Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
December 9 is the day of which we commemorate the Conception by Righteous St. Anna of the Theotokos. Through the procreative act of sexual intimacy given to us by God in order "to be fruitful and to multiply," Joachim and Anna "co-created," with God, the female child Mariam of Nazareth who would grow up to be the Theotokos. We strongly believe that she was a human person from the moment of conception. And she was conceived without any direct, divine intervention that would have made her an exception, rather than an example, of human holiness. Therefore, as Orthodox, we do not accept the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, promulgated officially in 1854. This dogma claims that the "merits of Christ" were applied to Mary at the moment of her conception so that she could be freed from the "stain" (macula in Latin) of "original sin." Patience, nurturing and love were needed for her to "come to term" and into the light of life in order to fulfill her unique vocation. This feast sanctifies human, conjugal love as an expression of the love between two persons in direct fulfillment of the will of God for husbands and wives. Nine months later, on September 8, we then celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos. Fr. Thomas Hopko writes the following about the relationship between these commemorative dates:
Mary's nativity is celebrated on September 8. A popular tradition among the Orthodox says that the nine-month period is purposely off by one day to illustrate the "mere humanity" of Mary, unlike the "divine humanity" of her Son, whose conception on the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before His Nativity. (The Winter Pascha, p. 41)
This feast brings to mind a fascinating passage that I would like to share with all of you. It comes from a certain Elder Porphyrios, in a book of his collected writings entitled Wounded By Love. In the chapter "On the Upbringing of Chlidren," there is an initial section with the heading, A child's upbringing commences at the moment of its conception. The elder writes the following:
A child's upbringing commences at the moment of conception. The embryo hears and feels in its mother's womb. Yes, it hears and it sees with its mother's eyes. It is aware of her movements and her emotions, even though its mind has not developed. If the mother's face darkens, it darkens, too. If the mother is irritated, then it becomes irritated also. Whatever the mother experiences - sorrow, pain, fear, anxiety, etc. - is also experienced by the embryo.
If the mother doesn't want the child, if she doesn't love it, then the embryo senses this and traumas are created in its little soul that accompany it all its life. The opposite occurs throuigh the mother's holy emotions. When she is filled with joy, peace and love for the embryo, she transmits these things to it mystically, just as it happens to children that have been born.
For this reason a mother must pray a lot during her pregnancy and love the child growing within her, caressing her abdomen, reading psalms, singing hymns and living a holy life. This is also for her own benefit. But she makes sacrifices for the sake of the embryo so that the child will become more holy and will acquire from the very outset holy foundations.
Do you see how delicate a matter it is for a woman to go through a pregnancy? Such a responsibility and such an honour! (Wounded By Love, p. 195)
This may sound a bit pious and sentimental. In fact, it may not all be subject to biological verification. It might not be a perfect fit with the scientific "facts of life." But that does not mean that it is not true in an intuitive and "spiritual" sense. The elder is touching upon the relationship that begins between a mother and her child from the "moment of conception." The mother is carrying a unique, unrepeatable human person within her womb - a child with an eternal destiny. At least from the moment that a mother's suspicion that she is pregnant is medically verified, her maternal instincts "kick in" with an ever-growing naturalness. There is now someone unknown and new to be loved! A new mother instinctively becomes more protective and careful about her activities, her diet, her work routine, etc. Again, this is no sentimental dismissal of the at times debilitating effects of pregnancy, experienced by mothers and witnessed to by fathers. "Morning sickness" is no picnic! There are times when a mother may strongly wish that she were not pregnant at all. As the elder said, there is irritation, sorrow, pain, fear, anxiety, etc. But this is endured and overcome by love for the sake of "responsibility and honour" conferred upon the mother. As Christ taught: "When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world." (JN. 16:21)
Come, let us dance in the Spirit! Let us sing worthy praises to Christ! Let us celebrate the joy of Joachim and Anna, The conception of the Mother of our God, For she is the fruit of the grace of God.
(Prefeast hymn of the Conception of the Theotokos)
The rest of the chapter in the elder's book contains sections entitled:
+ What saves and makes for good children is the life of the parents in the home
+ Over-protectiveness leaves children immature
+ A child needs to be surrounded by people who pray and pray ardently
+ With children what is required is a lot of prayer and few words
+ The sanctity of the parents is the best way of bringing up children in the Lord
+ With prayer and sanctity you can also help children at school
+ Teach the children to seek God's help
+ Children are not edified by constant praise
If anyone is interested further in the elder's teaching, I can provide a copy of this chapter for you.
A very warm response from Alexis Callender to this meditation:
Good Morning Fr. Steven,
Father bless. I feel I should tell you that this is perhaps one of the most profound, if not the most accurate description of a mother and her responsibilities and duties. Motherhood is an honor and a gift to be cherished. God has blessed a woman to carry, nurture, raise, tend to and care for A LIFE. A mother (and father) are entrusted with His most precious gift…LIFE. This can never be taken for granted. I did not think that any portion of Elder Porphyrios’s writing or any portion of your meditation was sentimental or pious. In my humble opinion, it was accurate, on the mark and so beautiful that my heart welled up with tears of joy and thanksgiving. Some may consider my opinion biased because I am a woman and I am a mother; however, I truly in my heart believe the following: For anyone to feel indifferent, passive or desensitized regarding the matters of conception, birth, parenting, you have turned your back on God and His Holy Mother.
The Church’s teachings on raising children in Christ’s Holy Church, instilling the value of life, and constantly reminding them and teaching them that our bodies are a temple of the Lord so important in our parenting. As Orthodox Christians we must also remain deeply prayerful and very vigilant in our stance on promiscuity, abortion, and other perverse immoralities that damage and de-sanctify the gift of life.
Thank you for sending this beautiful meditation. I am especially grateful as today is Analisa’s name day.
I would be very interested in reading the chapter and other works of Elder Porphyrios.