How exactly does the Orthodox Church view the sinlessness of Mary? In the Liturgy it is said, “One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father” and in other places that Jesus is the only sinless one. Also, in reference to 1 John 1:8 where it says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” How can these be reconciled? Is the Theotokos all-pure, all-holy, all-blameless because of her deification through her Son, so that she is those things because her Son is, as we are holy, pure, etc. through our union to Christ?
Also, how is it that she is referred to as the only refuge for sinners, and various phrases like this? Isn’t Christ our only refuge and the salvation of sinners?
This is the main stumbling block I have with Orthodoxy right now. There seems to be varying beliefs within the Orthodoxy on the Theotokos. Didn’t St John Chrysostom teach that Mary had sinned at least once? When I read the earliest Church Fathers there seems to be little focus on Mary apart from the Christological issue of whether she was the Mother of God, or only of Christ. Doesn’t the teaching that Mary was sinless from birth state the same general concept, that Mary is more than the rest of humanity, as the Immaculate Conception (apart from the idea of original sin) except that it moves the moment of the supernatural grace of God to birth from conception?
I am not trying to answer my own questions, but am simply not understanding how these contradictions, at least seemingly, can be resolved.
While I would love to be able to fully answer your question, it is far beyond the scope of an email, especially because full understanding of the Orthodox position, based on the tenor of your question, on the Virgin Mary requires a thorough explanation of some of the secondary issues to which you refer, such as original sin, the Immaculate Conception, supernatural grace, etc. As such, I would highly recommend that you meet in person with the parish priest at the Orthodox Church you have been visiting—he will no doubt be glad to answer the question at some depth.
I can say, in short, that the Orthodox Church believes that Mary, as a human being, could indeed have sinned, but chose not to. In the Roman Catholic understanding, it seems that Mary, who according to Roman doctrine had been exempted from the guilt of original sin [the Orthodox do not accept that humans share the guilt of the first sin but, rather, only the consequences] before all eternity, and thus could not have sinned. This is where the complexity comes in on a number of levels and which puts your question beyond the scope of an email.
Jesus Christ is Mary’s Savior, as well as ours, as testified in her own statement in St Luke—the Magnificat—where she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” If Mary had been “sin-proofed,” so to speak, from all eternity, the Orthodox would argue as to why she would need a Savior.
Mary is the “new Eve” who said “yes” to God where the first Eve said “no.” She did have a choice, and you may wish to ask your local parish priest to share with you the text of the Kanon from Matins for the Great Feast of the Annunciation, in which you will see a beautiful dialogue between Mary and the Archangel Gabriel in which she debates whether or not to accept the archangel’s news, only in the end accepting that which he announced.
While much that the Orthodox say of Mary “sounds” similar to that which is taught by Roman Catholicism, there are serious differences on many levels. You are correct in saying, however, that the Orthodox Church does not seem to have such a highly developed mariological tradition as the Christian West; it is, at least in my experience, only in recent times, with the growing interest in Orthodoxy especially among many evangelicals, that we have had to delve so deeply—and sometimes deeper than we should—into the role of Mary. Sometimes our answers seem somewhat lame, but in reality there is only so much one can say before one must acknowledge that, while there are certain things we simply cannot fully understand about this, reasoned faith, as defined in St James, becomes the only recourse.