In most, if not all Christian circles outside of the Orthodox Church, to say that Mary was sinless would be an objectionable statement. Holy Scripture is very clear regarding sinlessness, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). With Scripture being so clear, how then are we to understand the teaching of the Orthodox Church that the Mother of God was sinless?
First we need to look at the word sin in this passage and obtain a clear understanding of what it means. According to Metropolitan Ierotheos Vlachos in his commentary on the feast of the Annunciation, sin is “deprivation of the glory of God and no one is exempt from it” (Vlachos, The Feasts of the Lord, p. 26). This deprivation of the glory of God (alienation or loss of communion with God) has its roots in the fall of man through the disobedience of Adam in the Garden. It was after Adam disobeyed the commandment not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that he, and by extension all of humanity, were deprived of the glory of God. In the theology of the Church we call Adam’s sin, Ancestral, into which all of humanity is born, including the Mother of God. The question then becomes, when was she released from ancestral sin?
According to Vlachos,
It was at the moment when by the power of the Holy Spirit the divine nature was united with the human nature in the womb of the Panagia that the Panagia first tasted her release from the so-called ancestral sin and it consequences. Furthermore . . . at the moment of the Annunciation, the Panagia reached a higher state than that of which Adam and Eve were before the fall. She was granted to taste the final goal of creation. For the Panagia no Pentecost, no Baptism was needed. What the Apostle experienced on the day of Pentecost, when they became members of the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit, and what happens to all of us in the sacrament of Baptism, happened to the Panagia on the day of the Annunciation. It was then that she was released from the ancestral sin, not that she had any guilt, but she was deified in soul and body by reason of her union with Christ. This is the background for interpreting the words of St. John of Damaskos that on the day of the Annunciation the Panagia received the Holy Spirit, which purified her and gave her power at the same time both to received the divinity of the Word and to give birth. That is to say, the Panagia received from the Holy Spirit both purifying grace and the power to receive and give birth to the Word of God as man (ibid., pp. 27-28).
This teaching and understanding rendered by the Orthodox Church and the Holy Fathers is quite different from that of the Roman Catholic Church and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which states:
Mary was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her life, and sanctifying grace was given to her before sin could have taken effect in her soul… The formal active essence of original sin was not removed from her soul, as it is removed from others by baptism; it was excluded, it never was in her soul (Catholic Encyclopedia).
To go further into this statement and why the Roman Catholic church adopted this dogma would require that we dive into the teaching of Original Sin as understood and taught by St. Augustine, which is not the scope of this article. Suffice to say, his teaching on Original Sin was the catalyst for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Nevertheless, while the Orthodox Church uses terms regarding Mary such as “immaculate,” “pure,” and “spotless”, they are not used to define her conception in the womb of her mother Anna. It has just been explained why it is not necessary to believe that the Panagia had to be exempt from original sin, as the Catholics insist. The Orthodox Church teaches that the Mother of God was conceived just as any other person, which in no way disqualifies her from being chosen as the vessel that would conceive, carry and bear God in the flesh. It was not necessary for her to have been conceived immaculately in order to be the God-bearer. When it was time, the Holy Spirit prepared her to be that recipient of God in her womb.
The Virgin Mary inherited the same fallen nature, prone to sin, to weakness and passion that we have. She was born in the grip of death and corruption needing to be delivered by our Savior, her Son. This is why she called God her “Savior” in the Magnification (cf. Luke 1:46-47). However, unlike us, she did not consent to sin through her free will. This is not to say that she did not make mistakes. According to St. Silouan, “she was not quite perfect and complete, She did make some mistakes that did not involve sin. We can see this from the Gospel when on the return from Jerusalem She did not know where her Son was, and together with Joseph sought him for three days” (Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 392).
The Mother of God was simple and child-like not just when she was young but throughout her whole life, which is why the Archangel Gabriel bowed down to her as one pure and holy addressing her as “full of grace” (Lk. 1:28). In regards to this, Vlachos also mentions that the grace she had, was received from the Word of God, who contains the fullness of grace. Likewise, he makes the important distinction that “she is lower than Christ because Christ has grace by nature, while the Panagia has it by participation” (Vlachos, p. 26). He also mentions that St. Gregory Palamas as well as other Fathers of the Church who say, “the Panagia had already been full of grace before the day of the annunciation, living in the holy of holies of the spiritual life, which is deification” (Vlachos, p. 25).
From the time of her dedicated entrance into the Temple as a young child, a fulfilled promise by her parents, Mary gave herself over to prayer. Taking into consideration her beginnings and her desire to serve the Lord from childhood, the Mother of God, full of grace, lived her life making choices that were not “free of mistakes” but were “free of sin”, which all of us do from time to time when we choose correctly, and which the Saints do consistently after they have reached the state of purification of the heart.
We can summarize by saying that just as the Mother of God was full of grace by participation and not by nature, she was likewise sinless by participation of her free will, and not by nature. Only Jesus Christ was born perfectly holy and sinless, sinless by nature and by choice. To come to a clear understanding of this teaching of the sinlessness of Mary requires the use of Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition and the teachings of the Holy Fathers. It is challenging to explain the position of the Church on this and many other topics of theology when Holy Tradition and the writings of the Fathers are absent. I hope this article was at least somewhat helpful in your own understanding of this topic and I pray that all of you will make it your own quest to come to a deeper understanding of the theology of the Orthodox Church, as ones “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15).
In Christ with love,