By Father Lev Gillet
From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 (Spring 1983), pp. 151-159.
(Continued from Part 1)
III. I shall begin by quoting several phrases which cannot be said with absolute certainty to imply a belief in the Immaculate Conception but in which it is quite possible to find traces of such a belief.
First of all – the patriarch Photius. In his first homily on the Annunciation, he says that Mary was sanctified ek Brephous. This is not an easy term to translate; the primary meaning of Brephos is that of a child in the embryonic state. Ek means origin or starting point. The phrase seems to me to mean not that Mary was sanctified in the embryonic state, that is to say, during her existence in her mother’s womb, but that she was sanctified from the moment of her existence as an embryo, from the very first moment of her formation – therefore – from the moment of her conception. (1)
A contemporary and opponent of Photius, the monk Theognostes, wrote in a homily for the feast of the Dormition, that Mary was conceived by “a sanctifying action”, ex arches – from the beginning. It seems to me that this ex arches exactly corresponds to the “in primo instanti” of Roman theology. (2)
St Euthymes, patriarch of Constantinople (+917), in the course of a homily on the conception of St Anne (that is to say, on Mary’s conception by Anne and Joachim) said that it was on this very day (touto semerou) that the Father fashioned a tabernacle (Mary) for his Son, and that this tabernacle was “fully sanctified” (kathagiazei). There again we find the idea of Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti conceptionis. (3)
Let us now turn to more explicit evidence.
(St) Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica and doctor of the hesychasm (+1360) in his 65 published Mariological homilies, developed an entirely original theory about her sanctification. On the one hand, Palamas does not use the formula “immaculate conception” because he believes that Mary was sanctified long before the “primus instans conceptionis“, and on the other, he states quite as categorically as any Roman theologian that Mary was never at any moment sullied by the stain of original sin. Palamas’ solution to the problem, of which as far as we know, he has been the sole supporter, is that God progressively purified all Mary’s ancestors, one after the other and each to a greater degree than his predecessor so that at the end, eis telos, Mary was able to grow, from a completely purified root, like a spotless stem “on the limits between created and uncreated”. (4)
The Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (+1425) also pronounced a homily on the Dormition. In it, he affirms in precise terms Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti. He says that Mary was full of grace “from the moment of her conception” and that as soon as she began to exist … there was no time when Jesus was not united to her”. We must note that Manuel was no mere amateur in theology. He had written at great length on the procession of the Holy Spirit and had taken part in doctrinal debates during his journeys in the West. One can, therefore, consider him as a qualified representative of the Byzantine theology of his time. (5)
George Scholarios (+1456), the last Patriarch of the Byzantine Empire, has also left us a homily on the Dormition and an explicit affirmation of the Immaculate Conception. He says that Mary was “all pure from the first moment of her existence” (gegne theion euthus). (6)
It is rather strange that the most precise Greek affirmation of the Immaculate Conception should come from the most anti-Latin, the most “Protestantizing” of the patriarchs of Constantinople, Cyril Lukaris (+1638). He too gave a sermon on the Dormition of Our Lady. He said that Mary “was wholly sanctified from the very first moment of her conception (ole egiasmene en aute te sullepsei) when her body was formed and when her soul was united to her body”; and further on he writes: “As for the Panaghia, who is there who does not know that she is pure and immaculate, that she was a spotless instrument, sanctified in her conception and her birth, as befits one who is to contain the One whom nothing can contain?” (7)
Gerasimo. patriarch of Alexandria (+1636) taught at the same time. according to the Chronicle of the Greek, Hypsilantis, that the Theotokos “was not subject to the sin of our first father” (ouk npekeito to propatopiko hamarte mati); and a manual of dogmatic theology of the same century, written by Nicholas Coursoulas (+1652) declared that “the soul of the Holy Virgin was made exempt from the stain of original sin from the first moment of its creation by God and union with the body.” (8)
I am not unaware that other voices were raised against the Immaculate Conception. Damascene the Studite, in the sixteenth century, Mitrophanes Cristopoulos, patriarch of Alexandria and Dosithes, patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventeenth century, all taught that Mary was sanctified only in her mother’s womb. Nicephorus Gallistus in the fourteenth century and the Hagiorite in the eighteenth century taught that Mary was purified from original sin on the day of the Annunciation. But the opinions that we have heard in favour of the Immaculate Conception are not less eminent or less well qualified.
It was after the Bull of Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, of 8 December, 1854, that the greater part of the Greek Church seems to have turned against belief in the Immaculate Conception. Yet, in 1855, the Athenian professor, Christopher Damalas, was able to declare:
“We have always held and always taught this doctrine. This point is too sacred to give rise to quarrels and it has no need of a deputation from Rome”. (9)
But it was not until 1896 that we find an official text classing the Immaculate Conception among the differences between Rome and the Orthodox East. This text is the synodal letter written by the Oecumenical Patriarch, Anthimes VII, in reply to the encyclical Piaeclara Gratulationis addressed by Leo XIII to the people of the Eastern Churches. Moreover, from the Orthodox point of view, the Constantinopolitan document has only a very limited doctrinal importance. Although it should be read with respect and attention, yet it possesses none of the marks of infallibility, nor does ecclesiastical discipline impose belief in its teachings as a matter of conscience. and it leaves the ground quite clear for theological and historical discussions on this point.
To be continued …
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