The essence of today’s feast is about both barrenness and fullness; it is about human weakness and the limitless wonder-working power of God. We are well aware of the details of the conception and birth of the Mother of God. The hymns teach us this feast’s story. Joachim and Anna, an upright and pure couple, are left with no child. Before the Christ came, childlessness was a reproachful and shameful thing, it was taken as a sign of God’s disfavor and a curse. We are familiar with this situation throughout the Holy Scriptures. We are reminded of Abraham and Sarah, righteous Anna, the mother of the Priest-Prophet Samuel. We are reminded about Righteous Zachariah and Elizabeth, whose feast we just celebrated earlier this week. See how beautifully and harmoniously the Holy Spirit arranges our Church’s cycle of feasts.
Today, we enter into the story of Joachim and Anna, those holy parents of the Mother of God, who are specifically commemorated everyday of the year—the ancestors of God! See how much they are honored in God’s eyes, by their Grandson Christ our God! Their barrenness and pain is our barrenness and pain. Their unexpected and incomprehensible joy is our joy. And our pain becomes their pain. Our joy becomes their joy. We do not observe the yearly Feasts of our Lord, His Mother and the Saints as outside spectators. The Church thrusts us into the heart of the liturgical cycle. This is a great grace of the Holy Spirit.
This is something which we seem to always be learning. Our life is mystically orchestrated and harmonized with the Church’s calendar. We have begun a new year! And we are greeted today with the first Feast of the Church new year: the Nativity of the Mother of our Life and Salvation. She is the beginning of our Beginning, the Birth-giver of the Birthless One, the cause of our Cause, the beginning of the Beginningless One.
Immediately, at the beginning of the new year, the Church thrusts us into the reality of our need for renewal. The hymns praise the conception and birth of the Theotokos as—not only the deliverance of the barrenness of Anna, but of—the deliverance of our human nature from barrenness. We have begun a new year, and the Church, as always, greets us with another grace of beginning again. But in order for us to begin again, we need to be reminded about our need to begin again. We can float about our daily life, we can become distracted by our daily work, we can enjoy everything around us—food, people, cheer, beautiful weather, the stillness of nature. All of these things are good and beautiful and blessed. All of these things are great gifts from God. But, weak as we are, we need constant reminders that our true life, our true home, our final resting place, is not this mode of life. Yes, this very earth, at the end of time, will be the very earth which the meek and the saved will inherit. Our Faith teaches us that it will be changed, transfigured, glorified, when Christ comes to resurrect the dead and restore all things. But the mode of life at that time is very different from our mode of life here and now. Therefore, we need constant reminders and spurs to make us reach heavenward, to seek that changeless life which is to come in the fullness of its perfection at the end of time. In order for us to seek that life to come, we need to feel, in the depths of our bones and hearts our need for it, our lack, our inadequacy, our barrenness.
Barrenness: this is the first aspect of the inner essence of today’s feast. The second: unexpected fullness of life! Joachim and Anna simply wanted a child. Much pain, prayers, tears, humility, long-suffering, toil, anguish and shame gripped their holy hearts. So pure and holy were they, that they considered themselves to be the cause of their unworthiness to bring forth a child. They understood this barrenness to be a reproachful thing, a shameful thing, they were outcasts in the eyes of many. They were seen to be cursed by God and unworthy of respect. Very humbling was this experience for them. Very hard to endure. Very painful, shame-filled and humiliating. They felt as if their unworthiness and sinfulness was published before all the world to see, because they could not bring forth a child. And this is an icon of our interior and spiritual life. Often, great trials, great shame, great weakness, and an unendurable feeling of oppression from our spiritual worthlessness overcome us. We feel barren, no good, dried up, dead, hardened, cold, lifeless. We feel as if naked before the eyes of the whole world. But the reality is that we feel that inescapable gaze of the Judge of all bringing us to an awareness of our spiritual peril before that day when all will be revealed. But this feeling of holy fear, deadness, this barrenness, is often the forerunner and herald of a great and unexpected, and unimagined-for blessing from God’s right hand.
Joachim and Anna were more worthy than anyone in the whole world to bear a child. And God knew this. Yet, He decided to glorify them even more by perfecting them through trial and shame and painful things. What was the fruit of their shame, their patient endurance of their barrenness? What was produced from their watching, their waiting, their faithfulness, their ceaseless prostration before God? What came about? They were given a child! But this child, as we are more than aware of, was to become the Mother of their God and our God, the Savior of all men. We see in this the mysterious ways of God’s providence. Often great trials, or spiritual deadness and dryness and coldness, come upon us all of the sudden it seems. We seem to be shaken by new-found circumstances which make us well aware of our spiritual lack, our barrenness, our helplessness, our weakness. All things are in the hand of God. But when such things come upon us, it is not so easy to see this and to feel trust in God that He is wiser than us, more loving than us, incomprehensibly more thirsty for our salvation and eternal life than we are. If we only knew how much God suffers in His maternal heart over us, over our lack of faith, our impatience, our negligence, our earthly-mindedness. We would not be able to endure it. But when we seem to all of the sudden wake up and find ourselves pining away in our soul for some nameless and intangible fullness—as if a large portion of our heart has been ripped out of us and we cannot fully live until it is found again—when this occurs, then we partake of and taste, to a small degree, of that fiery thirst which God has for our newness, transformation and deification! We must feel weak and helpless and barren before we can revel in that unexpected joy and that great and mighty change of our whole being which can only be accomplished by God’s great grace. The Scriptures teach us that we cannot even begin to imagine, conceive of, think of, feel and express that which God is already preparing for us. He leads us every step of the way, He goes before us. This Feast teaches us these things.
If we find ourselves spiritually dead, rotten, old, corrupt, dried up, cold, then we are partaking of the inner meaning of this Feast—but only its first part. And if we are partaking of its first part, then we can expect that we will be filled with its second part—the fullness of life, unexpected joy, a great and unimagined-for transformation of our whole being. If our sins have piled up, if we seem to be getting much worse, if we feel more dead than we felt before we became Christians, there is still hope. This Feast teaches us these things.
We do not observe the barrenness and pain of soul of Joachim and Anna as outside spectators. Nor do we merely observe from the outside their great joy and exultation when they finally give birth to the Mother of God! We must always learn where God is leading us, and for this we have the great blessing of being aware of where we are at in the liturgical year. We do not just watch the days go by, or count the days to Nativity or Pascha, but we are mystically thrust into the heart of their preparation and fulfillment by the right hand of God. We are children of the Church Whose nurturer is the Holy Spirit. The child whose nativity we honor today has become the all-pure and only worthy spouse of this Holy Spirit. She greets us at the beginning of the Church new year, and we greet her.
Clement of Alexandria irrepressibly cries out: “O mystic marvel! The universal Father is one, and one the universal Word, and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere, and one is the only Virgin-Mother. I love to call her the Church . . . She is at once Virgin and Mother—pure as a virgin, loving as a mother. And calling her children to herself, she nurses them with holy milk, that is, with the Word, Christ our God!”
“I love to call her the Church,” he says with childlike innocence and infectious joy. The Mother of God, in one sense, is a self-contained Church. She is the only one worthy of eternal life, communion with God, the only one who was found worthy to give birth to God. Yes, God purified her supernaturally for this great thing, but she presented herself to Him as perfectly as possible.
The Holy Fathers speak marvelous things about the Mother of God. Their words show us how she by herself can be called the Church. St. Andrew of Crete says: “Of thee, O Mary, all interpreters of the Spirit sang…Rejoice, Mediatress of the law and of grace, seal of the Old and New Testaments, clear fulfillment of the whole of prophecy, of the truth of Scripture inspired by God, the living and most pure book of God and the Word in which, without voice or writing, the Writer Himself, God and Word, is read everyday.” St. Gregory Palamas exclaims: “All divinely-inspired Scripture was written because of the Virgin who brought forth God Incarnate.” Elsewhere he teaches us that all of human history, and the arrangement of the law and the temple, the guidance of Israel, the timely unfolding of divine revelation—all of these things were orchestrated by God with His most pure Mother in view, through whom He would make Himself incarnate. From before all eternity, in God’s pre-eternal mind, He beheld her, He knew her—just as He knew all of us—but her especially. Before all time she was conceived by God in the unspeakable thought of His foreknowledge. Not that she existed in substance as a creation yet, but God, being all-knowing and above all time, to Him she already was—just as all of us—both known and loved.
But today, this pre-eminent conception of God’s pre-eternal mind is conceived in time, in a once-barren womb, and she comes forth, preserving her purity and innocence and struggling against all sin in thought, deed, word and feeling, until the visitation of God, until His perfect purification and preparation of her, in order that she might conceive Him in her womb—He Who once conceived her before all time and eternity in the womb of His depthless mind. Knowing all things, and beholding all things, and planning all things, before all time and creation, before angels, before sun and earth, God knew us all—and especially her—and He has, and is and will continue to arrange our lives for the best, that we might constantly be conformed to His desire and purpose: union with Him, ever-deepening communion and intimacy with God. But not just with God, not just with the Three Divine Persons, but also with the Mother of God, all the angels—Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Archangels and all the Heavenly Powers and Angels—and the whole countless choir of Saints too. This is the divine family of heaven and earth, of which we belong, which is named after the Father of all.
This great grace of being united to the Godhead has come about through the mediation of the Virgin-Mother, the one for whom all of sacred history and generations of various peoples, the law and the prophets, and all creation was arranged as it has been and in the manner it has been. She is the axis of earth and heaven. Through her God has come to us. The immortal King of the angels Whom they worship in fear and bodiless prostration has come forth from her as a little child, conversing with us as friends face to face!
This is why the Holy Fathers exalt her so much. This is why she, in herself, can be called the Church. But neither she, nor the God Whom she bore, desires that only she be called the Church. This is not how it is. We too have been called the Church. The grace which has come down from heaven into her womb spills over to all of us, gladdening our hearts, refreshing us a thousand times over. When we think the end has come, then God renews us with unspeakable and unsought wonders. But ultimately, if we find nothing but trial in this life, and one successive trial leads to another which is even greater than the previous one, even if this is our case, we are being prepared for the unexpected joy of heaven, and the partaking of things which have not yet been seen, heard or felt in even the most shadowy of notions, those realities of the life to come. If we are dead and barren, then God will not leave us. If He does leave us like this for most of our life, we yet have hope in the good things to come. The Church places this reality in our mouth every Liturgy: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” But may God grant us all if only the tiniest foretaste of that life to come. For this is the beauty of our Faith—that God over-fills us with the good things of eternity even here and now. Eternity for us is not some time and place over there, but an ever-present reality, a life-giving mystery which both transcends and hides behind all things, yet interpenetrates them and shines forth from them.
Let us beg the Mother of God—who is over-filled with these good things—to give us a little taste of this ageless and timeless grace. She gives ungrudgingly, she does not want to hoard the treasures of the Kingdom to herself. She is an ever-open treasury of all divine good things. The key to opening her heart that she might pour them out on us is humility, childlike asking, gentle prayer, knowing our need and deficiency. Her heart is always inclined to mercy and gift-giving. It does not take much to open her ever-open heart to us. It does not take a great ordeal to unlock her depthless heart of maternal mercy. It is not impossible for any one of us to incline her most sympathetic and motherly heart to compassion.
When we wake up, when we go to Church, when we labor with our hands, when we eat, when we meet each other, when we speak, when we pray—at all times let us call her to mind, let us speak with her as a child to its mother, let us tell her all of our woes, our sorrows, our grievous spiritual sores, and she will listen, she will weep with us, she will pray with us and for us, she will heal us and soothe us and refresh us and transform us. She wields the mercy and all-creative and all-redeeming power of her Son by one stroke of her hand, by one glance, by one inclination of her spotless head.
Let us keep in communion with her, in constant conversation, and we will not go astray, and if we do, we will not utterly perish. And if it seems like we are damned, she is the surety of sinners, the hope of the hopeless, the softener of evil hearts, the unexpected joy of our life. She is our intercessor and guide and guardian in this life, at the moment of our death and in the age to come.
O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, save us!