And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: Anna, Anna, the Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive, and shall bring forth; and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world. - from the Protoevangelium of St James
The feast of the Conception of the Mother of God is perhaps one of the most poorly understood feasts of the Church. This falls on the 8th of December on the Western Rites and on the 9th of December in the Byzantine Kalendar. In either case, it falls approximately nine months before the Nativity of the Mother of God in September. Each year we celebrate this feast and each year somebody asks what it is all about. That people have a yearning to learn more about this part of the Christian Mystery is, of course, encouraging, but it does reveal that it is one of the feasts that is not as readily understood as others.
My suspicion is that this may be particularly true among western converts to Orthodoxy. Many of us who have come to Orthodoxy from western traditions have known of the later Latin teaching of the immaculate conception of the Mother of God, which states:
...the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.Whether we come from traditions where this was affirmed or repudiated, we have been affected by it, whether by overenthusastically embracing it or by overzealously throwing out the proverbial baby along with the bathwater.
Constitution Ineffabilis Dei, 1854
Yes, we may remember from our days of exploring Orthodoxy that our understanding of ancestral sin is different from the Latin teaching of original sin, and that this means that the Conception of the Mother of God was, in this respect, just like the conception of any other human being. She was conceived in innocence, as indeed we all are, and her freedom from the guilt of sin at the moment of her conception is unremarkable in that respect*. We may know in our heads that this renders the teaching on the immaculate conception meaningless, for it is the solution to a problem that doesn't exist. We may also understand that because we do not believe that the sin of our first parents means that all human beings are deprived of a supernatural grace from the first moment of our conception, the angelic salutation of the Mother of God as being "full of grace" poses no doctrinal problem for us. We do not need to ponder on what is unique to her that could make this so because there is nothing in the nature of man that precludes this.
So where does this leave us?
Well, as a new convert from Anglicanism, I wasn't quite sure. I would get asked the question of my Anglo-Catholic friends, 'If her conception wasn't immaculate, then what was so special about it? Why celebrate it as a feast?' and I would usually not have an answer. Sometimes this was asked out of genuine curiosity. At other times it was asked in an attempt to highlight what they saw as an inconsistency between Orthodox teaching and Orthodox liturgical practice. The argument was that the existence of the feast in the Orthodox kalendar is evidence that we did once celebrate the immaculate conception but later changed for some reason, perhaps in relation to the disdain with which Blessed Augustine of Hippo is held in some quarters of Orthodoxy, and that we are now left with a meaningless feast as a result.
The sad truth is that this is simply evidence of just how much damage has been done by this teaching of the immaculate conception. The actual meaning of the celebration of the Conception of the Mother of God has been overshadowed to such a great extent that it has almost entirely departed from the consciousness of many Christians, who are left unable to see the point of the feast without this later teaching, and who, as a result, perceive that they have to choose between the two extremes of a) fully embracing the immaculate conception and the original sin on which it is based, and b) reacting vehemently against this teaching and refusing to celebrate the feast at all! Neither of these is acceptable to the Orthodox mind.
So where does this leave people who are coming from such backgrounds into Orthodoxy, and are faced with what appears to be an inconsistency between our belief and practice? It is not unreasonable that they may also wonder about this and ask similar questions to those posed by my Anglo-Catholic friends.
What follows is my own attempt at answering those questions.
At the very basis of Christian teaching is the understanding that nature, as we perceive and experience it today, is fallen. It is still inherently good as we are told in the creation story but it suffers from the effects of the fall. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the state of mankind. We experience the effects of the fall in perceptible and unimaginable ways. We die, suffer from ailments, experience pain, hunger, and other discomfort. Some have chemical imbalances causing psychological problems. Our passions are also disordered so that many of us struggle with things that, properly, are a wholesome part of our existence and even theosis: food, properly a source of nourishment and enjoyment, is a temptation in many to overeat or undereat, often with deadly consequences; there are inclinations of the sexual passions to acts outside of the procreative marriage bond; there are inclinations and temptations to misdirect our emotions of anger and so forth, often to the point of violence and murder. These are all effects of the fall that affect us all in different ways and to different degrees. They are all ways in which mankind today is separated from complete theosis, from the full participation in the light, love, splendour, holiness, and life-creating energies of the Holy Trinity.
The Ascended Christ, taking our restored human nature back to the bosom of the Father.
The hope that we have in Christianity is the Incarnation. God became man. He fully took on the human nature in the Person of Jesus Christ, and, in that flesh, shared in our struggles, our sufferings, and grief. He had a physical body, just like ours, and felt pain and hunger and, ultimately, shared in our death. Having released the bonds of those righteous ones in Hades who had died before the Incarnation, He also conquered all those elements of the fall in his glorious Resurrection, while still in our flesh - still fully possessing the human nature. In the Ascension, He took that redeemed and restored human nature back into heaven, once again opening the way for us to follow and this we do, by being grafted into his Body, the Church, through Baptism, and being nourished by his Body and Blood, and through participation in the grace-filled life of the Church.
The post-Resurrection Body of Christ was still human, but what we are called to be rather than what we are. He was truly, physically present, but the Gospels tell us of characteristics that we know ourselves not to have. He appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and just as easily vanished from sight. He even showed the brilliance of what our deified bodies are to be at the Transfiguration on Tabor. We see evidence of this in some cases in the lives of the Saints, as they have, in their advanced states of theosis, even during their earthly lives in some cases, physical characteristics beyond what is the common fallen state of mankind. We hear of healing miracles, incorruptible relics, relics that give a sweet aroma, levitation, and even resurrection from the dead! The Saints truly participate in the energies of God and overcome these effects of the fall. Such is the call of all of us and this is at the very heart of the Christian Faith and, indeed, of our entire lives as Christian people.
Another effect of this fallennesss is barrenness. That the ability to procreate becomes diminished or even ceases in men and women, often after a certain age, is a sign of the separation of mankind from participation in the life-giving energies of God. Yet in the childless, elderly couple, the righteous Joachim and Anna, we see a foretaste, a foreshadowing, of the great Mystery of the Resurrection of Christ. Even before Christ is born, we see something of the effects of his conquering the fall, when the barrenness of his grandmother, the righteous Anna is overcome when the Mother of the Redeemer comes into existence in her life-bearing womb.
It is this that we celebrate on the feast of the Conception of the Mother of God. At different times, through repeated renewal of covenants, and in various ways, God revealed something of Himself to his people of various lands, tribes, and backgrounds. He spoke through prophets, sages, and bards for hundreds, even thousands of years, and, after all of this prophecy and prayer, and hopeful expectation, in the Conception of the Mother of God, we have the first sign of the coming of the One Who Is, Who comes to save us from the fall, from peril, and from death, and Who comes to give life. We see this same glimpse of Christ's triumph over lifelessness in the person of the Holy Forerunner and Baptist John, the last in the line of the prophets before Christ, through whose conception, (celebrated on the 23rd of September), the barren womb of St Elisabeth was opened. It is partly for this reason that it is the Mother of God and the Forerunner who are usually depicted on the Deisis icon.
Deisis triptych by the hand of Aidan Hart.
As with most feasts in the Orthodox Church, the best expression of the meaning of the Conception lies in the prayers and hymns of the feast itself, and is immediately recognisable as part of the restoring, healing, paschal Mystery of Christ.
This is clear from the hymns of the feast in the Byzantine Rite:
Today the bonds of barrenness are broken: God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anna. He has promised them beyond all their hopes, to bear the Maiden of God by whom the Uncircumscribed One was born as mortal man, Who commanded an angel to cry unto her: Rejoice, O thou who art Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee!
Troparion for the Conception of the Mother of God, tone 4
Let the heavens rejoice this day, for Anna has conceived the Theotokos through God's dispensation, for she has brought forth the one who is to bear the ineffable Word!
Kontakion for the Conception of the Mother of God, tone 4
Praise the Lord, you children! Praise the name of the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and for evermore. From sunrise to sunset may the Lord’s name be praised. The Lord is supreme over all the nations; his glory is beyond the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, Who makes his home on high, yet watches over the humble things in heaven and on earth? He raises the poor from the earth and lifts the needy from the dunghill, to seat him with princes, with the rulers of his people. He settles the barren woman in a home as a happy mother with her children.It seems quite unlikely that this psalm was chosen by coincidence. See also this excerpt from the Mass of the feast:
Let us celebrate this daySo it seems to me that the hymns and prayers of the feast in both east and west are replete with the theology of the Conception of the Mother of God as the first foretaste - a prelude - of the great bountines of the Lord's restorative and healing grace of which we can all partake. This is what the Church has celebrated since the establishment of this feast, long before the departure of the west into exploring ways around the problems caused by its understanding of original sin. This feast is a celebration of the grace, love, and bountiful mercy of God, and, without the need for recourse to late doctrinal developments that serve merely to obscure its meaning, Christians have great cause for celebration, prayer, and thankfulness on this day.
whereon piously we say
Mary was conceived.
Begotten is the mother maid,
conceived, created, channel made,
or pardon to the world.
Adam's primeval banishment
and Joachim's own discontent
there find a remedy.
from the Sequence at the Mass for the Conception of the Mother of God.
Let us all rejoice and praise the Lord, keeping holy day in honour of the Virgin Mary, for whose Conception the Angels are joyful, and glorify the Son of God!*For those unfamiliar with this distinction, Father Gregory Hallam offers this very good elucidation.
- the office/introit for the Conception of the Mother of God