This post is the result of a conversation between three monks of Belmont today, the eve of the Assumption feast. One monk, who is of the Byzantine Rite, was explaining to us the difference between the celebration of the Assumption in East and West. While both traditions agree that Mary was assumed, body and soul, into heaven, he said, the Eastern tradition is very clear that Mary died, while the Latin tradition puts no emphasis on her death at all, even leaving it as an open question. He said that this is because of the connection between sin and death, and the Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception. This belief has led some theologians to hold that, as Mary was conceived without sin, so she did not have to die, because death is the result of sin. In the Orthodox tradition however, what is transmitted from the Fall of Adam is not original sin but death; and, as we have already noted, the Orthodox liturgy of the feast of the Dormition puts emphasis on the death of Mary leading to her Assumption.
Tradition, both in East and West, celebrate the holiness of Mary, her purity, her sanctity, her sinlessness, above that of all other human beings; and both traditions celebrate the fact that, of all human beings, Mary is the most saved, the most redeemed, the most transformed by Christ's death and resurrection. In fact, since Christ's death, death is no longer just a consequence of Adam's sin: it is the supreme climax of our Christian lives, when the personal life of each of us is configured finally to the death of Christ. For a Christian, death is the moment when all the times we have participated in the death of Christ by our participation in his Eucharistic Sacrifice bear fruit. Our whole being, in the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, becomes one pure white bread of Jesus Christ: our participation in the Mass is complete Hence, Mary shared our death, not as a punishment for sin, but as the ultimate expression in this life of her "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word". Shame has been turned into glory as she becomes, once and for all, completely united with her Son in the glory of his death, and death becomes the road to assumption.
If we are one, Catholics and Orthodox, in proclaiming the sanctity of Mary as Mother of God, the West has found it necessary to formulate the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in order to give coherent assent to this common faith. This is because the West accepts the doctrine of Original Sin as taught by St Augustine of Hippo. This doctrine is not felt necessary in the East because St Augustine is litttle known. As my basic theological position is that East and West have traditions that are complementary rather than contradictory, arising from our participation in a common Eucharist, and hence being different versions of the same Catholic Tradition, I hope that the East will eventually see more in St Augustine than they do at the moment. In the mean time, I shall try to say something of the alternative doctrine of the Eastern Church, not to oppose it to our Western teaching, but to expand our understanding of the Incarnation and of the position of the Blessed Virgin in the History of Salvation. To do this, I shall look at the Advent theme of the Holy Ancestors of God.
On the , Sunday before Christmas, the Eastern Church remembers the Holy Forefathers of Jesus. Here is a prayer at the Lamp-lighting psalms of Vespers:
We celebrate today the memory of the Ancestors of Christ. Sing with fervour a hymn of praise to Christ the Saviour who magnified them among all the nations. He is the Lord who does wondrous deeds because he is powerful and mighty, and shows us his strength through these Ancestors. The greatest of them all is Mary, the immaculate maiden of God, the undefiled one. From her Christ came to give life to all: eternal Salvation and Paradise without end.
Thus the East sees Mary as the flower of a movement that began with Abraham, a force of attraction with its source in Christ that operated in their faith as a constant hope, forming them and making them holy and giving to their faith its orientation towards the future. Thus, in the icon of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are depicted with their garments illuminated with the light of the Transfiguration, even though they lived before him. Thus, Jesus is the centre and source of Old Testament sanctity, just as much as he is of Christian sanctity, the Holy Spirit bridging time and space and putting all generations in living contact with Christ. However, there is an obvious difference between faith before the Incarnation in that it was embedded in an event tin the future, while ours shares in an event in the past.
The Incarnation is the fruit of a long preparation, beginning with Abraham. This is the context win which Mary's holiness is understood. This growth in holiness is why Joachim and Anne are regarded as saints, and the feast of the Immaculate Conception is called the "Feast of the Conception of St Anne" or the "Child-begetting of St Anne"
Troparion on the feast of the Maternity of Anne
(december 8th or 9th)
Today the bonds of barrenness are loosed: God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anne. He has promised against all hope the birth of the Maiden of God from whom the Infinite himself is to be born as a man, He who had ordered the Angel to cry out to her: "Hail, oh Woman full of grace."
I think we can learn a lot from the Byzantine Liturgy and from Orthodox church practice that can only enforce and deepen our faith.