This is a topic that I’ve read about over several years now (primarily online, not having come across it much within books), and I have wanted to collect together a few comments from various online sources into one place for myself as a simple reference in conversations (particularly when I am asked about this topic from time to time). As these passages indicate, Orthodox theology leaves a few options open on this topic while also differing from Roman Catholic and Protestant theology on this issue in a few straightforward ways.
Father Thomas Hopko in this podcast on The Dormition of the Theotokos (August 10, 2010):
In other words, as Father Alexander Schmemann used to say, “Mary is not the great exception.” You know, exceptionally conceived, exceptionally ending her human life, bypassing original sin, bypassing death. No, no, that is not the teaching at all. It’s just the opposite. She’s the great example. She exemplifies and patterns the Christian life.
Father Thomas Hopko in this podcast on Lent (April 9, 2013):
And some of their Western Latin teachers don’t say clearly whether or not she really died. And there were some that held that she really died, and there were others who said no. If there was this Immaculate Conception where the ancestral sin and stain was washed away, some people claim that she would not have died.
Now, our Eastern Orthodox and ancient Church says this: No matter how holy you are in this world, you’re going to die. Even if it could be by God’s grace and faith that you never sinned at all, you’re still a mortal, and you’re going to die. We’re all caught in this together, and the whole human race has to be raised and glorified. It can’t be done individually one by one.
It’s so wonderful! First you’re looking at this icon surrounded by flowers, with the Mother of God in it, who’s virtually sinless. I mean, many people even think she was without any, even the smallest sin, although most Church Fathers think she may have had thoughts coming from humanity, but she certainly never broke her communion with God, the Theotokos; she never committed any sin unto death. She was constantly graced by God and prepared to be Christ’s mother. We celebrate her in this grand Akathistos hymn. And then in the very same frame—we have the repentant and saved and deified and radiant Mary of Egypt, who herself becomes full of grace, just like Mary the Theotokos. But, boy, oh boy, if there was ever an opposite to Mary the Mother of God, it was Mary of Egypt!
On March 16, 2005 at 1:12 p.m., Father Thomas Dowd responded to this post of Patriach Bartholomew on the ‘Immaculate Conception’ from March 8, 2005:
I once heard Fr. Thomas Hopko say that the jury was out in the Orthodox church regarding the sinlessness of Mary, but that most authorities would acknowledge that Mary never committed any sins, mortal or venial. Perhaps I am asking a question that cannot be answered in the Orthodox Church at present.
On October 8, 2017 at 6:24 a.m., Fr. Stephen Freeman commented in response to his own blog Why the Orthodox Honor Mary from August 1, 2016:
The hymns of the Church clearly articulate that Mary did not sin. It is worth noting that there are some who hold this to be true of John the Baptist as well. First, you have to step outside of the “Western” concept of sin, its origin and meaning. First, both Mary and John died – they were mortal. For the Orthodox, sin is death. It is not so much a moral category. Our behaviors that are termed “sins” are the consequence of our mortality, a bad response to corruption and death. But we do not die because we “sin.” We sin because we are dying. Christ willingly submitted Himself to the consequence of humanity’s mortality (“He became sin” in the words of St. Paul, 2 Cor. 5). But there was no “sin” in Christ, no moral failing – only righteousness.
That someone might live in constant union with God in this life is amazing to the Orthodox, but not inconceivable.
Having said all that, it is correct that there are a variety of opinions on the matter of specific moral choices (sins) on the part of the Mother of God. The variety of opinions is possible because there is nothing that hangs on it, no particular dogmatic understanding is affected one way of another. A way to say this is that the Orthodox do not think that Mary “had to be” free from sin (unlike the RC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, rooted in a false notion of Original Sin – at least that’s what I’ve been given to understand). The larger part of the Orthodox tradition simply believes that Mary was free from sin, as a matter of fact (even if it’s a pious fact).
The understanding is rooted in expressions within some of the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Church that always speaks of her as “most pure, most holy.” It holds that in the Annunciation, the Incarnation of Christ is much, much more than a mere borrowing of flesh and inhabiting of her womb. It is a personal union with God, in the same sense that we long for such union. In that moment, she becomes Theotokos – not just “tokos.” It is for this reason that the statement “A sword will pierce your own soul also,” is understood to be ontologically true, and not a mere statement about the grief of a mother.
Mary is in no way “exempted” from venial sins – but she does not break her union with God or with her son – that is – she does not consent to them. She has consented to God alone. Met. Maximos cites Chrysostom’s opinion that Mary was guilty of vanity at the wedding in Cana. I think Chrysostom was wrong and guilty of bad exegesis, failing to understand the mystery within that text. The fathers are not infallible and must not be used as such. It simply says that great preachers get carried away sometimes. Chrysostom, for what it’s worth, is not a dogmatic theologian. He was a great preacher. His work was never part of the dogmatic tradition surrounding the councils. Indeed, I would say of Chrysostom that he is among the most “human” of fathers, clearly showing his own brokenness. He gets himself in trouble with certain excessive actions and statements. He is faithful and he is a giant. But he’s not a great source of theological understanding, except when he is. 🙂
But – don’t trouble yourself in the matter. It is not a dogmatic concern. The truth of it is something that can be known, I think, on the level of the heart and long experience with prayer and the communion of the saints. But it is not a “theologumenon” to be figured out and believed one way or the other. Just let it sit there.