On the ninth of December the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the conception of the Virgin Mary by her parents Joachim and Anna.1 On this major festival which finds its place in the Church’s preparation for Christmas, the faithful rejoice in the event by which Mary is conceived in fulfillment of her parents’ prayers in order to be formed in the womb, born on the earth, dedicated to the Lord, and nurtured in holiness to become by God’s grace the mother of His Son the Messiah.
In addition to the songs of the services, there are icons and frescoes of the feast which the faithful venerate and kiss, depicting the holy couple in a loving embrace within their conjugal chamber.
O Adam and Eve, lay aside your sorrow,
Behold, a barren womb today wondrously bears fruit:
The Mother of our Joy!
O Father Abraham and all the patriarchs,
Rejoice greatly, seeing your seed blossom:
The Mother of our God!
Rejoice, O Anna! Joachim, rejoice!
Today in wondrous manner you bear to the world
The fruit of grace and salvation!
O choir of prophets, rejoice exceedingly!
For behold, today Anna bears the holy fruit
You foretold to us.
Rejoice, all nations!
The barren Anna conceives the fruit of her womb;
By persevering in hope, she bears our life!
Rejoice, O ends of the earth!
Behold the barren mother conceives her
Who without human seed will bear the Creator of all!
Today a royal robe of purple and fine linen
Is woven from the loins of David.
The mystical flower of Jesse is blossoming
From which comes Christ our God, the Savior of our souls.2
The Orthodox Church, particularly in the present time, does not call the feast of Mary’s beginning the “immaculate conception,” although perhaps in ancient times this title would have been fully acceptable.3 This is not because the Orthodox consider Mary’s conception to have been somehow -“maculate” or “stained” (macula means “stain” in Latin). It simply means that the Orthodox do not want to support the conviction that God had somehow to intervene at the moment of Mary’s conception with a special action to remove the “stain” of the original sin transmitted by the act of human reproduction because, simply put, the Orthodox do not hold that such a … stain” exists.
The Orthodox Church affirms original sin. Orthodox theology teaches that all human beings, including the Virgin Mary who is a “mere human” like the rest of us-unlike her Son Jesus who is a “real human” but not a “mere human” because He is the incarnate Son and Word of God-are born into a fallen, death-bound, demon-riddled world whose “form is passing away” (1 Cor 7: 31). 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. If sexual union in marriage is in any sense sinful, or the cause in itself of any sinfulness or stain, even in the conditions of the “fallen world,” then, as even the rigorous Saint John Chrysostom has taught, God is the sinner because He made us this way, male and female, from the very beginning.4
The Orthodox Church teaches that it is possible by the grace of God, with whom all things are possible, for sexual union in marriage, even in the present condition of things, to be good, holy, beautiful, loving, and pure. The proof of this is the feast of Joachim and Anna’s conception of Mary (and Zacharias and Elizabeth’s conception of John the Baptist), with no mention whatsoever of any “stain” having to be removed by a special action of God, certainly not one connected with the manner in which the conception occurs. 5
Mary is conceived by her parents as we are all conceived. But in her case it is a pure act of faith and love, in obedience to God’s will, as an answer to prayer. In this sense her conception is truly “immaculate.” And its fruit is the woman who remains forever the most pure Virgin and Mother of God.
~Adapted from Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season
1 The feast is officially called The Conception of the Theotokos. Mary’s nativity is celebrated on September 8. A popular tradition among the Orthodox says that the nine-month period is purposely off by one day to Illustrate the “mere humanity” of Mary, unlike the “divine humanity” of her Son, whose conception on the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before His Nativity.
2 Matins of the feast of the Conception of the Theotokos.
3 Roman Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary on December 8. The “immaculate conception” is an officially promulgated dogma of the Roman Church which teaches that God applied the “merits of Christ” to Mary at the very moment of her conception so that she could be freed from the “stain” of original sin and could thereby become the most pure Mother of the Savior, the incarnate Son and Word of God. Some schools of theology teach that all human beings are guilty of the original sin because they somehow pre-existed “in Adam.” Some also hold that the transmission of the stain of original sin is by way of the manner of human reproduction through sexual intercourse.
4 See John Chrysostom, On Titus, homily 2.
5 The Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of The Conception of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John on September 23. His nativity is celebrated on June 24; again the nine-month period is off by one day. (See above, note 1). A movement existed among some Roman Catholics at the beginning of this century which unsuccessfully argued that the church should teach the “immaculate conception” of Saint John.