Saints Ephrem the Syrian and Proclus of Constantinople used a most difficult phrase when describing the Theotokos–she was “subject to impurity.”
Reflecting on this, I am overcome by grief. How can I speak of her in any way that pertains to impurity? She never sinned! Her prayers are all powerful, there is no ailment she cannot heal, her holiness is unparalleled by men, and she is more perfectly divinized by the grace of God than any other saint. How can I say anything detracting from the Mother of God?
Then I must remind myself: it was because Mary was fallen that the preceding is so incredible. The first Eve, with no effects of the fall, was deceived and fell into sin. The second Eve, with the same fallen flesh as us turned from every deception and lived a sinless life. The theology makes sense, but it is hard to stomach that the saints use such difficult phrases! For example, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem states that Jesus was “undefiled by the Virgin.” How can we make sense of there being some way that Mary’s womb, which is larger than heaven (which is not large enough to contain the Lord, cf 1 Kings 8:27), could have defiled Christ?
By “defiled” and “impure” the saints cannot mean sinful. What do they mean, then?
Mary had a postlapsarian womb subject to corruption and death due to original sin. There is no other sense someone Orthodox can venture to use the preceding terms, for Mary was undefiled before, during, and after birth–maintaining Virginity in all three stages. No doubt, that was a miracle of purity, not defilement. So, we must be careful with words.
If we understand what these words mean and their theological import, we will be able to rightly understand the meaning behind Marian references to “prepurification”–a word whose meaning has been twisted by those who expound the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The Earliest Patristic Teachings on Mary’s Impurity and Purification. To understand the teachings of these saints, and their relation to the doctrine of “prepurification,” we need to read what they said. Let’s start with Saint Cyril of Jerusalem:
The Holy Ghost shall came upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you…“Immaculate and undefiled was His generation: for where the Holy Spirit breathes, there all pollution is taken away: undefiled from the Virgin was the incarnate generation of the Only-begotten. (Catechetical Lecture 12, Par 31-32).
The teaching is simple. Jesus was not defiled by “pollution” evidently existing “from the Virgin,” because the Holy Spirit purified the Virgin by taking it “away.” Clearly, the “pollution” cannot be her personal sins or some sort of sexual impropriety. Perish the thought. This can only mean that Jesus Christ, who had completely sinless prelapsarian flesh, could have been defiled if He was constructed (so to say) of (originally) sinful, “defiled” flesh from the Virgin. To quote the Tome of Leo, which is enshrined as ecumenical:
Therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was his, whole in what was ours. By
ours we mean what the Creator formed in us at the beginning and what he assumed in order to restore; for of that which the deceiver brought in, and man, thus deceived, admitted, there was not a trace in the Saviour; and the fact that he took on himself a share in our infirmities did not make him a partaker in our transgressions. He assumed
the form of a servant without the defilement of sin, enriching what was human, not impairing what was divine. (Session II of Chalcedon, Par 2 of Tome, source)
The fallen human nature “that the deceiver brought in” and “man, thus deceived, admitted” was not in Jesus Christ at all–not even “a trace.” He had no original sin, but rather “the entire and perfect nature of man.”
This is evidently not true of the Theotokos. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem was not the only saint to make this observation. Saint Ephrem the Syrian’s A Word on Heretics states the following:
Pearls come from unclean animals, so also Christ was born out of nature that had been subjected to [подвергшегося] impurity [нечистоте]* and is in need of being cleansed by God’s visitation. Even as the lightening penetrates all matter, so does God; and even as the lightening illuminates hidden things, so also Christ does cleanse the inner hidden nature. He also cleansed the Virgin and then was born, thus having shown that where is Christ there is purity in all its power. He cleansed the Virgin, first having prepared Her with the Holy Spirit; whereafter the cleansed womb is able to conceive Him. (Par 19, translation from Russian)
*Google translate simply renders “подвергшегося нечистоте” as “impure” or “unclean.”
In the preceding, we clearly see the “prepurification” doctrine taught. The Virgin is compared to an “unclean animal…subjected to impurity.” Therefore, she is in need of “cleansing” from original sin (for she committed no sinful act) by the “preparation” of the Spirit. This is a reference to Luke 1:35. As this article unfolds, we will see this idea repeatedly.
I am not a scholar on Ephrem. The preceding Russian translation contains Greek words, so it is at best a translation of a translation (he originally wrote in Syriac). I am aware of fourth century homilies falsely ascribed to Ephrem, though the preceding one would be surprisingly personal (the author despise his own sin) and historically accurate (it calls the Romans “Greeks” and speaks of them invading the Persians.)
Either way, what we read is consistent with his indisputably authentic works. Ephraim’s commentary of Tatian’s Diatessaron when exegeting a passage equivalent to Luke 1:35 states:
Why did he not mention the Father’s name but instead the name of His Power and the Holy Spirit? Because it was fitting that the Architect of works should come and raise up the house that had fallen and that the hovering Spirit should sanctify the buildings that were unclean…He dwelt in the womb and cleansed it and sanctified the place of birthpangs and curses. (Book 1, Par 25).
Furthermore, in his 11th Hymn on the Nativity he wrote: “O Child that gave Your Mother a second birth from the waters.”
“Second birth” in the fathers is always a reference to the forgiveness of sins in baptism. For the sinless, like infants, original sin is absolved. Strangely, it appears that the incarnation was Mary’s baptism.
Elsewhere in his hymnography, Ephraim speaks of Mary’s “debts” being paid and speaks of her purification from “impulsive desire.” Hence, it seems likely the above quote is, in fact, genuine.
Soon afterwards, Saint Gregory Nazianzus also spoke of the purification of Mary at the annunciation. We will parse his treatment of Mary’s purification in a future article.
A few decades later, Saint Proclus of Constantinople wrote in his Homily on the Annunciation:
Who has ever seen, who has ever heard, that the Limitless God would dwell within a womb?…Where [i.e. the womb] evil poured forth its poison, bringing on disobedience, there the Word made a living temple for Himself, bringing obedience there. From the place where the archsinner Cain sprang forth, there Christ the Redeemer of the human race was born without seed. The Lover of Mankind did not disdain to be born of woman, since She gave Him life (in His human nature). He was not subject to impurity by being in the womb which He Himself arrayed free from all harm. (Source; see also Saint Proclus’ “Homily 1 on the Theotokos,” Par 2 which likewise invokes Cain and states, “He was not defiled by dwelling in places He had created without dishonor. If the mother had not remained a virgin, the child born would have remained a mere man.” In Par 3, the emphasis is that Christ maintained Mary’s virginity inviolate during birth, which prevented “impurity” from “polluting” Himself.)
Not only was Jesus left “undefiled” (Saint Cyril) from a womb compared to that of an “unclean animal” (Saint Ephrem), but He was kept from “impurity” (Saint Proclus). Proclus compares Mary’s womb to that which bore Cain in sin, clearly equating the womb of fallen Eve to that of the second Eve. He also makes passing reference to the womb’s purification (“He Himself arrayed [the womb] free from all harm.”)
What precisely is this purification according to Proclus? Elsewhere, as referenced in the above footnote, Proclus emphasizes that this purification also pertained to Mary’s birth pangs–which obviously does not pertain to the event in Luke 1:35, but connects to the “springing forth” of Cain.
So, to Proclus, purification may narrowly be understood as Jesus preserving Mary’s virginity before and after birth; as not doing so would have introduced impurity. This means that impurity would have resulted if Mary got pregnant, or gave birth, in the customary way. Nevertheless, the purification of Proclus definitionally is consistent with that of Cyril and Ephrem, in that it pertains to preventing defilement.
It should be said that there does not appear to be a Ephremite or Cyrillic emphasis on preventing some sense of ritual impurity by exposure to the Virgin. Nevertheless, such an emphasis exists in other pre-Chalcedonian writers such as Saints Gregory the Illuminator, Methodius of Olympius, Ambrose, John Cassian, and Cyril of Alexandria in somewhat longer and more varied passages. These are covered in an addendum to this article.
What can we conclude from the preceding writers? All of the saints who have written in enough detail invoke the concept of purification in a decidedly “negative” sense, in that it cleanses Mary so as to prevent Jesus’ being exposed to impurity. The prepurification of Nazianzus cannot be interpreted anachronistically–he must have understood its application to the annunciation in a similarly negative sense to the writers preceding and coming after him.
Western Patristic Treatments of Mary’s Original Sin and Her Purification. The preceding theology of the Theotokos was not independent to the 4th-5th century Greek east. Augustine, in his writings against the Pelagian Julius, wrote even more on the topic. For the sake of space, the following excerpt suffices:
[W]hat remains but to hold that, excepting His flesh, all other human flesh is sinful flesh? We see, moreover, that the concupiscence through which Christ willed not to be conceived produced the propagation of evil in the human race, for though the body of Mary was thence derived, it did not transmit concupiscence to the body [of Jesus] it did not thence conceive. Moreover, whoever denies that the reason the body of Christ is said to be the likeness of sinful flesh is that all other flesh of men is sinful flesh, and so compares the flesh of Christ with the flesh of other men as to assert they are of equal purity, is a detestable heretic…Christ assumed from this woman [Mary] the infirmity of mortality and before sin this infirmity did not exist in the flesh of the first man. Christ assumed it that His flesh might be what the flesh of the first man at the first had not been; the likeness of sinful flesh (Against Julius, Book V, Par 52, 55 Trans. Matthew A. Schumacher; CF par 54, and Book VI 62; Exposition on Psalm 35).
Augustine is saying the following in Par 52:
- “All other human flesh [than Christ’s] is sinful flesh.”
- “Concupiscence” (i.e. sex) produces original sin “in the human race,” but not Jesus because He was not conceived this way.
- “The body of Mary was thence derived” from the same “concupiscence.” For those caught on the word “thence,” it means “from where.”
In Par 55 Augustine says Jesus “assumed” from Mary “the infirmity of mortality and before sin [i.e. from Adam] this infirmity did not exist.” Elsewhere, I have covered that Jesus voluntarily assumed corruption and blameless passions. So, this is not saying that Jesus was born subject to these infirmities. What Augustine is clearly saying is that Mary did have these infirmities and they were from original sin. In contrast, Jesus did not have “sinful flesh” but copied what Mary had and thereby had something different, “the likeness of sinful flesh.”
So, how did this work? We can infer Augustine’s answer is the same as Saint Ephrem’s given above by his tacit acceptance of what an Arian heretic asserted. (When the saints write against heretics, they often times concede points and then attack others.)
The Arian Maximunus taught that the “Most High” who overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:35) was the Logos and not the Holy Spirit. In making this point, Maximinus said in passing that the Theotokos was “cleansed:”
So too, it was Mary, the blessed virgin, “the Holy Spirit will come over you,” that means sanctify and cleanse. Then it continues, “And the Power of the Most High will overshadow you.” You [Augustine] yourself said that Christ is the Power of the Most High. (Preface to Responses to Maximinus, Chap 15, Par 21).
Here you tried to claim…that the Holy Spirit first came to cleanse and sanctify the Virgin Mary and that then there came the Power of the Most High…that is Christ…If you plan to open your mouth in truth, admit that not only the Son, but also the Holy Spirit is the Creator of the flesh of the Son. (Augustine, Responses to Maximinus, Book II, Chap 17, Par 2)
Augustine was taking issue with the Christ, instead of the Spirit, being called the “Most High.” He tacitly accepted that Mary was cleansed. This shows Augustine understood that Luke 1:35 was about the “cleansing” of Mary’s womb. He is not the only western saint that understood Luke 1:35 in this sense. (cf Ambrose, On the Mysteries, Par 13; Gregory the Great, Moralia on Job, Book 18, Par 32-33).
Due to Augustine elsewhere stating that Mary was “derived” from concupiscence and she “did not transmit concupiscence to the body” of Jesus Christ, this lends us to the understanding that the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary is the miracle that made this possible. Mary did not conceive Christ, nor was He planted by a man’s seed–He is conceived by the Holy Spirit.
The fact that the concept of “negative” purification was repeated between east and west shows that it was understood throughout the whole Church. After all, Augustine was not very well versed in Greek and the theology of the Greek east.
Not long after Saint Augustine wrote the preceding, Saint Pope Leo the Great wrote his homilies on the Nativity. It appears that Saint Leo took the teaching of Augustine for granted. In his Nativity homilies, he makes repeated Augustinian references to the topic:
Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into that peerless nativity, nothing of the law of sin has entered. A royal Virgin of the stem of David is chosen, to be impregnated with the sacred seed and to conceive the Divinely-human offspring in mind first and then in body. (Sermon 21, Chap 1)
And to this end, without male seed Christ was conceived of a Virgin, who was fecundated not by human intercourse but by the Holy Spirit. And whereas in all mothers conception does not take place without stain of sin, this one [Mary] received purification from the Source of her conception. For no taint of sin penetrated, where no intercourse occurred. Her unsullied virginity knew no lust when it ministered the substance. The Lord took from His mother our nature, not our fault. (Sermon 22, Chap 3)
For the earth of human flesh, which in the first transgressor, was cursed, in this Offspring of the Blessed Virgin only produced a seed that was blessed and free from the fault of its stock. And each one is a partaker of this spiritual origin in regeneration; and to every one when he is re-born, the water of baptism is like the Virgin’s womb; for the same Holy Spirit fills the font, Who filled the Virgin, that the sin, which that sacred conception overthrew, may be taken away by this mystical washing. (Sermon 24, Chap 3)
His birth started the spiritual life of mankind afresh, that to abolish the taint of our birth according to the flesh there might be a possibility of regeneration without our sinful seed for those of whom it is said, “
Who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:13 What mind can grasp this mystery, what tongue can express this gracious act? Sinfulness returns to guiltlessness and the old nature becomes new. (Sermon 27, Chap 2)
Leo synthesized Augustine’s theology of the topic, though it is not impossible that he knew of Greek treatments of it.
As we can see, Leo equates the operation of the Spirit in the incarnation to a purification from original sin akin to the sacrament of baptism. It is clear that Leo believed Mary to be purified at conception by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (“this one received purification from the Source of her conception”) and “that the sin, which that sacred conception overthrew” was her own! “The Lord took from His mother our nature, not our fault,” because she had “fault” i.e. original sin. For Mary to have needed baptism by the Spirit at the annunciation can only mean she had original sin beforehand.
Ironically, by stating that “all mothers’ conception does not take place without stain of sin,” but then explicitly excluding Mary’s conception of Christ due to the purification of the “overshadowing” of the Holy Spirit, Leo literally contradicts the very terminology of the Immaculate Conception doctrine. Clearly, Mary’s conception from Ana is not also an exception, for the reasons given in the previous paragraph.
Leo’s theology here is not of some sort of “‘non-ex cathedra‘ private interpretation.” It’s referenced in the Tome:
And born by a new mode of birth; because inviolate virginity, while ignorant of concupiscence, supplied the matter of his flesh. What was assumed from the Lord’s mother was nature, not fault; nor does the wondrousness of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, as born of a Virgin’s womb, imply that his nature is unlike ours. (Session II of Chalcedon, Par 2 of Tome, source)
Clearly, Leo presumed like Augustine that because Jesus was conceived by the Spirit, He was able to avoid the “fault” which comes from conception via concupiscence–such as that of His own mother.
Due to Sermon 24, Par 3 stating that “the sacred conception…overthrew sin,” it is clear that the Tome is implying Mary had original sin when stating that Jesus did not inherit fault due to the unique mode of His conception. Why even make the statement that the Lord assumed His mother’s human nature, and not her fault, if excluding Him from his mother’s original sin is not the point at issue?
Authoritative Greek Treatments of the Topic During the Early Middle Ages. As we have seen, in the east, the saints took for granted that Mary’s womb, subject to impurity, was “purified” so that it can receive God. As we shall see, the word “purified” tends to be more commonly called “prepurified” in the Middle Ages.* Its meaning, however, does not change from earlier centuries.
*With the exception of Saint Gregory Nazianzus usage of the term “prepurfied” in Oration 38 in par 13. This reference was made in antiquity.
Interpreters such as the Uniate scholar Father Christiaan Kappes (my responses to his thesis can be seen here and here) have speculated that the doctrine of “prepurification” taught something completely different than it meaning “purification” in its normal, “negative” sense. In short, he says “prepurification” doctrine teaches that an already pure nature without original sin is made more pure. He cites non-Marian passages that are centuries apart that use the term in this sense, and then applies it to certain Marian passages. However, is this justified?
I find such an interpretation of the word “prepurification” to be out of context, given what we have seen thus far. We have already read of the “purification” of Ephrem, the “pollution taken away” of Cyril of Jerusalem, the “cleansing” of Augustine, and the “overthrowing” of sin from Leo. What the latter three saints have in common is that they explicitly cite Luke 1:35’s “overshadowing of the Holy Spirit” as the Biblical proof text for the event. Even though Ephrem did not literally quote the passage, he was obviously referring to the same event.
Why is this important? Liturgically, Luke 1:35 must be understood as a reference pertaining to someone who is unworthy due to original sin to encounter God.
Every Lent, the Liturgy of Saint Basil is performed. Now, this liturgy obviously has variations between manuscripts and the frequency of its use in the early Middle Ages would be different than today. (A short history of this prayer can be found here. The prayer is presumably from the 6th century at the latest.) Nevertheless, many of the priests and deacons (or bishop to another bishop, as the above footnote speculates) would have said the following prayers shortly before consecration:
Priest: Remember me, brother and concelebrant.
Deacon only: May the Lord God remember thy priesthood in His Kingdom.
Deacon only: Pray for me, holy Master.
Priest: The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.
Deacon only: The same Spirit shall minister with us all the days of our life. Remember me, holy Master.
Priest: May the Lord God remember thee in his kingdom, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. (Source, page 52).
The back and forth in the prayers have a clear meaning. The deacon recognizes his unworthiness to be present when the priest calls down the Holy Spirit during the consecration of the bread and wine into Christ’s flesh and blood. The priest responds by saying the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” (Luke 1:35) the deacon (i.e. purify him) so that he would be worthy. The deacon responds that the Spirit will do the same for the priest, always. The priest responds by offering the prayer of the thief on the cross (a penitential prayer) on the deacon’s behalf, the same prayer the deacon initially offered for the priest.
In short, the purification before the consecration is what prevents the innate sinfulness of the men partaking in the sacrament from being destroyed.
The Marian parallel is profound, because she too was purified before the Holy Spirit conceived the Logos as flesh within her. The coming of Christ into the material realm requires purification.
Luke 1:35, in a Church whose liturgy is the focal point of theological interpretation, is a purification from sinfulness (though not necessarily specific acts of sin–we are supposed to partake in the liturgy worthily and having already had received absolution).
Someone may object to the above treatment and say that the Greek word “prepurification” is not used in the preceding. This is true. Nevertheless, it is used in the authoritative hymnography of the Orthodox Church (mainly developed in the 7th-9th centuries) in its treatment of Luke 1:35 and the event it portrays:
Prepurified [προκαθαρθείσα] by the Spirit beforehand, O pure one, thou hast given birth to the Word of the Father, for the benefit of rational nature. (Jan 29 Menaion, Ode III, Theotokion).
Having sanctified thy soul and wholly prepurified [προκαθαρθείσα] thy body, thou didst give birth seedlessly, having conceived the power of the Most High [Luke 1:35] in thy womb through the coming upon thee of the Holy Spirit, O all-immaculate one. (March 11 Menaion, Ode VII, Theotokion).
The coming of the Holy Spirit hath purified my soul and sanctified my body; and hath made it a temple able to contain God, a tabernacle divinely adorned, a living shrine, and the pure Mother of Life. (Ode 7 of the Canon of the Annunciation)
Having prepurified [προκαθαρθείσα] your soul with the light of (the) divine Spirit, pure virgin, you received in your belly all the light of the Father, thus (or for this reason now) expel the darkness of my transgression. (Octoechos, “Friday Tone 1”)
From the preceding, we can chronologically locate that the Theotokos was cleansed immediately preceding the incarnation. The terms purification and prepurification are used interchangeably, which shows that we are supposed to understand they mean the same thing when spoken of in the context of the incarnation.
It is apparent that the term “prepurification” in the hymns is used consistently with the terms “purified”/”cleansed”/etcetera from the aforementioned Patristic passages. Mary says in one of the hymns, “The coming of the Holy Spirit hath purified my soul” and “made it able to contain God”–a clear reference to it not being able to contain God for reason of its “impurity.” (See Saints Ephrem and Proclus above) The March 11th Menaion clearly cites Luke 1:35, which must have been understood in the same sense as that of the Liturgy of Saint Basil–due to both of these texts being used liturgically and sometimes read on the same day.
These hymns are not just rhetorical flourishes. Saint John of Damascus, who authored more than one of the above, in Book III, Chap 2 of the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith states:
So then, after the assent of the Holy Virgin, the Holy Spirit descended on her, according to the word of the Lord which the angel spoke, purifying her, and granting her power to receive the divinity of the Word, and likewise power to bring forth.
Elsewhere, he wrote the same thing again:
The Father predestined her and the prophets spoke of her through the Holy Spirit. The sanctifying power of the Spirit reposed on her, cleansed her and made her holy; in a certain way, He fertilized her in advance. (On the Dormition, Homily I, chap 2)
So, we can dispense with any re-interpretations of the hymns that would somehow make less literal the content they are conveying.
The Octoechos hymn, whose reference sadly I cannot further specify, literally equates Mary’s prepurification at the incarnation with the ability of God, through her prayers, to “expel the darkness of my transgression.” This parallelism does not make sense unless the cleansing from sin we are asking for through Mary is in some way similar to her “prepurification” from something sinful (i.e. original sin.)
Additionally, the idea that Mary’s flesh was fallen was something taken for granted during this time. It even made its way into a prayer made during the consecration of bishops in the Great Euchologion. The earliest copy is from 790 AD, which means the prayer itself is older. The fact that it is intended to be used during the ordination of all Bishops means that it was commonplace to affirm the following:
I confess the Word of God, coeternal with the Father, being above time, uncircumscribed, unconfined, yet came down to our nature and humbled himself as man and took our whole fallen (peripeptwkota) human nature from the pure and virginal blood of the only immaculate and pure Virgin; in order that God in His compassion might give salvation to the whole world…I confess that He assumed all our human blameless passions that constitute our nature, excepting sin…He underwent them not of necessity as in our case (Quoted in p. 182 of Jesus Fallen, use coupon code “Truglia” to save 10 percent on the book at OrthodoxWitness.org. Or simply pay full price–whatever you want, my dear reader.)
The preceding states that Jesus Christ’s voluntary assumption of “fallen human nature” (this occurred “excepting sin”) is “from…the only immaculate and pure Virgin.” This obviously echos the Tome of Leo. We can justifiably infer that Christ voluntarily received what was “fallen” from His mother, but “not of necessity as in our case.” “Our” includes the Theotokos because it is from her that “our whole fallen human nature” was voluntarily assumed by Christ according to the confession. The “our‘s” are necessarily connected.
The fact that this prayer was likely penned during the same time the Menaion was forming, shows that the prepurification hymns would have presupposed that Mary’s flesh was “fallen” (i.e. postlapsarian), even though she was “immaculate and pure.”
The Authoritative Teaching of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. The preceding Patristic tidal wave, including several statements from a Pope, would seem to authoritatively settle the matter theologically. Mary’s womb was “subject to impurity,” but “prepurified” immediately before the incarnation so that she would be able to conceive by the Holy Spirit.
The aforementioned hymnography of the Orthodox Church is considered authoritative, like the ecumenical councils. However, this is not the case for Roman Catholics. One may say that the Tome of Leo settles the question, but Roman Catholics may not find it explicit enough in addressing the word “prepurification.” Nevertheless, the Tome as well as the preceding passages do offer us the historical context behind the Synodical Letter of Saint Sophronius.
This letter was written in the 630s, which is between the references of the pre-Chalcedonian eastern and western fathers and the before-referenced hymnography of the Orthodox Church. The letter was made dogmatically binding by Constantinople III, and the following passage is of import to the question treated in this article:
We confess . . . the only-begotten Son . . . Who emptied himself in willful humility in the womb of the spotless (achrantou) virgin and Theotokos Mary, after she was prepurified (prokathartheises) in body (soma) and soul He made his dwelling via the Holy Spirit and from her holy and blameless (amomou) flesh. (Excerpt from Saint Sophronius’ Synodical Letter Approved at the Council)
In the preceding, we can infer that the teaching of the aforementioned passages was enshrined in the council. To interpret this passage inconsistently with what we have learned thus far would be woefully out-of-context, as well as nonsensical.
After all, if Mary was “prepurifed in body,” what did her body have to be purified from?
Further, this prepurification occurred immediately before the incarnation, which begs the question, what was her body before this moment?
These questions do not require theoretical responses. The saints, hymns, and prayers in the preceding sections answer them for us. One who has read Father Kappes (who ignores the previously cited passages by citing passages such as the prepurification of angels from the 14th century, seven centuries removed from Sophornius’ letter), cannot help but ask the following:
Why would the word “prepurified” mean something different than it does in the hymns, which are our chronologically closest uses of the term pertaining to the Luke 1:35 event?
Additionally, did Sophronius’ letter occur in some sort of theological vacuum, with Sophronius completely unaware of the Liturgy of Saint Basil and the writings of at least seven saints (cited above) prior to him?
These are rhetorical questions and do not demand an answer.
Conclusion. Mary’s flesh was fallen and subject to original sin. Jesus avoided “all taint” of sin because He was conceived by the Spirit. Mary was preserved from harm, how awesome the incarnation was, by being “prepurified”–a miracle God works every liturgy for the ministers presiding over the sacrament.
This is a teaching well understood as early as the fourth century. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem understood that Jesus could be left “undefiled from the Virgin” and Saint Ephrem believed that this same Virgin was “cleansed by God’s visitation,” prior to the incarnation. This was the doctrine of “prepurification.” It was the same doctrine repeated in the early middle ages. It is the same doctrine today. Sadly, historians seem to have forgot.
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