Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
The church was quite filled – and the “Communion line” was quite long – at yesterday evening's Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. There is a long day behind us by the time we get to the service, and so it is very encouraging to see so many of the parish faithful make the effort to be present for the Feast. Coming as it does right after the beginning of the Church New Year, this Feast allows us a good start that we further hope we can sustain as the liturgical year unfolds before us. As a straightforward and joyous feast of commemorating the birth of the Virgin Mary, we receive a “taste” of the joyousness of life from within the Church that is often obscured by life’s challenges, difficulties and tragedies. Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it like this:
In and through this newborn girl, Christ – our gift from God, our meeting and encounter with Him – comes to embrace the world. Thus, in celebrating Mary’s birth we find ourselves already on the road to Bethlehem, moving toward to the joyful mystery of Mary as the Mother of God.
In an age of cynicism and unbelief, to encounter the purity of Mariam of Nazareth – the Virgin Mary and Theotokos – is to see life with a restored vision that, again, is only possible from within the Church. Goodness, purity of heart and faithfulness to God are embodied realities lived by real human persons. Such a restored vision of life will strengthen our sense of the inherent goodness of life that sin may obscure, but never obliterate. Yet, if we can no longer “see” that, then we have lost something absolutely vital to our humanity, and we need to repent and embrace that “change of mind” that will restore our own humanity.
Some will undoubtedly see nothing but a stereotype of the “feminine” here, but perhaps Fr. Schmemann has something worthwhile to say in his approach to the “image of woman” as manifested in the Virgin Mary:
The Virgin Mary, the All-Pure Mother demands nothing and receives everything. She pursues nothing, and possesses all.
In the image of the Virgin Mary we find what has almost completely been lost in our proud, aggressive, male world: compassion, tender-heartedness, care, trust, humility. We call her our Lady and the Queen of heaven and earth, and yet she calls herself “the handmaid of the Lord.”
She is not out to teach or prove anything, yet her presence alone, in its light and joy, takes away the anxiety of our imagined problems. It is as if we have been out on a long, weary, unsuccessful day of work and have finally come home, and once again all becomes clear and filled with that happiness beyond words which is the only true happiness.
Christ said, “Do not be anxious … Seek first the Kingdom of God” (see Mt. 6:33). Beholding this woman – Virgin, Mother, Intercessor – we begin to sense, to know not with our mind but with our heart, what it means to seek the Kingdom, to find it, and to live by it. (Celebration of Faith, Vol. 3)
On the day following the Feast – September 9 – we commemorate the “ancestors of God,” Joachim and Anna, the father and mother of the Virgin Mary according to the Tradition of the Church. This is a consistent pattern within our festal and liturgical commemorations: On the day after a particular feast, we commemorate the persons who are an integral part of that feast day’s events. For example, the day after Theophany we commemorate St. John the Baptist; and on the day after Nativity, we commemorate the Theotokos. Therefore, because of the essential role of Joachim and Anna in the current Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity, today is the “synaxis of Joachim and Anna” and we thus bring them to mind in an effort to discern and meditate upon their important place in this festal commemoration.
The source of their respective roles is the Protoevangelion of James, a mid 2nd c. document. As Archbishop Ware has written:
The Orthodox Church does not place the Protoevangelion of James on the same level as Holy Scripture: it is possible, then, to accept the spiritual truth which underlies this narrative, without necessarily attributing a literal and historical exactness to every detail.
One of those “spiritual truths” alluded to by Archbishop Ware is the account of both Joachim and Anna continuing to pray with faith and trust in God’s providence even though they were greatly discouraged over the “barrenness” of Anna. A lack of children in ancient Israel could easily be taken for a sign of God’s displeasure, thus hinting at hidden sins that deserve rebuke. Though disheartened, they continued to place their trust in God, refusing to turn away from God though thoroughly tested as to their patience.
Perseverance in prayer in the face of discouragement is a real spiritual feat that reveals genuine faith. The conception and then birth of the Virgin Mary reveals to joyous outcome of their faith and trust in God. Perhaps this is why we commemorate Joachim and Anna as the “ancestors of God” at the end of every Dismissal in our major liturgical services, including the Divine Liturgy: We seek their prayers as icons of an everyday faith that is expressed as fidelity, faith and trust in God’s Law and providential care.
Joachim and Anna could also be witnesses to a genuine conjugal love that manifests itself in the conception and birth of a new child. Their union is an image of a “chaste” sexual love that is devoid of lust and self-seeking pleasure. The strong ascetical emphases of many of our celibate saints may serve to undermine or obscure the blessings of conjugal love as envisaged in the Sacrament of Marriage. In fact, through its canonical legislation going back to early centuries, the Church has struggled against a distorted asceticism that denigrates sexual love even within the bonds of marriage as a concession to uncontrollable passions. The Church is not “anti-sex.” But the Church always challenges us to discern the qualitative distinction between love and lust. The icon of the embrace of Joachim and Anna outside the gates of their home as they both rush to embrace each other following the exciting news that they would indeed be given a child, is the image of this purified conjugal love that will result in the conception of Mary, their child conceived as all other children are conceived.
The Feast of the Nativity of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos has four days of Afterfeast, thus ending with the Leavetaking on September 12. That allows us to then prepare for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on September 14!