Monday, August 15, 2011

The death of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Latin tradition

"The Death of the Virgin Mary" by Caravaggio

August 15th, Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Many Catholics (at least in the West) are under the impression that the Latin (Roman) Church favors the opinion that the Mother of God did not die, but was assumed at the end of her life without suffering the separation of body and soul; while the Eastern Church favors the opinion that the Blessed Virgin Mary did die, and that they refer to this death as a “dormition”. In truth, although there are certain modern westerners who (quite rashly) maintain that the Virgin did not die, the Latin tradition has generally been even stronger than that of the East in affirming that our Lady suffered death: While the East speaks of “the falling asleep (dormition) of the Theotokos”, the West has traditionally favored the more blunt “the death of the Virgin Mary”.
The Latin tradition is so strongly in favor of the doctrine that our Lady suffered death before her Assumption that this was very nearly adopted at the Second Vatican Council after being promoted especially by mariologists of the Roman school.
On the less-than-reliable web source Wikipedia (as of July 2011), we find this same confusion - as though the Latin Church was not just as strong as the East in affirming the death of the Virgin Mary: “The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary died a natural death, like any human being. […] Roman Catholic teaching holds that Mary was ‘assumed’ into heaven in bodily form. Some Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after Mary's death, while some hold that she did not experience death. Pope Pius XII, in his Apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus (1950), which dogmatically defined the Assumption, left open the question.”
We shall briefly consider at least one reason as to why this confusion has crept into popular thinking. [For a discussion of whither the Blessed Mother was assumed, please consider this article, or this one.]

Dormition vs. Death
It seems that the Eastern “Dormition” tradition entails the notion of death. Certainly, the Eastern Fathers do not use dormition to deny bodily death. However, it is worth noting that the Eastern theologians generally refrain from speaking directly of “death”, but prefer the more metaphorical language of “falling asleep”. Perhaps they mean nothing different from the Latins, I do not know – What I do know is that the East does not generally speak of “The Death of the Virgin Mary”.
The West, on the other hand, has traditionally spoken first of our Lady’s death and then of her Assumption. The Latins emphasize the distinction between the two events, which the Greeks tend to collapse under the title “Dormition”. The Latins are clear: First, the Mother of God died; then, she was resurrected and assumed into heaven. Evidence of this language can be found in the Encyclical of Pius XII, excerpts of which are reproduced below.
A point of confusion: Artistic depictions in the West, Mary was alive at the Assumption
"The Assumption", Annibale Carracci of the Western tradition
It seems that a major factor which has led to the common misconception – as though the Latin Church favors the opinion that our Lady did not die, while the East presumes that she did suffer death – is the representations of the Assumption in Western art.
When the Western artists depict the Assumption of Mary, they depict her as being alive – whereas the Byzantine iconography generally shows our Lady “sleeping” on earth while her soul is with Christ in heaven. From this fact (that the Latin art shows the Virgin alive at the Assumption), some have presumed that the Western tradition maintains that our Lady did not die, but was assumed directly. However, this is plainly not the case.
The Latin tradition (as I mentioned above) stressed more clearly the two distinct events: First, our Lady died; then, she was resurrected and assumed into heaven. Therefore, it is entirely natural that the Western depictions of the Assumption would show our Lady alive while being taken up – this does not imply that she did not die, but only that she had been raised before being assumed.
It would be incorrect to state that Mary was still alive when she was assumed; rather, the Latin tradition maintains that Mary was again restored to life when she was assumed. [This is taught by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, which speaks of Mary's resurrection.]
"The Dormition of the Theotokos"
in the Eastern tradition of Theophanes the Greek
In any case, it is at least a sententia certa (a certain teaching) that our Lady died before being raised and assumed into heaven. This is the clear and explicit tradition of the West and is maintained in a slightly less-clear (and more metaphorical) manner also in the East.
The Magisterial teaching of Pope Pius XII in Munificentissimus Deus
Again and again, the Holy Father alludes (more or less explicitly) to the death of the Virgin Mother of God.
“She was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body” (n. 5)
“It was not difficult for [the Christian faithful] to admit that the great Mother of God, like her only begotten Son, had actually passed from this life.” (n. 14)
“Venerable to us, O Lord, is the festivity of this day on which the holy Mother of God suffered temporal death” (n. 17, quoting the Sacramentarium Gregorianum)
“As he kept you a virgin in childbirth, thus he has kept your body incorrupt in the tomb and has glorified it by his divine act of transferring it from the tomb.” (n. 18, quoting the Byzantine liturgy)
“This feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death.” (n. 20)
“It was fitting that she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death.” (n. 21, quoting St. John Damascene)
“She has received an eternal incorruptibility of the body together with him who has raised her up from the tomb and has taken her up to himself in a way known only to him.” (n. 22, quoting a work attributed to St. Modestus of Jerusalem)
“Thus, during the earliest period of scholastic theology, that most pious man, Amadeus, Bishop of Lausanne, held that the Virgin Mary’s flesh had remained incorrupt.” (n. 28)
“What son would not bring his mother back to life and would not bring her into paradise after death if he could?” (n. 35, quoting St. Francis de Sales)
“Jesus did not wish to have the body of Mary corrupted after death” (n. 35, quoting St. Alphonsus, the Marian Doctor)
“Consequently, just as the glorious resurrection of Christ was an essential part and the final sign of this victory, so that struggle which was common to the Blessed Virgin and her divine Son should be brought to a close by the glorification of her virginal body, for the same Apostle says: When this mortal thing hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.” (n. 39)
“Hence the revered Mother of God […] finally obtained, as the supreme culmination of her privileges, that she should be preserved free from the corruption of the tomb and that, like her own Son, having overcome death, she might be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven.” (n. 40)
"The Assumption of Mary" by Juan de Valdes Leal
However, the definition infallibly declared by Pius XII does not explicitly state that the Blessed Virgin suffered death: “We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” (n. 44)


Deo volente said...


I love this blog and thank you for your wonderful clarifications of so many things. I always believed that Mary (like Jesus) died before her Assumption. This post explains our beliefs in a most cogent way!

Pax tecum!

Seraphim said...

In the East the term "Dormition" always refers to the death of a Christian (since "God is God not God of the dead, but of the living", and all the saints are alive in Christ). The Dormition of St. Anne is also celebrated by us, but nobody thinks that her body was assumed into Heaven.

The usual point of disagreement between East and West over this has to do with whether the Theotokos was subject to "original sin". In the East, "original sin" means death - because she was human, and had to possess the fullness of humanity in order to transmit it to her Son, Mary died, and leaving the question open as the West seems to do is not acceptable. For this reason, Orthodox theologians after 1854 will deny the term "Immaculate Conception", although Orthodoxy has always taught the sinlessness and absolute purity of the Theotokos throughout the entire course of her life.

In the West, "original sin" means more like concupiscence, a tendency to sin, and the reatus of Adam's ancestral sin (which the East strongly reacted against when "reatus" was mistranslated "guilt"). This is regarded as being the cause of death, and since Mary was not subject to any of these, she did not "need" to die, but rather chose to in order to unite her sufferings to those of her Son. And indeed some Orthodox saints like St. Dimitri of Rostov will say that Mary died by choice in order to be more like her Son (though it is open to dispute how much he is actually reflecting the Eastern tradition, as if such a thing were completely autonomous, and how much he is reflecting his seminary education in Rome, where many Ukrainian Orthodox priests went to study having apparently not received the memo that they were in "schism").

I would say that in the New Eve, in such a perfectly sinless being as the Theotokos, how could there be any disjunction between her choice and her being? Her death was necessary, and it was also her choice, because she lived in the fullest depth of truth.

Anonymous said...

Could please clarify if Mary was resurrected or brought back to life. You seem to use these two interchangeably which can be misleading.

Was she brought back life (the same life she had before) and then was taken to heavenly glory, or has she passed on to the New Life, in a glorified body, like Christ, and then was taken up.

Thank you for your comments.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Mary was risen in the same sense that Christ was ... so she was resurrected, as in her body being revived and glorified, then she was assumed into Heaven.

Thanks for the clarification question. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I think you missed an important point of my article.
You seem to think that the West is more open to the idea that Mary did not die than the East is - this is simply not the case (historically).

The fact is that the West has been much more direct than the East in affirming the death of the Virgin Mary ... since the East generally uses the metaphor (dormition), but we in the West use the direct language of "death".

Thank you for pointing out the tradition of the Dormition of St. Anne, very interesting! +

Liam Ronan said...

If the Blessed Virgin Mary indeed suffered death would it not be true also that she elected, as Jesus did, to suffer death since she was preserved from Original sin?

Stomachosus said...

Liam's question gives rise to another. To what extent does the tradition affirm preternatural gifts to Mary?

It is sometimes hard to remember that immortality does not belong, by nature, to the body. It was a preternatural gift. Original sin is first and foremost the privation of the gift of original justice, and secondarily the gift of integrity (by which concupiscence was ordered to reason). The "what it is" of man, his nature in that sense, did not change at all by the fall, as he lost things beyond it.

It seems certain that Mary did not have all the preternatural gifts. For instance, she, like Christ, did not have the gift of impassibility. Not having original sin does not demand the other preternatural gifts (e.g. St. Thomas taught that the children of Adam, if the fall had not happened, would not have the gift of knowledge which he received)

So, it doesn't seem to me that freedom from death had to be granted to Mary.

Vincent said...

I don't think the Eastern tradition is terribly ambiguous about her death. It is customary in Orthodox circles to say when someone has died that they have "fallen asleep in the Lord."

Anonymous said...

M+Some 10 years ago while visiting a Carmelite priest at their international college in Rome, he told me that just prior to the promulgation of the Dogam, a priest of a Marian order, late at night visited Pius XII. The dogma proclaimed the "Death" of Mary," but then changed it to "when she compmleted her earthly...."
I, for one, do not believe Our Lady died...death is the consequence of Original sin, ergo... Fr. Davis

Alexandra M.G. said...

Here is a full description of the Dormition of the Mother of God as found in Church Tradition and preserved by the Holy Orthodox Church. Note that as stated before, "dormition" refers clearly to "death" or to the "falling asleep unto the Lord" as is the term in the East for when any Christian dies.

The Dormition of the Mother of God.

The Most-holy Mother of God after the Ascension of Jesus Christ continued to live on earth several years. One Christian historian says — ten years, and another — twenty-two years. Apostle John the Theologian, according to the instructions of Jesus Christ, took Her into his home and cared for Her with great love as Her own son until the end of Her life. The Most-holy Mother of God became a mother to all twelve of the apostles in general. They prayed with Her with great joy and were comforted to listen to Her instructive conversations about the Saviour. When the Christian faith had spread to other lands, many Christians came from distant countries to see and listen to Her voice.

Living in Jerusalem, the Mother of God loved to visit those places where the Saviour had frequented and where he had suffered, died, rose from the dead, and ascended to Heaven. She prayed at these places weeping, remembering the suffering of the Saviour, and rejoicing at the places of His Resurrection and Ascension. She often prayed that Christ would soon take Her to Himself in Heaven.

One day, when the Most-holy Mary was praying thus on the Mount of Olives, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her with a branch from a date palm in Paradise and told Her the joyful news that in three days She would finish Her earthly life, and the Lord would take Her to Himself. The Most-holy Mother of God silently rejoiced over this news. She told Her adopted son, John, and began to prepare for Her end. At that time, the other apostles were not in Jerusalem, as they had dispersed to other countries to preach about the Saviour. The Mother of God wanted to bid farewell to them, and so the Lord in a miraculous manner gathered all the apostles to Her, except Thomas, transporting them by His omnipotent power.

Grief befell them over losing the Mother of the Lord and their own spiritual Mother when they learned why God had gathered them. But the Mother of God comforted them promising not to leave them and all Christians after Her death and promising also to pray for them. Then, She blessed them all.
(cont. on next comment)

Alexandra M.G. said...

Here is part II of the story (I apologize if part 1 appears multiple times)
Three days after the burial of the Mother of God, the absent Apostle Thomas arrived in Jerusalem. He was greatly saddened that he had not been able to say farewell to the Mother of God; and with all his heart, he desired to venerate Her most pure remains. The apostles felt so sorry for him that they decided to go and roll away the stone from the tomb to give him the possibility to venerate for the last time the body of the Mother of God. But when they opened the tomb, Her most holy body was not found, but only one piece of burial shroud was there. The amazed apostles returned to the house together and prayed to God to reveal to them what had become of the body of the Mother of God. In the evening, at the end of dinner during prayer, they heard angelic singing. Looking up, the apostles saw in the air the Mother of God surrounded by angels and in the radiance of heavenly glory. The Mother of God said to the apostles, "Rejoice! I am with you always and will pray for you before God."

The apostles exclaimed to Her in joy, "Most-holy Mother of God, help us!"

Thus the Lord Jesus Christ glorified His Most-holy Mother. He resurrected Her and took Her most holy body to Himself and set Her higher than all His angels.

Note: A full description of the Dormition of the Mother of God is found in Church Tradition and preserved by the Holy Orthodox Church.

The Dormition of our Most-holy Lady Mother of God is celebrated by the Holy Orthodox Church as one of its major feasts on the 15th of August (28th of August NS). Preceding this feast, there is a two-week fast beginning from the 1st of August. This feast is called the Dormition ("falling asleep") because the Mother of God died quietly as if She was falling asleep and, more importantly, because of the short sojourn of Her body in the grave. After three days, She was resurrected by the Lord and ascended into Heaven.

Troparion of the Feast.

In giving birth Thou didst preserve Thy virginity; in Thy dormition Thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos. Thou wast translated unto life, since Thou art the Mother of Life; and by Thine intercessions dost Thou deliver our souls from death.

Anonymous said...

I'm fascinated with this tradition and the story is credible. I believe that Our Mother died and was assumed to heaven body and soul.Ave Maria!

Augustinus said...

An excellent post, Father!

Permit me, though, to respond to the following assertion, which in no way detracts from the quality of your article.

"You seem to think that the West is more open to the idea that Mary did not die than the East is - this is simply not the case (historically)."

The following article from the 1950's names some of the leading Mariologists of the time as supporters of the immortality of the Blessed Virgin Mary (see p. 593):

I think that the death of the Holy Mother of God can be defended without denying that there was, indeed, a sizeable movement within the Latin tradition to defend the idea that she didn't die.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your comments. There is a lot here and I am trying to understand everything.

Seraphim, could you further describe the idea that Mary chose to die? It seems very suggestive in a time where we struggle with the evil of euthanasia

Alexandra M.G. said...

I'm so sorry, in the late of the night I missed pasting the middle of the story. This part follows my first comment. My apologies!

At the hour of Her death, an extraordinary light shone in the room where the Mother of God lay. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself, surrounded by angels, appeared and received Her pure soul.

The apostles buried the pure body of the Mother of God according to Her wishes in the Garden of Gethsemane where the body of Her parents and the righteous Joseph were buried. At the funeral, many miracles were performed. By touching the deathbed of the Mother of God, the blind regained their sight, demons were driven away, and all sorts of illnesses were cured. Crowds of people followed Her most pure body. Jewish priests and leaders tried to break up this holy procession, but the Lord invisibly protected it. One of the Jewish priests, by the name of Athonius, ran up, seized and tried to overturn the bier on which the body of the Mother of God was laid. But an invisible angel chopped off both his hands. Athonius, struck by such a wondrous miracle, repented and the Apostle Peter healed him.

Alexandra M.G. said...

Here is the website where you can read it easier (the comments didn't allow me to paste it all in at once and then I missed the middle part - that happens when you have mommy brain!). This account is documented in the early Church, it is for all, Catholics and Orthodox to enjoy and impart to our children.

and yet an additional version of the same exact account:

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Davis (anon 5:00pm),
While I do not believe that the issue is definitavely settled, still I must say that it does not seem safe to assert that Mary did not die.

Those who claim that Mary did not die are really extremely novel and modern in their thinking. They contradict the teaching of all (or very nearly all) of the Church Fathers who spoke to the issue.
They contradict the scholastic theologians (and all the doctors of the Church) who spoke to the issue.
They also contradict the ordinary magisterium of the Church as expressed by Pius XII [consider the numerous citations in my article].

Also, I have never put to much faith in these stories of mysterious "priests of a Marian order" who make "late night" visits to Popes ... which "Marian order?" ... who was the priest? ... how did he gain access to the Pope "late at night"?

In any case, I will trust the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church (and Pope Pius XII, who many times over asserts that Mary did die) over these "late night priests".
Still, to be very clear, I do not say that we are bound to the doctrine de fide ... but I think we owe at least obedience of mind and will.

It is not "conservative", "traditional", or even "devotional" to think that Mary did not die -- rather, it is an extremely modern opinion.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Vincent and others,
Regarding whether the East believes that Mary died.

I may not have been as clear as I should have been -- of course, the Fathers and theologians of the East have (nearly unanimously) asserted that Mary did die, that her soul was separated from her body, and even that she was entombed.

My point in this article is to stress that this is not simply an Eastern opinion, but is also affirmed by the Western Church. In fact, the West has generally been MORE EXPLICIT in affirming that Mary died, since we use the word "Death" rather than the metaphor "Dormition" ... I only mean to point out that the Latin Church speaks to the matter in a more direct way, though I am quite certain that the tradition of the Eastern Church is equally solid.

Thank you all for your clarifications on the Eastern Catholic tradition!
Peace and blessings. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Regarding the question of whether Mary "chose to die" in the same manner as Jesus did ...
I think we must make an important distinction: Jesus "gave up his spirit" and died, he laid down his life, not by his power as man, but by his power as God.
Even as a perfect man, Jesus did not have absolute control over his life/death. It was only through his power as God, that he was able to chose (in the fullest sense of the word) to give up his spirit and lay down his life.

Hence, I think we can see that (whatever we may mean talk about the possibility of Mary "choosing" to die) our Lady did not have the same power as Christ of laying down her life at her will.

Hope this is clear ... I think that there is much room for fruitful theological discussion and reflection on this fascinating mystery! +

Jack said...

This is from the Fifth Matins Lesson from the Roman Office for 15 August, promulgated by Pius XII at the same time as he did the Aposotlic Constitution.

From a homily by St. John of Damascus:

**From her true life had flowed for all men, and how should she taste of death? But she yielded obedience to the law established by him to whom she had given birth, and, as the daughter of the old Adam, underwent the old sentence, which even her Son, who is the very Life Itself, had not refused ;**

Now, what is this "old sentence" that even Jesus did not refuse but physical death?

I don't know how human langauge in the Holy Liturgy can be more explicit in saying that the Theotokos did undergo physical death. Her soul did separate from her body--howsoever briefly.


Jack said...

Two more tidbits:

1. One of the hymns chanted in both the Byzantine Office and Liturgy for 15 August is this:

The limits of nature are overcome in you, O pure Virgin. For birthgiving remains virginal, and life is united to death. A virgin after childbearing, and alive after death, you ever save your inheritance, O Theotokos.

So you see two reverences in one hymn about the Theotokos being dead.

2. Echoing St. Louis de Montfort (I think it was), Bl. John Paul II said that the Theotokos did not die as a result of sin, sickness, suffering, old age, or any such thing, but rather yielded up her soul in a transport of love for her Divine Son.

As I recall, there are references in mystical writings in both East and West where the writers described feeling such loving sweetness they thought their souls would leave their bodies.

May such a repose be granted to us all.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thanks for the many quotations and info ... I think your points show that the truly "devotional" belief is to think that Mary did die a holy and blessed death.

Again, this shows that those who want to say that Mary did not die are not really "conservative" or "devout", but are extremely modern and not well grounded in the tradition.

Peace to you! +

Seraphim said...


I am responding now to two comments in response to mine.

First, I didn't miss the point of your article; I disagreed with it. The West in its dogmatic definition did phrase it very precisely in order to leave the matter open, regardless of how untraditional or modern the view that she did not die may be; in the East the term "dormition" is not at all ambiguous or indirect but means "death" just as clearly as the word "death" means. I am glad that historically the West was on the same page; I chalk up a lot of deviations from tradition in the West (rejection or ignorance of theosis and of praying facing East, the death of the Theotokos, the inviolability of the hymen of the Theotokos during childbirth, the sacramental nature of iconography, the childhood of the Theotokos in the Temple, etc.) simply to poor catechesis and widespread ignorance.

Secondly, an anonymous commentor asked me to explain better how the Theotokos chose to die. This is my explanation, not that of St. Dimitri's, since I don't remember where he wrote this. She chose to die by uniting her will to that of her Son. It is impossible that one as holy as the Mother of God should be bound and enslaved to matter, something less than her; as the New Eve, she was truly of the Spirit and not carnal in the Pauline sense (I don't really like the terminology because it can easily smack of a Gnosticism I want to avoid, since I have not only the greatest respect but also love for corporeality). Rather, her will was perfectly united to the will of the natural law, the order of creation created by God (including death, the natural consequence of sin). She chose to die because she willed reality into being, co-operating with God in willing the creation of the world and the nature of its denizens (including the consequences they received from original sin). Christ told some saint that He does nothing without asking His mother, and this includes her death, the necessary consequence of the ancestral sin.

It is truly a wonderful thing to will one's own reality. Sartre said that "man makes himself", and Kierkegaard often spoke of man's authenticity, and in the Theotokos we saw the perfect example of this, where will and truth are perfectly united. (I don't Sartre understood anywhere close to the full depth of his words.)

It has absolutely nothing to do with euthanasia, which is a denying and turning away from the truth of things rather than an embracing of it. It has no more similarity to euthanasia than Christ's sacrifice on the Cross does.


Seraphim said...


Father Davis argued that Mary could not have died because she was not subject to original sin. This is why the East is insistent that Mary was subject to original sin, though as one absolutely free from all taint of sin "even in thought" (according to St. Silouan the Athonite), her dormition was perfectly peaceful. This is not a disagreement with the doctrinal pronoucement of Rome on the Immaculate Conception, only a different emphasis on what we mean by "original sin" (or "ancestral sin", to use the more common Eastern expression). While the value of the Western theological expression is certainly not something I would deny, the Eastern expression does avoid the error of arguing that Mary could not have died. She did die, and this is the extent to which she too was subject to original sin.

When I was received into full communion with Rome (which, incidentally, I should clarify was from high-church Protestantism, not Orthodoxy), the priest told me that while Mary chose to die in order to unite her sufferings to her Son, she did not need to. I cannot see how the choice of the Mother of God could possibly be trivial enough to be something simply arbitrary. If she chose it, it was necessary in the order of things, because she lived deeply enough in the truth that her choices had real gravity, like her choice to bear the Word at the Annunciation, or her choice to begin the ministry of her Son at Cana.



Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

And the fact remains that the West says "death" rather than using a metaphor ... hence, "The Death of the Virgin Mary" is a Latin tradition [which is shared also with the East, though in a less explicit manner].

Seraphim said...

And Father, I still maintain that in our vocabulary the term "dormition" is not a metaphor or any less explicit than the term "death". Otherwise we would not speak of the dormition of St. Anne or of any other other saints. I am happy that the West uses the term "death", and that the dormition of the Theotokos is therefore a Latin tradition too.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I don't want to belabor this point too much, and I am very grateful to you for pointing out the wide use of the term "dormition" ... but the simple fact is that "dormition" is a metaphor for "death".

"Dormition", in the strict literal sense, means "sleeping". "Sleep" is a metaphor for "death". That is all there is too it. "Sleep" does not mean "death" according to the strictly literal sense, but only according to the metaphor ... hence, when I ask you "Did you have a good sleep last night?", I am not asking you if you died last night.

And, its ok to use metaphors (even in theology), we use them all the time (and so does the Bible) -- and they are part of the broad literal sense; but they are still metaphors and not direct speech.

And I would point out (as I'm sure you are well aware) that many in the East do explicitly say "death" as well ... but the more general term is "dormition" -- which is a metaphor, but which is just as strong and true in affirming Mary's death (though it is not quite as direct, since it is a metaphor).

I hope that makes sense ... It's not meant as a slight to the East.
Peace! +

Peter said...

Unfortunately in the liturgical reform of 1955 the Assumption lost its very ancient (9th-century) Octave. The Matins lessons all through the octave had some very beautiful readings from the Fathers.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Regarding whether or not Mary had original sin.
We simply cannot say that she suffered from original sin, because original sin is the lack of grace (it is being conceived without the state of grace) ... and this would be heresy.

To conflate original sin with death is absurd ... it would mean that Christ had original sin ... what is more, it confuses the punishment for sin (i.e. death) with the state itself (i.e. being conceived without grace).

I'm sorry, but whether you are East or West, you simply cannot state that Mary was subject to original sin and that this is why she died ... else, we would have to say that Christ too was subject to original sin since he too was able to die.

junex said...


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It seems most likely that she simply gave up her spirit to the Lord. She prayed the Lord to allow her to die in imitation of her Son, and the prayer was granted.

Alexandra M.G. said...

I am reading a beautiful book: "The Life of the Virgin Mary, The Theotokos" from Holy Apostles Convent. It is written within the context of Holy Orthodox Tradition, but I'm sure many Catholics would enjoy the contents, even if there are differences in theology between Catholics and Orthodox. It's an extensive book which draws from Scripture and ancient writings, many from the early Church Fathers such as St. Ignatios of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons and St. Hippolytos, as well as other righteous ones up to modern times. It draws from the rich hymnography of the Church and iconography; the hymns and icons narrate and amplify the Gospel and Holy Tradition. I will quote in the next comment what it says about Immaculate Conception.

Alexandra M.G. said...

From the aforementioned book, quoting St. John Maximovich: "If the Theotokos (God-bearer in Greek) was preserved from this "original sin", that would make God unmerciful and unjust. If God preserved her, why then does He not purify all men? But then that would have meant saving men before their birth, apart from their will. This teaching would tehn deny all her virtues. After all, if Mary, even in the womb of Anna, when she could not even desire anything good or evil, was preserved by God's grace from every impurity, and then by that grace was preserved from sin even after brith, then in what does her virtue consist? She would have been placed in the state of being unable to sin. The Virgin as a true daughter of Adam and Eve, also inherited death. She was not in a state of never being able to die. Thus St. John of Damascuas writes on the occasion of her Dormition, O pure Virgin, sprung form mortal loins, thine end was conformable to nature. Blessed Archbishop John Maximovich continues to comment that the Virgin was not placed in the state of being unable to sin, but continued to take care for her salvation and overcame all temptations. The righteousness and sanctity of the Virgin Mary was manifested in the fact that she, being "human with passions like us," so loved God and gave herself over to Him, that by her purity she was exalted above all creatures. Mary was to become the Mother of God, the Theotokos, not because she was to give birth to divinity, but that through her the Word became true man, God-man.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Alexandra M.G.
John Maximovich is not recognized as a Saint in the Catholic Church.

I think that quote is a good example of pelagianism ... the idea that God cannot give grace until we do something.

In fact, the point about "why didn't He purify all men?" is very very poor theology ... it would mean that neither our Lord nor our Lady could have received any special graces ... excepting insofar as they "earned" these graces ... again, patented pelagianism.

Oh dear, the Orthodox theologians are terribly terribly confused ...

Seraphim said...


The Latin Church too believes that Mary was CAPABLE of sin - she had a free will, and, as the New Eve, was placed in a situation (the Annunciation) where she was offered a choice to accept God's will or say no. (It was not a temptation from Satan, however, but a choice presented to her freedom and rationality by the Archangel Gabriel.) So they would agree with you and with St. John Maximovitch about her taking care of her salvation and overcoming all "temptations" (they simply were not temptations that side-stepped her noetic integrity as they do with us; she knew what she was doing and what the choices she was offered with were).

Both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches agree on the utter purity and sinlessness of the Theotokos. I quote St. Silouan the Athonite, as quoted by his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony:

“In church I was listening to a reading from the prophet Isaiah, and at the words, ‘Wash you, make you clean,’ I reflected, ‘Maybe the Mother of God sinned at one time or another, if only in thought.’ And, marvelous to relate, in unison with my prayer a voice sounded in my heart, saying clearly, ‘The Mother of God never sinned even in thought.’ Thus did the Holy Spirit bear witness in my heart to her purity.”

That's the Roman Catholic dogma in a nutshell.

For an Orthodox perspective on the compatibility of Orthodoxy with Rome on this (partisan polemics notwithstanding), Fr. Lev Gillet ("A Monk of the Eastern Church", author of classic books on "The Prayer of Jesus" and "Orthodox Spirituality") wrote an article on it republished at this blog:

Fr. Gillet was following the arguments of earlier Orthodox theologians like Polotsky and Amfitreoloff, in turn following the Greek Fathers who argued for the sinlessness of the Theotokos on Christological grounds. (As St. Proclus of Constantinople said, “As He formed her without any stain of her own, so He proceeded from her contracting no stain.”)

Have a blessed Nativity of the Theotokos.

In peace,


Seraphim said...

Fr. Erlenbush,

All Orthodox saints are on the Eastern Catholic calendars and can be publicly venerated during Liturgy; I've even been told that St. Alexis Toth (who led an exodus of several thousand Ruthenian Catholics into Orthodoxy) has his troparia during Liturgy at the Russian Catholic parishes in California since they use the Orthodox Church of America's synodikon, and if so St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (St. John Maximovitch) would be one of the more prominent saints venerated there. His relics are kept nearby.

This does not mean that many saints venerated in Catholic churches did not succumb to anti-Catholic polemics and cheap argumentation in order to trump of a heresy (as St. Jerome predicted they would) in order to preserve some superficial image of Holy Orthodoxy as untainted by Romanism. St. Gregory Palamas (celebrated in all Eastern Catholic churches on the Second Sunday of Great Lent as the continuation of the feast of the Triumph of Holy Orthodoxy, as well as in his own feast in November) and St. Photios the Great engaged in anti-Latin polemics too. This doesn't detract from their authority as saints and theologians; it only means that they must be understood in context (of their polemical shortcomings).

Orthodox tradition should be judged according to its teaching throughout the centuries, which was always strongly in favor of the sinlessness and purity of the Panaghia. As my favorite troparion (sung during Orthros/Matins in Great Lent) reads, "To your protection do we fly, O Mary Theotokos; despise then not our cry. From every peril shelter us, for you alone are immaculate - the Mother of our God."

Alexandra M.G. said...

Father, forgive me, I've obviously upset you. I am surprised that you would call Eastern Church heretical and confused. Especially since there has been great effort by the West to make ammends with the Eastern Church. I have a hard time with Catholic doctrine that is introduced so late in time, with lack of clear evidence in the writings of the early Church Fathers. The Orthodox Church does not introduce new doctrine, if it isn't broken, it doesn't require to be fixed. Which is precisely the case with the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine then causes confusion with Catholics on the concept of Her death and whether She died and why she died. You go through great lengths to say why the Catholic usage of the word "death" makes it clearer, yet your article deals with confusion among Catholics as to whether she died or not. This confusion simply doesn't exist in the East. As for your name calling, pelagianism was condemned as heresy in the Council of Carthage in 418AD. St. John of Maximovich is an American Orthodox Saint whose incorrupt relics can be venerated today in the San Francisco Cathedral, "Joy of All Who Sorrow."

Here is a short description of pelagianism, couldn't be farther from Orthodox doctrine: Pelagianism views humanity as basically good and morally unaffected by the Fall. It denies the imputation of Adam's sin, original sin, total depravity, and substitutionary atonement. It simultaneously views man as fundamentally good and in possession of libertarian free will. With regards to salvation, it teaches that man has the ability in and of himself (apart from divine aid) to obey God and earn eternal salvation. Pelagianism is overwhelmingly incompatible with the Bible and was historically opposed by Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo, leading to its condemnation as a heresy at Council of Carthage in 418 A.D. These condemnations were summarily ratified at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431).

I admit I usually don't participate on Catholic blogs! So please forgive me for any offense. My Catholic sister and dear friend forwarded me this link. Her and I have the greatest respect for each other's faith, despite our differences. May God bless us all with peace and understanding.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Seraphim, Thank you for the clarification to the effect that the Eastern Catholic Church does venerate St. John! What a joy for me to discover another saint! +

@Alexandra M.G.,
I am not at all upset ... I am only writing clearly, directly, and concisely. Please do know that this discussion can be very profitable and need not be overly polemical (I will do my best to avoid the polemics as well!).

Still, the essence of pelagianism is that we earn grace through our works ... that seems to the the essence also of your earlier quotation ... that Mary had to earn her graces, and therefore could not have been conceived without sin.
This is very very wrong, on many levels.

Peace to all! +

Seraphim said...

Father, if I might clarify a better-phrased version of the recent Orthodox theolegoumenon formulated in opposition to the West's definition of the Immaculate Conception, it is usually said that the Theotokos was sanctified and perfectly divinized and made free of all sin at the Annunciation when the Incarnation took place, the rationale being that man cannot become God until God has become man. However, she was saintly and pure even before the Annunciation, just not perfected. Her perfection thus was not something she earned (in the Pelagian manner), but a grace given through the Incarnation.

To this argument (which was presented to me in private correspondence from an Orthodox priest, Fr. Borislav Kroner), I would respond that one needs the Incarnation to be sanctified and made holy (even imperfectly holy) no less than perfect and free from all sin, and that there is no reason why she could not have been sanctified by the Incarnation even before the Incarnation happened, because God works outside of time. (Adam and Eve, whom both Orthodox and Catholic dogma teaches were in the state of grace or divinization, also could only have been divinized by the future Incarnation, which is why the East is more skeptical of the Thomist argument that Christ would not have become man if the Fall had not happened; my personal view, which strives to preserve both that argument and the Western liturgical formulation of "O felix culpa," is that the Fall happened and any discussion of "what if" is more or less meaningless, since God is outside of time and does not need to wonder about future possibilities.)

Alexandra M.G. said...

Seraphim, thank you for this clarification, I found it very helpful in understanding the differences and commonalities between the two Churches. And yes, a blessed and joyous feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos to all!

Fr. Ryan, I don't see it as Mary having to earn her grace, I see it as accepting God's will perfectly. We glorify her as the Immaculate One, all pure and sinless, because she had free will, yet always did God's will. If she was conceived without sin, then it wouldn't have been her choice. The fact that her will was God's will (yet she had the freedom to choose) exalts her even more. Thank you for the post!

Seraphim said...


Please see my above comment for an explanation of a better Orthodox objection to the Immaculate Conception. I do think that the phrasing of St. John Maximovitch was guilty of Pelagianism, inadvertantly as it may have been. He was a holy bishop and missionary (as evidenced by the incorruption of his relics), but sometimes quite a bit sloppy as a theologian, a fault more of his intellect than of his sanctity. The same fault was shared by his disciple, Blessed Seraphim (Rose) of Platina, who was also incorrupt and whose body gave off the fragrance of roses after his death, but who has been heavily and justly criticized by other Orthodox for undue influence from Gnostic traditions.

And for the historic acceptance of the phrase "Immaculate Conception" by the Orthodox Church, especially by the Ukrainian saints of the Kyievan Baroque (who formed lay brotherhoods named the "Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception"), including incidentally a different St. John Maximovitch (ancestor of the one you were quoting), see the article by Fr. Lev Gillet that I linked.

There is a lot of Patristic support for the dogma in the Latin Fathers, whom I'm not as familiar with as the Greek. St. Proclus of Constantinople whom I quoted was a 5th-century Father.

Here are a handful of quotations from the Fathers that I could find, some Latin and some Greek:

“This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one.” (Origen, Homily 1 [A.D. 244]).

“Come, then, and search out your sheep, not through your servants or hired men, but do it yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin.” (St. Ambrose, Commentary on Psalm 118:22-30 [A.D. 387])

For later Patristic teaching of the Immaculate Conception, you'll find it in Cyril Loukaris' homily on the Dormition. And St. Gregory Palamas went even farther and taught the progressive gracing of the entire ancestry of Our Lord, so that by the time the Theotokos was conceived without any stain of original sin whatsoever it was the consummation and fulfillment of a long, gradual process of sanctification. And here are some quotations from sources I happen to have on hand:

“Earth she [Mary] is, because she is from earth; but she is a new earth, since she derives in no way from her ancestors and has not inherited the old leaven. She is… a new dough and has originated a new race.” - St. Nicolas Cabasilas, Hom. In Dorm. 4; PG 19:498, quoted in Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 148

“The grace of God delivered her [Mary] completely, just as if she had been conceived virginally [sic]… Thence, because she was completely liberated from the ancestral guilt and punishment - a privilege which she is the only one of the human race to have received - her soul is altogether inaccessible to the clouds of [impure] thoughts, and she became, in body and soul, a divine sanctuary.” - Gennadios Scholarios, Oeuvres completes de Georges Scholarios, ed. J. Petit and M. Jugie, II:501, quoted in Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology p. 148

Seraphim said...

"The fact that her will was God's will (yet she had the freedom to choose) exalts her even more."

Alexandra, thank you for that beautiful and succinct sentence - it speaks many lyrical volumes!



Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Alexandra, You still have the idea that Mary had to choose before God would work his grace ... this is quite a dangerous thought ... the simple fact is that God can remit sin in a child without the assent of the child's will ... not that God works AGAINST our free will, but simply to say that the child has no use of free will and is yet sanctified by grace ... such was the case when Mary was Conceived Immaculate.
Peace. +

Alexandra M.G. said...

Fr. Ryan, the only danger here lies in my inability for lack of time or knowledge to convey most accurately what the Orthodox Church teaches about the Blessed Mother. "Rejoice O Virgin Theotokos, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. For thou has born the Saviour of our souls." If I failed to convey the importance of grace in prior posts, perhaps I felt like it was obvious. Nothing about the Virgin Mary is without the Grace of God. Through the grace of God, Joachim and Anna conceived her in their old age. Through grace, Mary chose (her own free will) to live a spotless life. It's a mystery to me where exactly the two, Grace and Free Will, meet. We cannot comprehend everything - this is why some things are left a mystery, especially when it comes to the Virgin Mary.

Just as we don't earn our Salvation, Mary could never earn her role in the universe. Our salvation is given to us by the Grace of God. Therefore, the Virgin Mary by Grace of God, was who she was, however, she cooperated (and we cooperate too, but by Grace we are saved - we don't even meet God half way, not even close, but we accept His Grace and do good works to increase our faith to be closer to God). The Virgin Mary is exemplary for all Christians; God bestowed His grace on her and she accepted her role (the Annunciation) and always made her will one with God's will. Again, a mystery beyond human comprehension, which is why the Eastern Orthodox Church does not try to explain in doctrine the inexplicable, but instead to glorify and be in awe of the Queen and joy of all who sorrow.

Alexandra M.G. said...


I had never heard that St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco was sloppy as a theologian - I understand that you put it in the context of intellect, not sanctity - yet still I never heard that I will follow up with my priest. I have heard of him as a wonderworker, clairvoyant and prophetic. He is much loved in the Orthodox community, as is Fr. Seraphim Rose. Below are some excerpts from an article by St. John. We could probably go on and on with quotes, but I thought it was worth including a few and the link. I really am thankful for your insight into both Western Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Eastern Catholic Church fascinates me. It is my understanding there was contemplation among the Early Church Fathers (and later theologians) as to whether the Virgin Mary was untainted by original sin, but I also understood that there was a consensus among them that she was conceived like the rest of mankind. The first is by the Western theologian, Bernard of Clairvaux, a doctor of the church especially devoted to the Blessed Mother.
to be cont....

Alexandra M.G. said...

To Seraphim,

here are some quotes:
".....Bernard, who is acknowledged there [in the West] as a great authority, wrote, " I am frightened now, seeing that certain of you have desired to change the condition of important matters, introducing a new festival unknown to the Church, unapproved by reason, unjustified by ancient tradition. Are we really more learned and more pious than our fathers? You will say, 'One must glorify the Mother of God as much as Possible.' This is true; but the glorification given to the Queen of Heaven demands discernment. This Royal Virgin does not have need of false glorifications, possessing as She does true crowns of glory and signs of dignity. Glorify the purity of Her flesh and the sanctity of Her life. Marvel at the abundance of the gifts of this Virgin; venerate Her Divine Son; exalt Her Who conceived without knowing concupiscence and gave birth without knowing pain. But what does one yet need to add to these dignities? People say that one must revere the conception which preceded the glorious birth-giving; for if the conception had not preceded, the birth-giving also would not have been glorious. But what would one say if anyone for the same reason should demand the same kind of veneration of the father and mother of Holy Mary? One might equally demand the same for Her grandparents and great-grandparents, to infinity. Moreover, how can there not be sin in the place where there was concupiscence? All the more, let one not say that the Holy Virgin was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not of man. I say decisively that the Holy Spirit descended upon Her, but not that He came with Her."

"I say that the Virgin Mary could not be sanctified before Her conception, inasmuch as She did not exist. if, all the more, She could not be sanctified in the moment of Her conception by reason of the sin which is inseparable from conception, then it remains to believe that She was sanctified after She was conceived in the womb of Her mother. This sanctification, if it annihilates sin, makes holy Her birth, but not Her conception. No one is given the right to be conceived in sanctity; only the Lord Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and He alone is holy from His very conception. Excluding Him, it is to all the descendants of Adam that must be referred that which one of them says of himself, both out of a feeling of humility and in acknowledgement of the truth: Behold I was conceived in iniquities (Ps. 50:7). How can one demand that this conception be holy, when it was not the work of the Holy Spirit, not to mention that it came from concupiscence? The Holy Virgin, of course, rejects that glory which, evidently, glorifies sin. She cannot in any way justify a novelty invented in spite of the teaching of the Church, a novelty which is the mother of imprudence, the sister of unbelief, and the daughter of lightmindedness" (Bernard, Epistle 174; cited, as were the references from Blessed Augustine, from Lebedev).

Alexandra M.G. said...

"As for other men, excluding Him Who is the cornerstone, I do not see for them any other means to become temples of God and to be dwellings for God apart from spiritual rebirth, which must absolutely be preceded by fleshly birth. Thus, no matter how much we might think about children who are in the womb of the mother, and even though the word of the holy Evangelist who says of John the Baptist that he leaped for joy in the womb of his mother (which occurred not otherwise than by the action of the Holy Spirit), or the word of the Lord Himself spoken to Jeremiah: I have sanctified thee before thou didst leave the womb of thy mother (Jer. 1:5)- no matter how much these might or might not give us basis for thinking that children in this condition are capable of a certain sanctification, still in any case it cannot be doubted that the sanctification by which all of us together and each of us separately become the temple of God is possible only for those who are reborn, and rebirth always presupposes birth. Only those who have already been born can be united with Christ and be in union with this Divine Body which makes His Church the living temple of the majesty of God" (Blessed Augustine, Letter 187).

This teaching contradicts also Sacred Tradition, which is contained in numerous Patristic writings, where there is mentioned the exalted sanctity of the Virgin Mary from Her very birth, as well as Her cleansing by the Holy Spirit at Her conception of Christ, but not at Her own conception by Anna. "There is none without stain before Thee, even though his life be but a day, save Thee alone, Jesus Christ our God, Who didst appear on earth without sin, and through Whom we all trust to obtain mercy and the remission of sins" (St. Basil the Great, Third Prayer of Vespers of Pentecost). "But when Christ came through a pure, virginal, unwedded, God-fearing, undefiled Mother without wedlock and without father, and inasmuch as it befitted Him to be born, He purified the female nature, rejected the bitter Eve and overthrew the laws of the flesh" (St. Gregory the Theologian, "In Praise of Virginity"). However, even then, as Sts. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom speak of this, She was not placed in the state of being unable to sin, but continued to take care for Her salvation and overcame all temptations (St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on John, Homily 85; St. Basil the Great, Epistle 160).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

So long as we understand that Mary did not have to "choose" in order to be given the unique grace of the Immaculate Conception.
Neither need there be anything in Mary (as a creature) to justify God giving her and her alone this unique grace.
The generous will of God can give Mary special graces which she did not earn -- and, although he does not give the same graces to all, this does not contradict justice.

It was on these two points that I rejected St. John M's comments.

Les said...

Fr. Erlenbush,

Given that "...the definition infallibly declared by Pius XII does not explicitly state that the Blessed Virgin suffered death", are Catholics obligated to believe that Mary died before her Assumption?

If so, under what theological grade of certainty are we obliged to believe that Mary died before being Assumed?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Though it is not a de fide definition, it is a matter of the ordinary magisterium and therefore must be held and respected by all Catholics.

It is a "sententia certa" -- theologically, we are certain that the Virgin Mary did die.

Peace! +

Alex said...

Fr.Erlenbush, how did the Virgin Mary die if she was conceived without the stain of original sin and did not commit sin? Natural death is strictly a consequence of sin. I look forward to your reply! God Bless you for your service and promulgation of orthodoxy!

Javier R. said...

Another good piece is by Lawrence P. Everett, C.Ss.R., S.T.D. at

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