Today is the first great Feast of the Church year and, appropriately, marks a beginning with the nativity of the Holy Theotokos. She, who contained Christ in her womb, is rightly called His Temple. This is brought out in the readings and hymns for the Feast. For example: “The joy of the whole world hath shone forth to us from the two righteous ones, Joachim and Anna, the all-extolled Virgin, who because of her surpassing purity became a living temple of God, and alone is known as truly Theotokos.” (The Aposticha for Vespers).
The written source we have for her birth is the Protoevangelion of St James, which is from the second century. The comparatively late date does not stop the story from being true; the second century writer could draw on existing traditions. To summarise, the book tells of how St Joachim and St Anna, the elderly parents of the Theotokos, had been childless. They had prayed for a child without result. One day, Joachim went to the Temple to make an offering but the High Priest stopped him doing so because he had no children and sent him away. Joachim, in shame, went into the desert to fast and pray. Meanwhile Anna prayed at their home. This time their prayers were answered. An angel appeared to both of them and announced that Anna would have a child. Anna responded that she would give the child to God. Joachim returned home and made offerings in thanksgiving, as he did again after the birth of their daughter.
Joachim and Anna’s patient endurance in prayer and fasting is something we ought to copy. It is necessary to persevere in prayer and we cannot always expect a swift result. We need to await the will of God. We can also learn from their gratitude. Their response to the miracle was not selfish; they dedicated their cherished, precious child to God and took her, in time, to the Temple where she spent her childhood.
Note, as well, how God works with and through people who love Him. Joachim and Anna’s desire and prayer for a child led to a special birth to holy parents who clearly loved her and prayed for her, as is seen by the offerings made. This, surely, helped in her preparation for later life. Devout parents support their children to develop spiritually as well in all other ways.
Apart from their steadfast faith, tradition says of the parents of the Theotokos: “Her father, the Holy Righteous Joachim, was the son of Barpather, who traced his ancestry to Nathan, the son of David. Her mother, the Holy Righteous Anna, was the daughter of Matthan the priest, who was of the line of Aaron. Thus, the Most Pure Virgin was by her father of royal descent, and by her mother, of high priestly lineage.” (St. Demetrius, Metropolitan of Rostov, Homily on the Nativity of the Theotokos). The Protoevangelion also says that Joachim was a rich man.
Does this mean that the Theotokos was in some way elevated above much of humanity by her background? It does not. If it were not for her becoming the Mother of God, she could have lived a quiet life in the Temple and then in a town in Galilee. She would still have been a holy person, but probably unknown to history. She was humble and, indeed, exemplifies the words of Christ that: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:31). She pursued holiness and humility. She is exalted as the dedicated servant of the Lord, the one who was sanctified enough to be a living temple.
Her parents were devout and wealthy. Her birth was a result of a miracle and she had an upbringing in the Temple. Yet in return for such advantages she served God in all things. As Christ said: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. “ (Luke 12:48). Among other illustrations her life as Christ’s mother meant exile in Egypt for a time and later she was to endure seeing His crucifixion. Holy Tradition is clear that she continued to be important in the Church throughout her earthly life. Her path was not easy.
Thus we honour the Theotokos because she is genuinely great and holy. This contrasts sharply with the idolising of superficial glamour and celebrities that we see in modern life.
Further, like all the saints, the Theotokos is an example who we can follow rather than an unattainable ideal, despite her unique position. She did great things because she followed the Divine will and trusted God. We should do likewise, seeking to discover what the Lord wants of us through the teachings of the Church, in prayer, and from our spiritual parents.
The Theotokos has a unique relationship with Christ and icons usually show her with her Son, yet all the saints are sanctified in a relationship with Christ. She is His mother and but also a servant. She called herself such when she had the visitation from Gabriel the Archangel when she said: “I am the Lord’s servant.” (Luke 1:38). To call her a servant is not to denigrate her. Christians should serve Christ and others. To quote today’s Apostle: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mind-set as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:5f).
Like the Theotokos we are blessed because of our relationship with Christ. It is not through our merits that we are members of the Church but because of His grace. We all have particular callings in the Church; in that respect she is like us, even though her calling was unique. She not only heard the word of God, she obeyed. In Christ’s words from today’s Gospel: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:28).
Today is a birthday. The question of birthday gifts arises. What can we offer this great Lady, this close friend who loves us and prays for us? What would please her? St Gregory Palamas wrote: “Bring a gift to the Mother of God, a gift fit for the day of Her Nativity, namely: the doing of virtue and success in it! Let no one among you be barren and fruitless! No one be dry and incapable of receiving the spiritual seed, but on the contrary, let everyone zealously receive the heavenly seed – the saving word – and co-operate in deed, in order to bring forth heavenly fruit pleasing to God! Let no one allow the beginning of virtuous deeds to die down! Let no one show his faith in Christ only on his tongue, because ‘not everyone saying unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the heavenly kingdom’, says the Lord (Matthew 7:21) – ‘but the one doing the will of My Father, Who is in the heavens’.” (St Gregory Palamas: Sermon for the Nativity of the Theotokos).
Joachim and Anna did the will of God, as did the Theotokos and so should we.