We celebrate today a major feast of the Orthodox Church—the entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. This is a feast about a family—a very real family, with its own problems that had to work out solutions that God wanted for that particular family. Now, surprisingly this particular family—the father Joachim (pronounced Yoachm), the mother Anna and their child Holy Mary is not mentioned as a family in either the Old or the New Testament. However, in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, we know a great deal about this family from the stories in an ancient second century manuscript, the Infancy Gospel of James, readily available on the web at: http:// blog.cnaughgton.com/mediafiles/ pdfs/james.pdf These stories are not from the Bible, but have the ring of truth about them that is often associated with Orthodox Tradition.
The opening verses of that manuscript set out the motivation of Joachim, of why he “always brought a double offering to the Lord, telling himself, ‘My offering for all the people is from my surplus and my own offering to the Lord God is for forgiveness, to atone for my sins.” That is a remarkable statement from Joachim. He has been described as “an extremely rich man,” yet he gives twice the amount he is required to give by the law, not for himself or to meet the obligations of the law, “but for all the people.” As for himself, he says, “my own offering to the Lord God is for forgiveness, to atone for my sins.” Thus the head of this family in first century Palestine is portrayed in the opening verses of the Infancy Gospel of James as having a dual motivation— first, to provide “for all the people,” that is, all the Jewish people at that time to whom the Law of Moses applied; and second, to receive forgiveness from the Lord God. Joachim is giving a lot; and will also be asking for a lot.
Now Joachim was childless; and at that time being married and not having children was perceived as not being blessed by God, as having done something wrong, whatever it might be, that prevented you from receiving the blessing of the Lord on your life. Therefore, his generous offering was refused by Reubel, an official of the Temple. Joachim’s response was drastic: he left his wife Anna and went into the desert to sleep in a tent and fast for 40 days without food or water. He knew, and his wife knew, and all the people knew that fasting for 40 days without food and water would kill you, unless God intervened to save you.
This placed Anna in a difficult position. She now—and I quote—“mourned and lamented greatly for two reasons, saying, ‘I lament that I am a widow and I lament that I am childless.” She was not yet a widow, but she knew that Joachim was a man of his word; and that he would fast for the next 40 days; and she expected him to die. Then, to make matters worse for Anna, just as the official Reubel had rejected Joachim, so Anna’s servant, Justine, rejected her; and told Anna to stop mourning because the reality was that Anna was never going to conceive a child.
So what is Anna’s response? Rather strange—she removes her mourning garment, washes her hair and puts on her wedding dress. Then, at the ninth hour—around three in the afternoon, she goes down “to her garden to walk around.” She sees a laurel tree there, sits under it, rests and then prays with her whole heart: “God of my ancestors, bless me and hear my prayer, just as you blessed our mother Sarah and gave her son Isaac to her.”
Such is their highly personal, private situation. Poor Anna! Poor Joachim! Their lives appear to be in a complete mess—rejected by their friends and servants, rejected by the community, for reasons they are unable to change in their own human wills. So what happens? A lot, a lot—and I say to you today that many of us in this church and those listening on Ancient Faith Radio are in much the same situation as Joachim and Anna: we wish to offer ourselves to the Lord; we seek His blessing in our lives; and yet/and yet we have not received everything for which we had hoped. Some aspects of our lives or the lives of our families have been a disappointment. There are skeletons, rattling in our cupboards, known to a few people or to no one—skeletons that we now regret for which we ask for forgiveness. Like Joachim and Anna, we pray and we seek forgiveness, whatever our ages.
So what happens? Chapter 4 of the Infancy Gospel of James says exactly what happened to Anna: “Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood in front of her, saying, ‘Anna, Anna, the Lord God has heard your prayer. You will conceive and give birth and your child will be spoken of everywhere people live.’” That is quite a promise—for all time, for all the duration of human life on earth. And Anna says, “As the Lord God lives, whether I give birth to either a male or a female child, I will bring it as an offering to the Lord my God and it will be a servant to Him all the days of its life.”
Then, two more angels come to Anna, saying to her, ‘Look your husband Joachim is coming with his flocks.’ For an angel of the Lord had gone down to Joachim, saying, ‘Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down from here”—in other words, leave this tent and end your fast—“Look, you wife Anna has conceived in her womb.” And immediately, Joachim left his tent and headed home, bringing with him 100 male goats “for all the people” and 12 calves “for the priests and the elders.” Joachim did not wait to hear Anna confirm what had happened to her. Like Anna, Joachim trusted the message that the angel of the Lord had brought to him in his tent where he was fasting unto his death or the direct intervention of the Lord.
When Joachim arrived home, Anna was “standing at the gate.” And the unknown author of this Infancy Gospel—writing in the name of the Apostle James—says: “When she saw Joachim coming with his flocks, Anna ran and wrapped herself around his neck, saying, “Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me greatly. See, the widow is no longer a widow and the childless woman has conceived in her womb.” And, as for Joachim, “he rested for the first day he was home”—just as Anna had rested in the garden before she prayed—and the second day Joachim presented his magnificent offering to the Lord, and it was accepted this time, because the priest perceived that that there was “no sin” in him.
Once All Holy Mary had been conceived, she was born, and the Tradition is that her parents took her at the age of three to live in The Temple precincts. It is that event—the arrival of All Holy Mary in the Temple—that we celebrate today. Yet in fact we are celebrating much more than the arrival of The Theotokos in the Temple. We are also celebrating the faith of Joachim and Anna that they would be blessed by the Living God, that they would be given a child, and that they would give that child to the Church, precisely for the purpose set out by Joachim—to serve “all the people” and to seek forgiveness of past sins. This story of Joachim and Anna and All Holy Mary is part of the Tradition of the Orthodox Church—a living, active stream of revelation and witness imparted by the Holy Spirit to the Church, handed down from generation to generation.
It is right then that in celebrating the arrival of All Holy Mary as a young child in The Temple, we should recognise that we are also celebrating the relevance of Tradition to our own lives, the importance of seeking God throughout our lives, of seeking the blessing of the Lord for each of us and our families and friends. On the opening page of The Orthodox Way, Metropolitan Kallistos has reminded us that: “Our situation, say the Greek Fathers, is like that of the Israelite people in the desert: we live in tents, not houses, for spiritually we are always on the move. We are on a journey through the inward space of the heart, a journey not measured by the hours of our watch or the days of the calendar, for it is a journey out of time into eternity.”
That was the journey that Joachim and Anna took—a journey of prayer, and faith and hope, “a journey out of time into eternity” that led to the birth of the Theotokos. Each of us can become part of that journey today, as we seek the blessing of the Lord in our own lives and the lives of our families and friends. But it is also right that we should remember to rest before prayer, as did Anna, and to rest after prayer, as did Joachim. It is perhaps that time of rest that helps to remove our anxieties about past sins and skeletons and to prepare us to pray and to face the challenges that at times confront us before we receive the full blessings that the Lord wishes to give to each of us.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn