreth of Israel and her child Baal (Jud 2:13); the Roman goddess Venus and her child Jupiter; and the Indian goddess Devaki and her child Crishna. The holy and venerable Virgin Mary becomes the object of idolatrous worship, no different than the Holy Mother Shing Moo of China or the goddess Aphrodite of Greece, the “Mediatrix” when Christians begin to attribute to her that which God jealously reserves to Himself. The onus on the episcopate to educate Orthodox Christians and assure that veneration never borders on worship is thus crucial.
Some may object to the idea that God, almighty, perfect, and everlasting, became united and born to a woman who was stained by sin. How can the perfect and immortal God touch what is ordinary and sinful? Yet I would suggest that the very beauty of the Gospel and of God’s unlimited Grace is expressed in this fact: a perfect, holy, and immortal God, through a great and profound mystery, humbled Himself to the level of man through the incarnation, in order to offer man a living example of perfection, and, through taking on death, to free man from sin and death. That God could use a woman, an ordinary vessel, to accomplish His great plan attests to His power, for though it would not seem reasonable, logical, or even possible to our ordinary reasoning, “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luk 18:27).