The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

This sermon was preached on Friday evening, December 7, 2012,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Sdn. Ambrose.


Do you guys think that the Orthodox Church is beautiful? I do. I mean, I look around: I see architecture, I see beautiful liturgies, I see beautiful candles, I smell beautiful incense, I see some beautiful vestments, and I experience the beautiful historicity–the apostolic succession–that we have, and I’m thankful that we have all of that. The interesting thing is, this beauty that we see is not designed to make us as individuals look pretty. It’s not to exalt us. It’s designed to make the Bride of Christ–His Church–look beautiful. You know, if you think about a king who is gonna get married, that’s what we are–we are getting ready to be married to the King, and we are the Bride of Christ, so we want to be adorned in such a way–so wherever possible the King’s Bride should be adorned as beautifully as possible.

One of the jewels that we have in the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church is in our lectionary. The lectionary is the cycle of readings that are read–just like we read from Proverbs tonight, we’ve read from–was it Luke, was it the Gospel of Luke–I read from Isaiah earlier, we’ve read from the Psalms, and I’ve read from Revelation. In the Eastern Rite Church, that’s just not part of their liturgy, part of their lectionary. But in the Western Rite Church we actually get that. Now, they believe in it. They believe that. It’s just that in the development of their lectionary it never got added in there. So, we get that. And I think that’s a neat little jewel, that we get to keep in ours.

We do believe also that every prophecy in Scripture–I mentioned this last Sunday in Sunday school–but that every prophecy in Scripture which points towards an event or towards a person is fulfilled completely in Christ and His Church. So if you’re ever reading something in Scripture and you go, “I wonder what that’s talking about?” You’re gonna be safe to bet that it’s talking about Christ or His Church, whether it’s from Genesis to Malachi in the Old Testament, we’re probably pointing forwards to Christ. If it’s in the New Testament, it’s talking about Christ or it’s talking about His Church and the fulfillment. Now, that’s not to say that everything that has been prophesied has been completely fulfilled. I’m not saying it’s happened. I mentioned that the Second Coming of Christ hasn’t happened yet. We do know that’s still yet to come. But my point is that if you are looking to the answer to who a prophecy is talking about, or to whom–either who it’s talking about or talking to–it’s either talking about Christ, or it’s talking to the Church. So, we do believe that in Orthodoxy.

Another interesting jewel in the Western Rite is that we celebrate as part of Advent an event we call the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And we celebrate on December 8th, which is tomorrow. We just happen to be doing the vesperal liturgy for it the night before. But, however, in the Eastern Rite they celebrate it, and they call it the Conception of the Theotokos. And “Theotokos” means, do you know what? “God Bearer”, the bearer of God. So, they celebrate the Conception of the Theotokos on December 9th, which is Mike’s birthday, right? which is coming up on Sunday. Now, I don’t want to belabor all the history of what happened in the development of the Eastern and Western Rites, whether it’s liturgically or politically, but it’s the same, the event that we’re both celebrating, ok? The Western Rite just celebrates it on one day, and the Eastern Rite celebrates it the next morning.

But what it is, the event, is where righteous Joachim and Anna–and you mentioned their icon over here, right here–Joachim and Anna are the parents of Mary, ok. And they were childless for 50 years in their marriage. And they–in their old age–the Archangel Gabriel appeared to them both, separately, but appeared to them both, telling them that God had heard their prayers for a child, and that they would give birth to a daughter. Who was that?

Children in the congregation respond in unison: Mary!

Subdeacon Ambrose: Yes. Andrea, do you know who that is?

Andrea: Yes!

Subdeacon Ambrose: That’s your saint, right? Ok.

And then–so St. Anna conceived, and by her husband. And then nine months later they bore a daughter, who was Mary.

Now, during this feast, as Orthodox, we rejoice in the events by which Mary was conceived, and [in] the 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 God’s Son, of her–of His Son, the Messiah. There are other icons that actually show Joachim and Anna, um, one I just saw online earlier today shows them embracing–they’re standing beside each other, embracing–and behind them is their bed. Isn’t that neat? I think it’s kind of neat–I mean, Orthodoxy’s not afraid to talk about earthy, gritty things–you know, talking about the conception of a child–and that’s a feast that we celebrate. In January we celebrate the circumcision of Jesus! We’re not afraid to talk about earthy, gritty things, which I think is really nice.

But unlike the Roman Catholic Church who–they also celebrate the same event–the Orthodox Church, particularly in the present time, doesn’t call the feast the same thing that they do. Ok? The Roman Catholic Church calls this particular time of year the “Immaculate Conception”, and probably in ancient times, before the Schism happened between Rome and Orthodoxy, that title would have been a fully Orthodox, acceptable term to call it. We would have called it the Immaculate Conception as well, because in Latin, “macula” means “stain”, ok? So, “immaculate” would just mean “unstained”, ok? Her conception was unstained. Now, this doesn’t mean–it isn’t because the Orthodox consider Mary’s conception to have been somehow “maculate” or “stained”–We’re not saying that we believe that it is that way, but it just means that the Orthodox don’t want to support the conviction that somehow God had to intervene at the moment of Mary’s conception with a special action to remove that stain of original sin that is transmitted by the act of human reproduction–The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the actual act of reproduction is the stain that is transmitted in original sin to the offspring, ok? . . . We don’t call it that because we don’t even believe that that stain exists, ok? . . . We don’t say that.

So, while we do as Orthodox affirm that there is original sin, we do not teach that it is a guilt from Adam’s sin, ok? What we teach is that original sin is not the guilt, but the effects of. So, because Adam sinned, we all inherit the effects of that sin. So, in essence, we can get sick, and we can die, because of the effects of Adam’s sin. But we are not held guilty for Adam’s sin. That’s a nuance, but it’s an important nuance that the Orthodox Church holds, whereas the Roman Catholic and many Protestants do not hold to that. They hold that we are also guilty as well. So, there’s a big difference there. Orthodoxy–Orthodox theology, anyway–teaches that all human beings, including the Virgin Mary, are what we call “mere humans”, born into fallen, death-bound, demon-riddled world, ok? Unlike Jesus, who is a divine human, but not just a mere human–what I’m doing here is I’m quoting Fr. Thomas Hopko, ok, when I say this. And to go back briefly to the nuance that I’m talking about, in Roman Catholic and Protestant theology, Jesus–if there is original sin in that state–Jesus would not be born with original sin. But in the Orthodox perspective, we would say, He’s not born with the guilt of Adam any more than we are, but He was born with the effects of sin, because He could feel pain, he could get sick, and He could die as well. So he was, He was–have the same effects that we have, but He was God. He was deity. So, He was not just a mere human; He was a divine human, because He is the incarnate Son and the Word of God.

So, we are all born mortal and tending towards sin, but we’re not born guilty of any personal sin. And St. John Chrysostom actually taught that if sexual union in marriage is in any sense sinful–which is what is taught in the Roman Catholic Church–that God is a sinner, because He made us this way–male and female–from the beginning, ok? So, even St. John Chrysostom says this idea of sin being passed on through the union of a husband and wife is not true because it makes God be the sinner. He’s the one who created us that way.

So, Mary is conceived by her parents in the same way that we are all conceived, ok? But in her case, it is a pure act of faith and love, in obedience to God’s will, as an answer to prayer, and in this sense her conception is truly immaculate, ok? It is unstained, and Mary’s nativity is celebrated–we celebrate the nativity of Mary–we just did it three months ago, ok? On September 8th, which is nine months from now, right? Three months ago is nine months from now, September 8th. So, in the Western Rite we celebrate her conception exactly nine months prior to her nativity. And the tradition of the Eastern Rite church is kind of neat, that it says that the Eastern Rite churches say that the nine month period is purposely off by one day, just to illustrate the mere humanity of Mary, that she’s not divinely human like Jesus, exactly on nine months, but that she was one day off. So, it’s just kind of a neat little thing that the Eastern Rite does.

Some Protestant groups are confused about us celebrating Mary. In fact, why would you celebrate Mary during the middle of Advent? Here we are. Ok, we should be celebrating Christ. But, in fact, we are celebrating Christ in this feast. We have a saying in Orthodox circles that says, “Mariology is Christology”. When you study about or talk about Mary, you’re basically talking about Christ. Ok, it means that what we say about Mary or whatever we celebrate about Mary in her memory is actually not solely about her, but it’s about God’s work through her in bringing us Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. So, for example, if we call Mary “Theotokos”, which we’ve since said is the “bearer of God”, it’s not because we’re trying to elevate her higher than humanity, and to say that she’s somehow better because she’s the mother of God. What we’re actually saying is–we’re recognizing that the one she bore in her womb was God Incarnate. So by saying Mary is the mother of God, in saying that about her, we’re actually saying who Christ is, by doing that. And anything less than this belief, denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, and then denies the message of true Christianity, because Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. So when we say Mary is the mother of God, it’s a Mariological statement, but it’s also a Christological statement. And it defines something about Jesus. So, and what this does, real quick, is it brings us back to the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So we’re back to Mary again.

What this feast tells us, is that long before the Incarnation took place, God was already working the plan of salvation. Is that amazing? Think about that! Before–have you ever heard it said that “God was searching throughout time and eternity for some willing woman who would be willing to be the bearer of His Son, and that He finally found Mary, a pure virgin in Israel, 2000 years ago”? That’s not what this feast teaches.

This feast teaches us that God had the plan for Mary before Mary was even conceived, that Gabriel went to righteous Joachim and Anna to–in advance–to tell them, “You are going to give birth to this woman, and that is the woman whom God has chosen to give birth to Christ.” So, what does that say about Joachim and Anna? They are the people who were righteous enough to be the mother and father of the mother of God, the grandparents of Christ, right? So, God had already selected her to be the bearer of His incarnate Son. So, the feast of the Conception of the Virgin Mary then is a Marian feast, but even moreso it’s a Christological feast because it’s part of the larger picture of Christ’s saving action. That action is one which has been put into motion long before we even knew that we needed it. Long before the salvation offered us was offered, God was formulating that salvation.

Mary’s conception was part of the divine plan, and when we celebrate it, we celebrate her part in it. Most of all, however, we celebrate the Lord who brought it about, and who has desired for so long to redeem our souls.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is one. Amen.


This sermon was preached on Friday evening, December 7, 2012,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Sdn. Ambrose.


About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Mary the Mother of God, Other Homilies. Bookmark the permalink.

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