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Our Immaculate Mother Mary: East & West

Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy share much in common regarding Mariology, the theological study and devotion to the Virgin Mary. Both traditions hold Mary in high esteem, honoring her profoundly in their liturgies and recognizing her unique role in salvation history. They both believe in Mary's sinlessness, though they differ in their understanding of how and when she was preserved from sin.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, it is believed that Mary was conceived with original sin, like all humans, but was purified at a later point in her life, most likely at the moment of the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. This purification made her a fit vessel to bear the Son of God, emphasizing her holiness and unique role as Theotokos, the God-bearer.

Catholicism, on the other hand, upholds the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. According to this doctrine, Mary was conceived without original sin from the very first moment of her existence. This belief is crucial for understanding Mary as the new Ark of the New Covenant. In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was constructed from incorruptible acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold, symbolizing purity and incorruptibility. This typology points to Mary, who, as the new Ark, was pure and without stain to bear Jesus, the incarnate Word of God.

The biblical teaching of Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant only fully makes sense if Mary was created pure from the beginning. Just as the Ark was made from the purest materials to house the divine presence, Mary was preserved from original sin to be a worthy dwelling place for Jesus Christ. This parallel underscores the importance of the Immaculate Conception in Catholic Mariology, highlighting Mary's unique and exalted role in God's plan of salvation.

Despite their theological differences, both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy converge in their deep reverence and love for the Virgin Mary. Their liturgies and devotions reflect this shared respect, celebrating Mary as sinless and honoring her special place in the Christian faith. The belief in her purity and holiness underscores the high regard in which both traditions hold her, recognizing her vital role in the redemption of humanity.

In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred object in Israel's religious life. It was constructed of incorruptible acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold, signifying its purity and holiness. The Ark contained the tablets of the Law, Aaron's rod that budded, and a jar of manna—symbols of God's covenant with His people and His providence.

The New Testament provides several parallels between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. For instance, in the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary closely mirrors the language used in 2 Samuel 6, where King David brings the Ark to Jerusalem. Luke 1:28 describes the angel Gabriel greeting Mary with, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you," which echoes the reverence shown towards the Ark. Furthermore, in Luke 1:41-43, when Mary visits Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth's womb, reminiscent of David leaping before the Ark. Elizabeth’s greeting, "And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" mirrors David’s exclamation in 2 Samuel 6:9, "How can the ark of the Lord come to me?"

The earliest Church Fathers and or writers also recognized Mary as the New Ark. The Protoevangelium of James, an early Christian text from the 2nd century, highlights Mary's purity and special role, strongly pointing to her as the New Ark and reflecting early Christian belief in her unique status. This text, while not part of the canonical scriptures, provides insight into the early Church's reverence for Mary and their recognition of her extraordinary sanctity.

Church Fathers like St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, and St. Gregory Nazianzen further developed St. Mary's important role in salvation history. St. Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, draws a parallel between Eve and Mary, portraying Mary as the new Eve who, through her obedience, brought forth salvation. St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Nazianzen also emphasized Mary's purity and her role as the God-bearer, which aligns with the understanding of her as the New Ark.

Eastern Orthodoxy holds a rich tradition of honoring the Virgin Mary, acknowledging her unique role and profound sanctity. However, a point of contention has arisen regarding the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Despite this, it is important to recognize that many of the greatest Eastern saints affirmed this belief, and historically, it has not been a dividing marker between East and West. The failed Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence in the 15th century, which attempted to reconcile the two traditions, did not consider the Immaculate Conception a point of division.

Prominent Eastern figures such as Mark of Ephesus, Nicholas Cabasilas, Gregory Palamas, and Joseph Bryennios supported the idea of Mary's immaculate creation or conception. These saints and theologians recognized the special grace granted to Mary, underscoring her purity and her role as the Mother of God (Theotokos).

  • Mark of Ephesus: Known for his defense of Orthodoxy, Mark of Ephesus affirmed Mary’s purity, arguing that she was sanctified from conception, thereby being a fitting vessel for the Incarnation.

  • Nicholas Cabasilas: This revered mystic and theologian also emphasized Mary's unique holiness, suggesting she was graced with purity from the very beginning of her existence.

  • Gregory Palamas: One of the most important theological figures in Orthodoxy, Palamas highlighted Mary's sanctity, suggesting that she was cleansed from any stain of sin at the moment of her conception.

  • Joseph Bryennios: Another significant Eastern theologian, Bryennios, affirmed the belief in Mary's immaculate nature, contributing to the rich tradition of Eastern Mariology.

These teachings align closely with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was dogmatically defined in 1854 but has roots deep in the early Church's understanding of Mary. The acknowledgment of Mary's unique grace and purity from the earliest moments of her life aligns with the theological perspectives of these revered Eastern saints.

Given this shared heritage and the lack of historical contention over the Immaculate Conception during critical councils, it is crucial to call Eastern Orthodoxy back to the faith of their fathers. Recognizing the profound sanctity of Mary and the teachings of esteemed Eastern saints can bridge gaps and foster unity between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

Eastern Orthodoxy should not deny the Immaculate Conception, as many of its greatest saints affirmed Mary's all-immaculate creation or her purification at conception. This doctrine, far from being a point of division, is a testament to the shared veneration and theological richness that both traditions hold towards the Mother of God. It is an invitation to return to the faith of the fathers and embrace the deep, unified respect for Mary that has always been a cornerstone of Christian belief.


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